If the Vikings conducted a popularity poll this week, Mike Zimmer would not rank high on the list. He might even be below the backpedaling Cameron Dantzler. The only way the head coach's seat could get any hotter in public opinion is if he plopped down directly onto the sun.
Criticism of Zimmer in the wake of an irritable-bowel loss to the previously winless Detroit Lions is warranted, but to pin the judgment of this entire season solely on one person would be too clean and convenient.
Zimmer's boss should not escape scrutiny as an inferno of frustration rages within the fan base. The outcome of this season demands an accounting of General Manager Rick Spielman's regime as well.
Zimmer and Spielman have been a package deal for eight years now. They have trumpeted their alignment and collaboration on key personnel matters. A relationship between coach and GM of that length in modern NFL feels like an eternity. Their professed symmetry in directing the football side of the organization should compel the Wilf ownership to give a thorough examination of the entire operation.
At 5-7, the Vikings likely need to win four of their final five games to make the playoffs for the fourth time under Zimmer. This team has been impossible to understand, so forget trying to predict with any confidence how the rest will play out.
But from the moment they gathered at training camp, everything about the season felt like a referendum on the Spielman/Zimmer era. Star Tribune colleague Ben Goessling noted this week that in the 15 seasons that Spielman has overseen the personnel department, the Vikings have been to the playoffs six times but also are one of only four NFC teams not to reach a Super Bowl, along with Washington, Dallas and Detroit.
Barring a late-season charge that dramatically changes the tone and perception, the question the Wilfs must ask themselves is whether they truly see something grand on the horizon, enough to stay the course with the full regime?
It is clear by now that Zimmer has considerable influence over roster decisions, but he also has a boss in Spielman who has final say on personnel. There are obvious flaws in the roster, just as Zimmer's game management has been confounding.
Zimmer described his team's depth during camp as "concerning" while calling the roster "top-heavy with finances." Any GM with Spielman's longevity is going to own a mixed bag of hits and misses in drafting. His resume includes Danielle Hunter and Justin Jefferson but also Christian Ponder and Laquon Treadwell. We could play that game all day.
What made this season feel so pivotal from Day 1 is the duration of this leadership tandem and year-to-year inconsistency in record. The "if not now then when?" argument. That has put every decision and performance under a brighter spotlight.
One example: The Vikings are fighting for their playoff lives. That the coaching staff felt right guard Oli Udoh represented the best option as an emergency fill-in at left tackle last week against the Lions was an indictment on roster construction.
Another one: Spielman signed free agent cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander during the offseason. Out of 82 cornerbacks who have played at least 400 snaps this season, ProFootballFocus ranks Alexander 80th overall and Breeland 78th. Patrick Peterson, another free agent cornerback addition, sits 44th in PFF's rankings.
Since 2012, Spielman has used five first-round picks and one second-round pick on the secondary. Only Harrison Smith and Alexander remain from that group, and Alexander is on his second stint. Watching Dantzler misplay the game-winning touchdown on Sunday reminds one of the ongoing problems in the secondary despite that being Zimmer's area of expertise and a position that has received significant organizational attention.
Zimmer has worn a bull's-eye this week. Losing to the winless Lions dials up the pressure on a coach whose job security already appeared tenuous.
The rest of the season will provide clarity about what comes next. Zimmer and Spielman have been together a long time — tag-team partners in running the show. They shouldn't be separated when evaluating the whole picture.