<
>

Safe for now, pressure on Zimmer, Spielman to deliver will increase

EAGAN, Minn. -- As the dust began to settle inside TCO Performance Center during a staff meeting that took place around 8 a.m. Monday, everything appeared to still be standing for the Minnesota Vikings despite a monumental collapse to the 2018 season.

With ownership in attendance, as has been the case in every day-after end-of-season meeting, the franchise began the months-long process of sorting out the mess that was made, a lost season that started with Super Bowl expectations which later crashed and burned into the Vikings missing the postseason altogether.

Six NFL head coaches lost their jobs following Week 17, bringing the total number of vacancies to eight. No moves were made by Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf as it pertains to Minnesota’s front office and coaching staff, and it doesn’t appear likely that this team will undergo any significant changes at the top of its organizational structure in the near future.

NFL Network reported Monday that ownership reaffirmed its belief in both Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman despite the way things played out this season. Multiple sources confirmed to ESPN that the head coach's and general manager’s respective contracts are set to expire after the 2019 season, meaning this organization has a handful of important decisions on the horizon.

It’s not often that coaches and general managers go into the final year of their contract without some semblance of knowing what’s coming next, whether by receiving an extension or receiving confirmation from ownership that they’re wanted back.

For an ownership group that has repeatedly talked about creating a championship culture in Minnesota and the stability needed to do so, those decisions need to be made soon.

No matter what happens, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where Zimmer and Spielman enter the 2019 season on the hot seat, not necessarily fighting to stay employed but with sharp watch from those making the decisions about how things will proceed should the underachieving continue.

After the Vikings lost the 2017 NFC Championship Game, there was a unified message from ownership, the front office and the coaching staff pertaining to what this franchise needs to rise to the next level.

Both Zimmer and Spielman publicly addressed the team’s belief that it needed an upgrade at quarterback to regularly compete in the postseason and achieve stability it had lacked at the position for the better part of the past decade. Zimmer had a different quarterback every season over the past four years, sparked by the devastating knee injury Teddy Bridgewater sustained ahead of the 2016 season.

The head coach and general manager were part of the brain trust that settled on signing Kirk Cousins in free agency, making him the first quarterback to earn a fully guaranteed contract worth $84 million over three years. At the root of that decision was the support the Vikings received from ownership, given the financial wherewithal required to pull off a move of that size.

The magnitude of getting the decision right was not lost on the head coach, who foreshadowed what was at stake months ago at the NFL combine.

“If you go with the right one and he does like you anticipate, then everything is good,” Zimmer said. “If you pick the wrong one, it’s hard to win in this league without a quarterback. If you pick the wrong one, this whole thing can go downhill.

“It’s important for myself and Rick and the organization to pick the right guy that is going to help us continue to move forward. If we don’t do that, then I’ll probably be fired.”

Much of Minnesota’s demise in 2018 will be pinned on decisions that affected the offense. Cousins' stats in 2018 -- 4,298 yards, 30 touchdowns, 10 interceptions -- don’t accurately articulate the struggles he faced this season, many of which have been attributed to one of the league’s worst offensive lines.

Minnesota chose not to address the O-line until the second round of the draft despite right guard Joe Berger’s retirement taking place more than a month before. Spielman came under fire at points this season over the decision to take cornerback Mike Hughes 30th overall instead of using higher draft capital to select a plug-and-play starter at right guard. Only once during his tenure as general manager did Spielman draft an O-lineman in the first round, which came with the selection of Matt Kalil fourth overall in 2012.

The pressure Cousins faced grew worse as the season wore on. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Cousins completed 36 percent of his passes with zero TDs and two interceptions when a defender got within 2 yards of him from Weeks 13 to 17. In those same situations from the start of the season to Week 12, Cousins competed 65 percent of his throws for five touchdowns and four INTs.

How Spielman chooses to orchestrate his draft strategy in April will play into how he’s viewed by ownership going forward. At this point, it’s hard to fathom the Vikings not choosing to fix the offensive line, but then again, with as obvious a solution as there was nine months ago with the O-line, Minnesota chose to go a different route.

The Vikings' vaunted defense was the prized jewel of Zimmer-coached teams. Early-season struggles following a 38-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in last year’s NFC Championship Game gave way to a unit that ended the 2018 season ranked fourth in total defense with back-to-back seasons as the league’s best third-down defense (30.5 percent conversion rate).

That’s one tangible thing Zimmer can point to in stating his case for a contract extension. He got his defense back on track. He also made the decision to fire offensive coordinator John DeFilippo because he didn’t like where the offense was headed and chose to try to right the ship at a pivotal time.

But the lack of consistency from year to year is beginning to be alarming. The Vikings have not made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since 2008-09. The expectations once again will be high for this team in 2019. A return to the postseason will be a must. Absent that, both coach and GM will face intense scrutiny over the Cousins deal, draft picks, personnel moves and in-game decisions that one or both might not survive.