The Minnesota Vikings on Monday fired coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman after eight seasons, making the moves a day after a season-ending 31-17 win over the Chicago Bears.
This is the first time the organization has cleaned house with its top two positions in football leadership since co-owners Zygi and Mark Wilf bought the team in 2005. The Vikings finished with an 8-9 record and missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the first time that occurred during Zimmer's tenure.
Zimmer and Spielman both received three-year contract extensions ahead of the 2020 season. At the time of their firings, Zimmer and Spielman had two years remaining on their respective deals, which run through 2023.
While the Vikings will begin their search for a new general manager and head coach, in that order, immediately, ownership does not believe Minnesota is far from being a competitive team and doesn't view the organization's change in direction as a rebuild.
"I don't want to get into a full rebuild conversation," Mark Wilf said. "Our point is we have high expectations for this football team. We believe we can be super competitive right here in 2022. This is not in that mode of a full rebuild. Again, we believe we have a strong, strong foundation here on the field and around the building. I wouldn't classify it as that.
"Again, we looked at our football team in its entirety. As difficult as a decision as it was, we feel it's the time and place to go in a different direction and get us to the next level, which is where we all want to be."
Wilf iterated several times that the Vikings will look to hire "strong leaders, communicators and collaborators" and that the results of the 2021 season "speak for themselves."
"We're clearly disappointed in the football results this year, and over the course of the past few weeks, this is something we've been thinking and deliberating quite a bit on, and over this past week, we kind of finalized this direction that we're beginning on now," Wilf said.
"We're not satisfied. It's not where we want to be," Wilf continued. "But again, we have an excellent organization. We have great, great components of a roster here to build on. I think any coach and GM knows there's something to build off here. Again, we're really committed as owners to providing the resources to make sure we can keep competing year in and year out at the highest levels and try to get championships."
Zimmer, 65, was hired by the Vikings in 2014 after he spent six seasons as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati (2008-13). He held the same position with Atlanta in 2007 and Dallas from 2000 to 2006. Zimmer started his NFL coaching career with the Cowboys in 1994 after being a college coach from 1979 to 1993.
This is the first time in Zimmer's career that he has been fired.
"I have given my heart and soul to this organization and to the players," Zimmer said in a prepared statement. "I have had outstanding assistant coaches who have worked tirelessly. I'm sorry we didn't get it done. The fans make this place truly special. On Sunday afternoon at U.S. Bank Stadium, it's an unbelievable atmosphere. I'll miss coaching the players, some who have been with me for all eight years. I want to thank the players who welcomed me in 2014 and believed in me that I could lead them to be great."
Spielman, 59, had been with the Vikings since 2006, first as the team's vice president of player personnel and then as Minnesota's general manager, a role he had held since 2012. Before he joined the front office in Minnesota, Spielman was the senior vice president of football operations in Miami.
"I am honored to have been a part of the Minnesota Vikings organization and this incredible community for the past 16 years," said Spielman in a prepared statement. "The people of this state welcomed me and my family and treated us with the utmost respect throughout our tenure. Michelle and I created many special memories with our children here, and we will always consider Minnesota our home."
In eight seasons with the Vikings, Zimmer compiled a 72-56-1 record, which averages out to 9.1 wins per season, and made three trips to the postseason (2015, 2017, 2019) with two playoff wins. Minnesota reached the NFC Championship Game in 2017 with the league's top-ranked defense. Zimmer's firing comes on the cusp of Minnesota's defense reaching historic depths. The Vikings ranked 31st defensively in 2021, which was the worst ranking of any unit during Zimmer's tenure.
The Vikings invested north of $46 million in guaranteed money on defensive contracts last offseason to restore their once-vaunted defense. Minnesota finished the season ranked 24th in points allowed (426), 27th in yards per play (5.7), 26th in rushing yards allowed (130.7), 28th in passing yards allowed (252.9) and 26th in yards allowed after the catch (2049).
The story of the 2021 Vikings is one defined by games that came down to the final possession. Of Minnesota's 17 games this season, 14 were decided by one possession, the most of any team in the NFL this season. Minnesota's eight losses in one-score games was one shy of setting an NFL record.
Spielman's last draft class in Minnesota featured 11 rookies with only a few regular contributors. Left tackle Christian Darrisaw did not start until a Week 6 win at Carolina while recovering from two offseason surgeries to repair a core injury, the second of which was a "surprise" to the Vikings, according to Zimmer.
In 2021, the Vikings also used their highest draft pick on a quarterback since the team took Teddy Bridgewater in the first round in 2014, drafting Kellen Mond in the third round. Mond, a four-year player at Texas A&M, was brought in to be the backup for Cousins but did not fulfill that role outside of a Week 16 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, when Minnesota's No. 2 quarterback Sean Mannion was on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Mond was Mannion's backup in Week 17 and played one series in relief of the veteran. The Vikings got few contributions from the rest of their rookies, with fellow third-rounders Wyatt Davis, Chazz Surratt and Patrick Jones II unable to carve out backup roles in 2021.
The Vikings fell short of reaching the playoffs in 2020 with a 7-9 record. Minnesota was eliminated from postseason contention in Week 17 after a 37-10 loss at Green Bay in which the Vikings started backup quarterback Mannion in place of Kirk Cousins, who was on the COVID-19/reserve list.
Since 2014, Minnesota has not gone back-to-back years without making the playoffs.
Both Zimmer and Spielman will forever be tied to Minnesota's marquee signing of Cousins, who came to the Vikings as a free agent in 2018 after signing a record three-year, fully guaranteed contract worth $84 million. He was then given a two-year extension worth $66 million after the 2019 season.
Zimmer and Cousins' relationship strengthened this season as the former Vikings coach implored his quarterback to take chances and be more aggressive after Minnesota fell to 3-5 soon after its Week 7 bye. That change in approach sparked the Vikings back to .500 with wins against the Chargers and Packers, with Cousins putting together one of his most important wins in Minnesota versus Green Bay.
But the Vikings went on to win just three of their last seven games, culminating in another losing season while speculation over Zimmer's job status became a weekly topic of discussion.
"I just think no matter what happens, it's never one person," Cousins said after Sunday's game. "We all have a hand in success. We all have a hand in when we come up short."