Matt Nagy won the NFC North last year as Bears coach but missed the playoffs this season.
Mike Zimmer has ridden that roller coaster twice in his Vikings coaching career, winning the division in 2015 and 2017 but missing the playoffs in 2016 and 2018.
Twice in the previous three years, Zimmer mulled the question that Nagy must try to figure out this offseason: Which players and assistant coaches can — or can’t — help the team return to the playoffs?
Zimmer has had the same defensive staff since his arrival in 2014, but his offensive coaches are new. Four offensive assistants are in their first season with the Vikings, who have locked up an NFC wild-card spot entering the season finale against the Bears on Sunday in Minneapolis.
“You step back and kind of have an idea by the end of the season what you’re maybe thinking about: ‘Is there someone out there that you know or you like that you think is good?’ ” Zimmer said. “All those different variables come into play. And then you just kind of do what you think is best for the team.”
Nagy might have to do just that next week. He has made it clear he expects his defensive staff to remain intact, but the same can’t be said about the other side of the ball. He has vowed to turn over every stone in trying to fix the offense, and that could lead to some coaching changes.
Perhaps Nagy will insist on keeping his offensive staff together. But the Bears can’t finish the season second-to-last in yards per play and points per game and not do anything, right?
“That’s a part of my job as a head coach, is to make sure that I look at all silos,” Nagy said. “Whatever that is, I need to make sure that I do that. And it’s hard right now when you’re in the middle of everything, to be able to come to emotional decisions either way — players, coaches, etc. But that’s something that we handle when the time comes.”
It’s unclear whether firing an assistant or two would represent real change anyway. Nagy calls the Bears’ plays and figures to do the same next year.
Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich — who, like the rest of this staff, is finishing his second season under Nagy — knows the reality of the profession.
“The same thing happens every year,” Helfrich said. “That’s something that, when you’re in this business, stuff happens. And that’s a possibility.”
Nagy had to replace almost his entire defensive staff last year when coordinator Vic Fangio took the Broncos’ head-coaching job and took two assistants with him — an instructive experience for Nagy.
“I remember it being pretty much a whirlwind,” he said. “It was, for a lot of good reasons. . . . That was an experience that I went through for coaches that stayed and coaches that didn’t stay, or left. I think throughout this whole process for me, there’s been a lot of learning — in a good way.”
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano — the former Colts head coach — and Zimmer stress the value of stepping away and reflecting before making any wholesale offseason changes. Zimmer even retreats to his ranch in Kentucky to rest and reset.
That’s impossible when it comes to assistant coaches, though, because of the job scramble the first two weeks after the regular season ends. Nagy will conduct player exit interviews Monday, then sit down with his staff. He has been taking notes all year.
“You don’t forget,” he said. “And then you use that when the time comes at the end of the year.”