EAGAN, Minn. – Whomever the Minnesota Vikings hire as their next head coach has an important order of business: fix the disconnect between players and coaches.
When Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf fired coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman on Monday, it became clear that players, ownership and many inside the organization felt a culture shift was needed to move the franchise in the right direction.
Spielman spoke to the team Monday after his dismissal, thanking players in an emotional impromptu address. Zimmer did not address his former team but released a statement thanking “the players who welcomed me in 2014 and believed in me that I could lead them to be great.”
Comments from players who spoke in the aftermath of Monday’s firings – both publicly and privately – weren’t flattering of certain ways Zimmer led his team, and they shed light on issues behind the scenes.
“I don't think a fear-based organization is the way to go,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said.
How the culture needs to change within a team that missed the playoffs the last two seasons takes center stage for the Vikings, who aren’t looking for the new regime to oversee a rebuild, but rather to make essentially the current roster a Super Bowl contender.
Minnesota will first hire a general manager who will then oversee the hiring of a head coach. The Vikings already have eight confirmed interviews with GM candidates that will take place in the coming days, a list that includes Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (Browns VP of football operations), Brandon Brown (Eagles director of player personnel), Glenn Cook (Browns VP of player personnel), Monti Ossenfort (Titans director of player personnel), Ryan Poles (Chiefs director of player personnel), Catherine Raiche (Eagles VP of football operations), John Spytek (Buccaneers VP of player personnel) and Elliot Wolf (Patriots player personnel consultant).
Led by chief operating officer Andrew Miller, the Vikings have formed an internal committee to help pick the next GM instead of hiring a search firm. The committee includes members from the business and football sides of the organization with executive vice presidents from legal, marketing, the people & culture department, which includes diversity and inclusion, along with three high-ranking members within the football operations/scouting department.
Executive vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski has been with the Vikings for 23 seasons. Co-directors of player personnel Ryan Monnens and Jamaal Stephenson have spent 20 years each in scouting with Minnesota. Finding a general manager whose philosophy, communication habits and perspective mirrors where the organization wants to go will then ultimately lead the Vikings to their next head coach.
Make no mistake, Zimmer helped maintain the team’s image during his eight seasons in Minnesota. There wasn’t a rampant lack of discipline that embarrassed the franchise. But building a successful culture goes deeper.
“From an overall standpoint, a culture where communication is put at the forefront, and no matter what your role is on the staff, you having a voice and being able to communicate things that you think could help facilitate wins,” Kendricks said. “I think just having that voice, no matter how big your role is, is important, to listen up and take each other's feelings into account.”
No fewer than seven times did Mark Wilf iterate in some form that the Vikings want to hire strong leaders, communicators and collaborators to fill their general manager and head-coach openings.
It grew apparent, according to sources who spoke to ESPN, that those things were lacking at times between Zimmer and Spielman. It was also clear that for some, there was a need for a new voice.
“There could be value in that,” Wilf said. “You are what your record is and you are what your results are in this business. We looked at that totality and just felt there needs to be a change. That could be a part of that, and it certainly will be an evaluation going forward how we address that as well.”
Players see a benefit in that change.
“A new person delivering the message, whatever it is, can be a breath of fresh air for players and give some players a fresh start and a new sense of motivation, or purpose, or excitement about their work,” right tackle Brian O'Neill said. “And that could even be something as small as that, giving a jump-start to everybody making significant improvements to themselves and collectively as an organization if everybody improves, but it could just be a different messenger, a different voice, a different message.
“Every time I’ve had change, I’ve learned something from it.”
"I don't think a fear-based organization is the way to go." Eric Kendricks
That also goes for how the head coach interacts with his staff. Zimmer had six offensive coordinators in eight seasons, a source of chagrin when pointed out to the former Vikings coach.
Norv Turner resigned midseason in 2016 without much public explanation. John DeFilippo was fired with three games remaining in 2018. Zimmer, a former longtime defensive coordinator, has scoffed at the notion that he’s difficult to work for, but it’s clear, sources told ESPN, that some coaches felt internally that the offensive staff was at times pitted against the defensive staff, especially when the team was losing games.
Days before the Vikings beat the Chargers in Week 10, offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak answered a benign question about Justin Jefferson’s usage and said he needed to get the wide receiver the ball more after he totaled five catches in two back-to-back losses to the Cowboys and Ravens. Jefferson caught nine passes for 143 yards in the 27-20 win at Los Angeles.
Postgame, Zimmer was irritated at Kubiak for stating the obvious, saying the rookie coordinator “shouldn’t be telling that to the media.”
A culture change can be the start for coaches and players to feel empowered. That benefit is especially important for young players. Zimmer’s comments about “not particularly” wanting to see rookie quarterback Kellen Mond play in a no-stakes Week 18 game against the Bears, and that he was aware of how close Jefferson was to setting a single-season franchise receiving record but doesn’t "care about records,” sent the wrong message not only to the public but to the locker room.
Changing that delivery is critical for a franchise trying to get to the next level. The collaborative, in-this-together approach ownership says it wants the entire team to be a part of as the Vikings begin this next chapter focuses heavily on building players and staff members up to make them feel valued.
“I think it could be something as little as, ‘Hey, how you doing,’ in the hallway, or feeling like when you walk by guys in the hallway and they say, ‘Hello, how you doing? Good morning,’” O’Neill said. “We spend so much time together, and the season is so long that little personal things here or there could make a huge difference for a young guy, or a rookie who is coming in and isn’t really sure how he fits or if he belongs.
“… The more we can cultivate a culture [in which] guys feel good about being themselves, and that they’re important to the team and that everyone is in this together, and when young players start to learn that earlier on, they start to do better, and that everybody is behind us and all of our successes and failures go together. The more we can all understand as coaches and players that we’re in this thing together, I think would go a long way in making this a better place.”