The “D” word can be lethal to a championship contender, and we’re not talking about defense. No, this is about distractions. And the Minnesota Vikings had the good sense to put a significant potential distraction behind them by extending the contract of head coach Mike Zimmer just ahead of the start of training camp.
The Minnesota Vikings made coach Mike Zimmer wait
The Minnesota Vikings are coming off a 10-6 season in coach Mike Zimmer’s sixth season, the last five of which have ended with .500 or better records. Last year ended with a clunker of a game in the form of 27-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers that left the Vikings a win short of reaching their second NFC Championship Game in three seasons.
The year had to be chalked up as a success as the Vikings finished with the league’s No. 8 scoring offense and No. 5 scoring defense. In that context, it was surprising the Vikings management and Zimmer did not come to a quick agreement on extending the contract of a coach who has the franchise within range of playing in a Super Bowl.
Without an extension, Zimmer would be free to walk at the end of the 2020 season. More importantly, his status would be the subject of speculation throughout the season. That’s the sort of stuff that lands on the front page of the sports section in some form at least weekly and also chews up hours of time on radio talk shows and podcasts.
Worse, the chatter starts to consume the team, from the rest of the coaching staff all the way down to the locker room attendants. It becomes an unneeded distraction.
The Vikings finally come to terms on a contract
It’s fair to wonder if the ownership had enough misgivings about the playoff loss to the 49ers that they would consider letting head coach Mike Zimmer walk after the upcoming season even if the Minnesota Vikings won their division. Of course, that could have been a potential disaster if the Vikings got to the Super Bowl or even just the NFC Championship Game. The Vikings would have been forced to give Zimmer five years at an inflated price or face the humiliation of him leaving with most of the coaching staff to work elsewhere.
The drama ended Wednesday when the Vikings and Zimmer, who is 59-41-1 in six seasons, reportedly agreed to terms on a multi-year extension. The specifics were not disclosed, but Zimmer is 64 years old and has said he anticipates coaching until he’s at least 70.
The job security is crucial for Zimmer because he continues to reshape the offense while the team remains within striking distance of the Super Bowl. A veteran defensive coordinator before taking the top coaching job with the Vikings, Zimmer has shifted emphasis to the running game. It made Dalvin Cook an 1,100-yard rusher (with 13 TDs) last fall and also resulted in a stellar 107.4 passing rating for Kirk Cousins, who found himself making roughly 10 fewer throws a game but posting his best TDs-to-picks ratio ever and taking 30% fewer sacks than the prior season.
Mike Zimmer has work to do but plenty of capable bodies
Mike Zimmer’s Minnesota Vikings staff may need a year to recalibrate the offense, a luxury they now have with his contract extension. Star receiver Stefan Diggs wanted out of Minnesota, so the Vikings sent him to the Buffalo Bills and drafted Justin Jefferson to fill the void.
Overall, Minnesota will have a minimum of seven new starters this fall and will have to make personnel decisions without the benefit of the usual offseason training program or preseason games. On the other hand, the defense is consistently good, Cousins in generally better than the critics concede, and Dalvin Cook is star material as long as his frustration with his contract doesn’t become a distraction.
Zimmer’s staff also has great options to choose from. Aside from Jefferson, the LSU slot receiver taken 22nd overall, Minnesota had three other selections among the draft’s first 89 picks and then used multiple selections in each of the last four rounds.
Not all of their 15 picks will make the Week 1 roster, but every indication is that the Vikings can be better than last season’s 10-6 mark. The San Francisco 49ers figure to be formidable again, but the Vikings should be at least the equal of everyone else in the NFC.
That makes it realistic to think they can contend for a spot in Super Bowl 55 in Tampa.