As he prepared to coach in a game he was favored to lose, a loss that would make him 1-3 in the playoffs in a six-year head coaching career, Mike Zimmer was rumored to be the target of a trade by America’s richest football team while receiving a vote of confidence from the one for which he works.
What has made the NFL the most popular sport in the history of North America is not the quality of the entertainment it provides but its all-American blend of strategy and violence. Fans think they can call plays; no one in his or her right mind would want to run them.
The NFL has also exploited the structure of its season. The league guarantees fans about 48 hours a year of action — or a few hours a year, if you remove the commercials, timeouts, replays and huddles.
The NFL is mostly about speculation. What will the draft and free agency bring? What will the coach call during the timeout?
This is why the Vikings’ playoff game at New Orleans on Sunday is more fascinating than the sum of its parts.
If the Vikings win, Zimmer will have achieved his most impressive victory as a head coach. If they lose, any and all speculation about Zimmer, General Manager Rick Spielman and the Dallas Cowboys will be justified.
The Vikings have won one playoff game under the team of Spielman and Zimmer, and that victory resulted from a very good player, Saints safety Marcus Williams, closing his eyes and whiffing on Stefon Diggs like a blindfolded toddler at a pinata party.
They have won one playoff game since Brett Favre limped off the Superdome field.
The question Vikings ownership will face if the Vikings lose is: What do you do with a leadership team that succeeds in the regular season but not the playoffs?
Over the past three years, only five NFL teams have more regular-season victories than the Vikings’ 31: New Orleans (37), New England (36), Kansas City (34), Baltimore (33) and the Rams (33).
Zimmer’s winning percentage is .599. That won’t get him into the Hall of Fame, but it’s better than Pete Carroll’s career .596 winning percentage, and not far off Andy Reid’s .618.
Friday afternoon, Vikings ownership released a statement in support of Spielman and Zimmer.
That didn’t stop national outlets from speculation that Zimmer could be the Cowboys’ next coach, replacing Jason Garrett, whose firing appears imminent for failing to produce postseason success. His playoff record was 2-3. If the Vikings lose on Sunday, Zimmer’s will be 1-3, including a 38-7 loss at Philadelphia in his only NFC title game.
Would the Wilfs be wise to trade the rights to Zimmer, or to fire him?
They hastily dumped Mike Tice during their first year in power. They have been patient stewards since, keeping Spielman despite lean years and the drafting of Christian Ponder.
They well could keep Spielman and Zimmer after a loss to the Saints, but then what would the future look like? How many management teams begin winning big after six years together?
Spielman has spent crazily to settle the quarterback position ever since drafting Ponder, culminating in a then-record guaranteed contract for Kirk Cousins, whose big-game failures mimic his new franchise’s. Zimmer’s team looked inept in his biggest game, and now the position at which he has insisted on heavy investment, cornerback, is his team’s primary weakness.
If the Vikings are competitive in a loss at New Orleans, it will be easy for the Wilfs to keep the management team together.
If the Vikings look unprepared or inept, it may be time for the Wilfs to fire away.