The Minnesota Vikings lost to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday when their kicker, Greg Joseph, booted a 37-yard field goal wide right from the dead center of the field. That left the final score at 34–33, Cardinals, and it left those who care about the Vikings in a state of extreme exasperation. For a sampling of that despair, play this video with your volume on:
Exasperating the people who love them has been the Vikings’ vocation for most of their six decades of existence. They have a fair claim to being the NFL’s most successful unsuccessful franchise, with four Super Bowl appearances all resulting in losses and another six Ls in conference championship games, including three this century. The people who love the Vikings understand the deal, and while they may not be emotionally free to stop caring about this team, they at least do not have a contractual obligation to live and breathe it at all times.
Not everyone is so lucky. One man who cannot practically stop caring about the Vikings, because he is in charge of the team, is head coach Mike Zimmer. For months now, but building to a crescendo lately, a feeling has percolated in my head that Zimmer deserves better—specifically, that he deserves to no longer be in charge of the Vikings. I am not necessarily talking about firing him, because Zimmer should not be fired any more than any NFL coach should be fired as a default position. (It’s always fine to fire a coach if you want, especially if you’re not actually in charge of hiring and firing.) I am thinking more along the lines of sweet release: a strategic exfiltration, whereby the head man could be plucked from the Vikings and taken to a secure location where he does not have to deal with Vikings-related bullshit. If this pleases Vikings fans as a knock-on consequence, then fine.
NFL head coaching is at once a desirable and undesirable field. You are paid handsomely to practice your craft at the highest, most exclusive level. What you lack in job security, you make up for in buyout money when you are almost inevitably fired. You work long hours, and you spend every second of every day being second-guessed by people who know less than you do about the subject matter at hand. To get to your current perch, you had to care so much about football that losses might induce or might just be an actual medical ailment. This is the state of play, and by buying a ticket to ride, a coach consents to putting up with all of it.
Still, what Zimmer deals with in Minnesota feels dumber than the garden-variety dumbness NFL coaches sign up for by taking one of the most visible jobs in sports. In fact, some of Zimmer’s reality is so dumb and new that no other coach has had to deal with it in the exact way Zimmer has. The usual, NFL-style silliness that the Vikings tend to bring out in themselves is only a supplement.
Zimmer’s first affliction is that his quarterback is Kirk Cousins, who’s admittedly been pretty good in the Vikings’ 0–2 start. He’s thrown for 595 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. All very nice, and all in line with what ostensibly has been a great run in Minnesota since he arrived there in 2018. Over the past four seasons including this one, Cousins is ninth in the NFL in passing yards, fifth in touchdowns, and third in completion percentage.
There are a lot of empty calories in Cousins’ achievements, though. Among QBs that have played 100 or more downs since 2018, Cousins is 20th in expected points added per play, a metric that weighs field position, down, distance, and the clock to assess how much a player’s contributions contribute to the offense. (For instance, a 1-yard completion on third-and-1 might produce a higher EPA than a 5-yard completion on third-and-12—a dynamic that raw yardage totals don’t capture.) In the same span, Cousins is seventh in completion percentage over expectation, a measurement of how good a QB is at making difficult throws. All told, Cousins is maybe somewhere between the 10th and 15th best QB in the NFL. There’s no shame in being a good volume shooter who isn’t all that efficient at helping a team win games.
The problem is that Cousins isn’t paid like he’s the 10th or 15th best QB in the NFL. His $31 million cap hit this year puts the Vikings behind only the Seattle Seahawks—who have an actual great QB in Russell Wilson—in spending at the position this year. The Vikings gave Cousins a three-year, $84 million contract that ran from 2018–20 and was fully guaranteed in a league where few contracts are, then tacked on an extension through 2022. If Cousins stays in Minnesota next year, as he likely will, he’s slated for a $45 million cap hit. It would not be surprising if they found a way to lower that number to a less wild but still high level.
It would be reasonable that Zimmer would not be all that jazzed about having a QB who absorbs enough of his salary cap that he’s paid like one of the great players of all time but who, in terms of real effectiveness, is a little bit better than the league median. In 2018, weeks before the Vikings signed Cousins, Zimmer talked at length about the importance of conserving salary cap space to build his defense and not needing to take away from other areas to invest in a QB. General manager Rick Spielman then did exactly that. It doesn’t take a Ph. D. in reading between the lines to ascertain that Zimmer might have done things differently after a season in which he got to the NFC Championship with retread Case Keenum at quarterback, or to figure out that this next report is not about a coach who is happy to have Cousins as his franchise QB:
Proving you can make a deep playoff run with a QB you don’t even think is that good, then getting stuck with a better but unspectacular QB who takes up 17 percent of your salary cap would be annoying. It would also be annoying if said overvalued QB was an anti-vaccine guy who talked about potentially encasing himself in plexiglass during team meetings to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. It would get even more grating if that QB was a leader on the least vaccinated team in the NFL, and it would only get more obnoxious if that had happened despite the head coach forcefully and repeatedly telling his players to go and get their shots for the good of society, each other, and the Vikings’ playoff chances.
We have reached a stage of the pandemic where I don’t have the passion to be mad all the time at everyone who doesn’t get a vaccine. But Vikings players have first-hand access not just to all the medical information in the world but to team doctors who could help them make the right choice. Zimmer has done what seems like pretty regular charitable work with cancer patients, the kind of people at heightened risk in these increasingly precedented times. He’s said that he’s “frustrated” and “disappointed” with his unvaccinated players, who make up a sizable but minority chunk of his team. I would be dripping mad all the time if I were Zimmer, and not just because he has a coach’s brain and has to worry about all of his QBs getting knocked out of a game because of contact tracing. If Zimmer isn’t that mad at his own team, he’s a nicer man than me, and as a reward, he should get to not be the head coach of the Vikings.
The Vikings are also kind of insufferable from a pure football standpoint. Zimmer is in charge of the team, so he can’t escape blame for its football-related problems. But the Vikings committed 12 penalties for 116 yards in an overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 1, which is the sort of feat that means both coaches and players can rightfully be angry at one another. Sunday’s loss in Arizona is at least partly on Zimmer, too, because as the Athletic’s Arif Hasan pointed out, the Minnesota kicker, Joseph, had been bad leading up to Zimmer trotting him out for a game-deciding kick. But if Zimmer is seething because a professional kicker pushed a 37-yarder in a climate-controlled venue from right between the hash marks, it’s hard to fault him. (It’s worth noting that earlier in the game, Joseph also made two 52-yard field goals. At some point, it’s simply on the pro kicker to be a pro kicker.) Then again, Zimmer was on the sideline for Blair Walsh’s 27-yard miss that ended the Vikings’ 2015 season, so it’s possible he’s reached the point where no special teams blunder can hurt him.
The Vikings might eventually decide they need to fire Zimmer, before we get the chance to send a helicopter in to take him to a happier place. He’s not a perfect coach, and his clock management as the game wound to Joseph’s miss on Sunday infuriated plenty of fans. Those are the rules of engagement. I can’t ignore the possibility that I simply like Zimmer too much because he once called his old boss, Bobby Petrino, “a gutless bastard” after Petrino walked out on the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, or because I enjoy his general lack of filtration:
This just does not look like a man who’s enjoying his job, even before you get to the constant working condition of having to put up with Cousins and the Vikings’ kicking problems. I want better for Zimmer, the same way I want better for you if you don’t look happy in your job.
Starting 0–2 means the Vikings are unlikely to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight has their chances at about 1-in-3, while the chance of an 0–2 team making the field is just better than 1-in-10. This makes me glad for Zimmer, because having a few relatively relaxed weeks in January seems more pleasant than spending that time coaching these Vikings.