Eric Atherton: Zimmer, Spielman have no margin for error

March 26, 2017 GMT

Who will have more at stake this fall for the Minnesota Vikings — head coach Mike Zimmer or GM Rick Spielman?

That’s a tough call, so let’s make it simple. If things go south for the Purple, both will likely be elsewhere at this time next year.

Spielman’s big day is coming up, with the NFL draft starting April 27. The problem, of course, is that if Spielman doesn’t make a trade, the Vikings draft won’t really begin until April 28, because they traded their first-round pick to Philadelphia for Sam Bradford.

Not having a first-round pick on the field next year would actually be nothing new, given that Spielman’s first pick last year was all but invisible. Laquon Treadwell is well on his way to being the Vikings’ latest first-round bust, but it wasn’t just the first round where Spielman swung and missed last year. Taken as a whole, the Vikings’ 2016 draft class of Treadwell, Mackenzie Alexander, Willie Beavers, Kentrell Brothers, Moritz Boehringer, David Morgan, Stephen Weatherly and Jayron Kearse might prove to be among the worst in NFL history.

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Spielman absolutely must find at least two viable starters in this year’s draft, preferably along the offensive line and at linebacker or safety. Other GMs routinely find good players in the third and fourth rounds, and Spielman needs to prove that he can, too.

Zimmer’s situation is more complicated.

He’s beginning his fourth year as captain of the Vikings’ ship, so any grace period/honeymoon is long over. He got a pass on last year’s season-ending swoon largely because his team’s offensive line had been decimated by injuries, and he himself endured a medical crisis that could permanently alter his vision.

The NFL, however, is a results-based league. Fair or not, a coach is hired with the expectation that he will consistently deliver wins and playoff berths. And once things start going sideways, the ax usually falls pretty quickly — especially if a team appears to be suffering from internal turmoil.

Zimmer’s tough-guy, no-nonsense approach was great when the Vikings were winning the NFC North two years ago. Everything was fine when the 2016 club started 5-0. But red flags started cropping up when offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned midseason after two ugly losses. The season quickly spiraled out of control, culminating in the infamous “mutiny” in Green Bay, when the defensive backs came up with their own game plan to cover Jordy Nelson.

We’ve also learned that after the season ended, several veterans on the Vikings’ roster met with Zimmer to, as he put it, help him “do better in handling some of these situations where the team was a little bit uneasy about how (I) said things or did things.”

In other words, Zimmer’s personality and coaching style are beginning to grate on some of the Vikings’ most important players, and it’s the effort of those players that will likely determine Zimmer’s fate.

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Does that mean Zimmer must lead the Vikings to a Super Bowl championship next year? Not at all. But a quick look around the NFC will find no New England-like squad that should terrify Minnesota fans. The Cowboys and Falcons should be good, but Seattle and Green Bay each had major flaws exposed in the playoffs last year.

The Vikings have problems on offense, but they do return at least a half-dozen potential Pro Bowlers on the defensive side of the ball, including Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter. Defense is Zimmer’s specialty, and if he can get these guys to fulfill their potential and fully buy into his schemes, that’s at minimum a top-5 defense.

In the NFC, that should be more than enough carry Minnesota to 11 wins and a playoff berth.

But if the losses mount and more internal strife leaks out, Zimmer will be likely be gone -- and Spielman almost certainly will go with him.