Twice in the past four years, Mike Zimmer has led an up-and-coming Vikings team to an NFC North title, reaching the NFC Championship Game after the 2017 season. And twice in the past four years, Zimmer’s teams have followed up postseason trips by taking the division lead in October, only to lose it in the final months of the season, finish the year with an interim offensive coordinator and miss the playoffs.
Zimmer’s offseason to-do list after 2018, then, sounds fairly similar to the one that faced him after 2016: He must make a decision on his offensive coordinator, and he must figure out how to help his team re-establish its footing.
“We had a chip on our shoulder last year,” Zimmer said in his season-ending news conference Thursday. “I don’t know that that chip was there. And we’re going to get it back. You can look at a lot of statistics, but quite honestly, this football team through the years I’ve been here had that nasty, ‘We’re going to win no matter what the situation is’ mentality, and I don’t know that we had it [this season].
“It’s a different vibe with this football team, and I don’t know exactly why ... for some reason, we didn’t finish the games like we did before. We’re going to get that mentality back.”
It remains to be seen what would happen should the Vikings fail to find their footing again in 2019. Zimmer, who is entering the final year of his contract in 2019, said on Thursday he’s “got no problem” working in the final year of a deal.
“Free agent after that, right?” he joked. Zimmer also called speculation that he had been contemplating retirement “fake news,” adding, “I’m not a quitter.”
Sources have told the Star Tribune that General Manager Rick Spielman is also heading into the final year of his contract. The team could work out extensions with both men this offseason, but Vikings ownership would have to decide what’s in their best interest over the long term.
The Vikings’ most immediate decision revolves around their offensive coordinator opening. Interim coordinator Kevin Stefanski interviewed for the Browns coaching position Thursday, and his deal with the Vikings expires Tuesday. League sources also told the Star Tribune on Thursday that former Browns coach Hue Jackson, a confidant of Zimmer’s from their time together in Cincinnati, could be a leading candidate for the job, depending on whether Spielman approves of the move.
“All kinds of options there,” Zimmer said. “Kevin is a very good football coach, very smart guy. I thought he did a good job for the three weeks in a tough situation. It’s fair to the organization, myself, and the fans to look at everybody.”
The Bengals finished 15th and seventh in the NFL in points in 2014 and 2015 with Jackson as their offensive coordinator, while ranking fifth and seventh in the league in rushing attempts during those years.
Sources said Zimmer’s mandate to run the ball more frequently started during the middle of the season, and he made it public for the first time the day after the Vikings’ 25-20 loss to the Bears on Nov. 18. When discussing what he learned from his experience with John DeFilippo, whom Zimmer fired on Dec. 10, the coach said he needed to do a better job of asking questions during interviews with coaching candidates.
“I think DeFilippo was a good football coach; I just didn’t like the direction that it was going at the time and I was trying to make something to get us going again and get us going back in the right direction,” Zimmer said. “I was trying to get us out of the little tailspin that we were in. I’ve thought about this a lot: I’ve learned a lot about the questions, the interview process, about things that I should probably do a lot better than what I did. Hopefully I’ll do better this next time.
“We do a lot of research on guys, and guys’ names pop up and pop up and pop up. You kind of assume that’s the right way, but it may not be the right way for your particular football team. I need to do a better job there, yes.”
Zimmer headed off a question about whether it would help to have an offensive coordinator he already knew — “Probably, you’re fishing in the wrong pond,” he said.
Whether the Vikings’ next offensive coordinator is Jackson, Stefanski or someone else, the team will have to arrest the fluctuations on that side of the ball that have contributed to their overall inconsistency. “The five years I’ve been here, defensively we’ve gone up and been here,” Zimmer said. “But offensively we’ve been down here, so I have to do a better job of creating the mind-set that we have on defense on offense.”