Asked on Monday to assess a working relationship now in its second decade, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer touched on long-familiar themes shared between himself and General Manager Rick Spielman: their perfervid personalities, their Rust Belt upbringings as the sons of no-nonsense high school coaches.
“Most importantly, we really love football,” Zimmer said. “We love the process of all this. We love trying to put together a championship-caliber football team. We love the discipline we have to have within this building of trying to make sure that guys are doing the right things, they’re studying the right ways.
“All the way along we’ve had a really good relationship, and obviously it’s grown. We can tease each other a little bit more now. I understand his bad jokes probably better than anybody.”
The relationship between Spielman, the studious executive who’s paired his reverence for the scouting process with a fondness for analytics, and Zimmer, the cantankerous coach who trusts his gut more than a spreadsheet and punctuates practices with fiery calls for precision, has a chance to become the longest GM-
The two are entering their seventh season together, each with new contracts that give them a chance to match Mike Lynn’s 10 seasons with Bud Grant as the longest run in team history. Zimmer’s extension keeps him with the team through the 2023 season, and it’s believed Spielman’s deal does the same, though the Vikings have only called it a multiyear extension publicly.
“It’s a really good positive that we’ve worked together this long,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes people would call it a negative, but Rick and I have a great relationship. We see things really through the same eyes 99 percent of the time. Very, very rarely do we ever argue or get in a situation like that. He can be hardheaded. I can be hardheaded. But at the end of the day, we know that we both have to work extremely well together, and we certainly do.”
At the end of this season, Spielman and Zimmer will have worked together for as long as Jeff Diamond and Dennis Green did in the 1990s. They will have matched Grant and Jim Finks’ eight seasons together if they stay in their current jobs through 2021.
Their shared vision for the Vikings — centered around a stout defense and a commitment to running the ball in an era with more passing than ever — has meant stability for an ownership group that fired three coaches in its first nine seasons in Minnesota.
“Rick has been outstanding in his role as Vikings general manager,” Vikings President Mark Wilf said in a statement announcing Spielman’s extension on Monday. “We are excited and honored to have him continue to lead our efforts to build a championship roster and first-class organization. With Rick’s and Coach Zimmer’s leadership in place, we are in a great position to continue to compete for a Super Bowl.”
After a 27-10 loss to the 49ers ended the Vikings’ third playoff trip in Zimmer’s six seasons, he spent an hour on the phone with his mentor Bill Parcells to discuss how the team could get over the hump and go from regular playoff entrant to Super Bowl qualifier for the first time since the 1976 season.
That might be what it takes for the 64-year-old coach and 57-year-old GM to finish their careers together in Minnesota.
Spielman, who replaced Fran Foley as the Vikings vice president of player personnel in 2006, was given full control of the roster when the team named him general manager in 2012. Of the five general managers who have been with their teams longer than Spielman, two (the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and the Bengals’ Mike Brown) own their teams, while a third (the Patriots’ Bill Belichick) is a de facto GM.
The other two — Pittsburgh’s Kevin Colbert and New Orleans’ Mickey Loomis — have led their teams to championships. Three other men — Atlanta’s Thomas Dimitroff, Seattle’s John Schneider and Philadelphia’s Howie Roseman — have held the GM title longer than Spielman, even though they have spent less time with their respective teams. All three have reached the Super Bowl in their current roles; Schneider (who defers final say on the Seahawks roster to coach Pete Carroll) and Roseman have won Super Bowls.
“Sometimes you can’t control if there’s a bad call on the field or a missed field goal or this or that — hopefully a lot of that falls your way as well — but I think everybody is just so driven and determined to try to get that Super Bowl win here,” Spielman said Monday. “We’re always trying to, what I call AARs, after-action reviews, which is a military term, on what we did good, but what we need to improve on and how we’re going to improve moving forward.”
The GM and coach were each headed into the final years of their contracts in 2020 but begin the season with ownership’s imprimatur as they oversee what Spielman has frequently called an evolution of the roster. It’s an evolution that might determine how Spielman and Zimmer’s time together concludes.
“If you stay the same and you don’t change, you’re going to get stuck,” Spielman said. “Putting the right people in the front office, just like you build that team in the locker room, you have to have that same type of chemistry and that same type of culture through the front office.”