Mike Zimmer’s season-ending news conference played out just after sunrise Monday morning, two days after the Vikings’ 27-10 loss at San Francisco in the NFC divisional playoffs. The coach picked the early hour to close the book on the 2019 season before taking some time to get away; Zimmer had decided to give his coaching staff a chance to rest after the season, rather than starting into postseason player evaluations right away.
“Part of the reason why I didn’t want to do player evaluations today or this week was because I want to get away from everything for a little bit of time,” Zimmer said. “You know, if you win, everything is great, if you lose, everything is the worst in the world, so I think it’s important that we take our time, get away from it for a few days, then we evaluate and we’ll go from there.”
Perhaps Zimmer chose the break for his coaching staff, for the first time in his six seasons, because the decisions facing coaches when they return could be some of the most difficult they have had to make together.
The Vikings could consider moving on this offseason from a number of veterans who carry high-priced contracts as they play into their 30s. Defensive end Everson Griffen, nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who will all be at least 30 by the start of next season, have salary cap figures of at least $12.9 million in 2020.
On offense, the Vikings have four starters with cap figures of at least $9.45 million who will be at least 30 by the start of the season: quarterback Kirk Cousins, left tackle Riley Reiff, wide receiver Adam Thielen and tight end Kyle Rudolph.
As the Vikings consider reshaping an aging core, Zimmer said the decisions ahead of them could be difficult because of what certain players have meant to him personally.
“These players — the ones that have been with me for six years now — they’ve busted their rear ends, and they’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do. And that’s always going to come into play; how you feel about them as a person,” he said. “But I think you have to really look at: ‘He’s a great kid. He’s worked his rear end off. We love him here. Can he still play? Or, if he can still play, at what level is it?’ And then you’ve got to match that with the salary and every other thing, and match it with the salary cap. So there’s so many different variables.
“But I’ve been extremely fortunate here that, the players that have been here, 99 percent of them are outstanding people. They work really, really hard, and if you guys saw the way that this team approaches each day, each week, going into meetings, going into practice and saw all those things, you’d be very impressed with the way they handle themselves.”
Still, he acknowledged the central NFL truism that could drive change for the Vikings this offseason. “At the end of the day,” he said, “it ends up being a young man’s game.”
He would not discuss what the Vikings will do at either offensive or defensive coordinator, with Kevin Stefanski becoming the Browns coach and George Edwards moving on (possibly to join Stefanski in Cleveland). Those decisions, Zimmer said, will be part of the evaluation process in the coming weeks — though he did say he wants to retain the same offensive system the Vikings adopted from assistant head coach Gary Kubiak this season.
The head coach also has his own contract to take care of, with his current deal expiring after the 2020 season. The Vikings added a season to Zimmer’s deal after the 2018 season, to keep him out of a lame-duck year; co-owner Mark Wilf issued a statement before the team’s first playoff game in support of Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman, whose deal is also up after 2020.
“I love these players, this organization,” Zimmer said. “The owners have been outstanding to me. So I believe that there will be conversations in the near future and whatever happens, I’m happy with it.”
Assuming Zimmer is back in 2020, he could oversee a roster that looks fundamentally different from it has in recent years. After a short break, the Vikings coaches will reconvene for meetings that could begin the process of change.
“Whether it’s a young guy or an old guy, we have to evaluate each and every one of those players and we have to take an honest and good evaluation of it without being sentimental or biased — either one,” Zimmer said.