He looked a little tired, Mike Zimmer did, as he addressed his squad in the locker room on December 16 after it brutalized the Miami Dolphins.
One week after a humiliating blowout by the Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings returned to their beastly best. Defensive linemen had terrorized poor Ryan Tannehill. On offense, they shoved Miami around as Dalvin Cook bounded over and through Dolphins like a boulder down a steep hill.
Over Zimmer’s shoulder was Zygi Wilf, the Vikings’—how to put this nicely?—financially savvy owner. If you enjoy hating the very rich, look up the details of Wilf and his brothers’ mafia-esque treatment of their partners in a New Jersey real estate business. Lies were told, deals broken, paperwork falsified, many millions of dollars ripped off. The judge actually used the words “bad faith” and “evil” to describe the Wilfs’ behavior.
It’d be pretty weird to trust a guy like that. But there are only 32 head coaching jobs in the NFL, and Mike Zimmer seems to really enjoy the gig.
“We’re coming back to work tomorrow,” he told his exhausted but giddy team. “I’m fuckin’ proud of you guys.”
To hear some tell it, Zimmer may have had cause to fear for his job just days earlier. This despite the Vikings’ falling one step short of making the Super Bowl last year for the first time since Jimmy Carter’s inauguration.
After the season, Zimmer faced a situation unique in the annals of football: His team had three quarterbacks with winning records, and they didn’t want any of them.
Zimmer knew the stakes, acknowledging the wrong decision could get him shitcanned. The coach zigged when he could’ve zagged, wiping his quarterback roster clean and betting his fate on the goofily genial Kirk Cousins, most recently of Washington, D.C.
Results are mixed: Cousins has connected with teammates, but he’s also displayed mediocrity in games the Vikings needed to win. With three games remaining, the team’s playoff hopes hung in the balance.
Zimmer’s been hounded by critics since he took the job. Sports talk radio, the rude, beer-swilling cousin to conservative talk’s straight-up poison, is all about complaining, criticizing, whittling people down, and calling for them to be benched, traded, and fired, all because of what happened... yesterday.
Recency is everything in sports. Within the past three years, Mike Zimmer has lost a playoff game on a fluke (Blair Walsh’s missed field goal) and won another (the Minneapolis Miracle). Yet to the talking heads and bards of the game, a tie game against Green Bay or a bad day in Seattle is enough to start a conversation about firing the guy they’ve got for a coach.
Star Tribune writers Mark Craig, Jim Souhan, and Pat Reusse have all suggested Zimmer’s job could be in jeopardy, which seems a bit much. Souhan penned an entire “what if” column suggesting Zimmer would’ve faced “internal scrutiny” if Stefon Diggs’ miracle play hadn’t happened last season.
Setting aside the fact that it did indeed happen, this is an awful way to view the business of football: If Mike Zimmer might’ve been fired for losing a playoff game, what should be done to the 20 coaches who didn’t make the postseason? Stocks and pillories?
Those writers aren’t alone. Everyone from ESPN’s shouter/empty-suit preacher Stephen A. Smith to a radio yokel in Sioux Falls has threatened Zimmer’s job, this year and others. Really? Do you run to the kitchen to threaten the chef’s job if your burger comes out medium instead of medium rare? Do you heckle your bank teller if they can’t figure out how to get the computer to work?
What is it about sport that unleashes our inner lout?
Sports fans are, generally, among the most entitled, least grateful patrons of the arts. Every self-appointed expert is one phone call to a radio station away from solving a team’s problems: “Fire everyone, bench the broad-shouldered quarterback, send the good-looking receiver out of town, and replace them with someone better, humbler. Do it by this afternoon! Thanks for having me on. Long-time fan of the show. I’ll take my answer off the air.”
Grow up, fans. Try having some patience, some awareness, and realize that Mike Zimmer is pretty much an organization’s dream. Look how he handled the maddeningly complicated situations of Adrian Peterson and Everson Griffen, both thought essential to the Vikings’ success.
After Peterson admitted to hurting his children as punishment, Zimmer said, “I love this kid,” then promptly sat him down all year—perhaps a more useful punishment than if he’d, say, hit Peterson with a stick.
Griffen’s time of need came this fall, when a public meltdown had everyone asking if he was fit to play. Zimmer’s mind was elsewhere. He saw Griffen’s trouble as having “nothing to do with football.” Zimmer was concerned for Everson the man, husband, and father, not the maniacal talisman.
I’d ask those garage-dwelling sports fans what they think of Zimmer’s handling of the situation—sitting Ev for several games as doctors managed his care—but I really don’t care.
I don’t know Mike Zimmer, but I trust him. So, quite clearly, do his players. That ought to be enough. Clearly, to some people, it’s not.
Here’s hoping they someday come to appreciate the coach they have—or had, if their short-sighted wishes are fulfilled.