Thursday, January 11, 2018

Why is this Vikings team different? It starts with their leader.

Vikings fans are gearing up for the playoffs with past memories in their mind. What makes this team different? Daniel House says it starts with their leader.

Updated: January 11, 2018, 4:00 p.m.

By: Daniel House

Jan. 15, 2014, the Vikings changed the trajectory of their franchise. A disappointing 2013 season ended with the team finishing 5-10-1. The defense ranked last in nearly every category, including points allowed. Minnesota’s ownership group decided change was needed. Zygi and Mark Wilf fired Leslie Frazier and turned their attention toward finding a blossoming coordinator to bring a defensive brand of football back to Minnesota.

The interview process led the team in many different directions, but a long-time assistant rose to the top. Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer waited more than 20 years to land an NFL head-coaching job. He was trained by NFL legend Bill Parcells and waited in the wings for his chance. Upon interviewing Zimmer, the Vikings witnessed his unique fire, passion and teaching skills. They quickly named him the ninth coach in franchise history. Zimmer’s love for the game, intelligence and hands-on coaching style were a perfect match. 

“The thing that stuck out to us the most was not only the passion, but the football intelligence and the leadership, and that’s something that we felt was very important going into this coaching search that we wanted to find,” Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said during Zimmer’s introductory press conference.

Zimmer quickly used the job as an opportunity to show 31 teams why they made a mistake. He re-tooled the roster, drafting players with high upside he could mold into talented starters and backups. Zimmer was ready to make his mark on the roster, while doing what he does best – teaching.

He signed veterans like cornerback Terence Newman and defensive tackle Tom Johnson to provide the roster with intelligent veteran leaders. The goal was to find role models for young players to follow. Zimmer searched for “diamond in the rough“ contributors other coaches couldn’t develop. He added high character players to build his initial foundation for the future.  Being a teacher and mentor for his players on and off-the-field was something that made Zimmer different.

“Well I think one of the things about being a coach number one you are a teacher,” Zimmer said during his introductory press conference. “You are trying to teach them about techniques, you are trying to teach them about all the different aspects of the game of football. Not just offense or defense but what the other side of the ball is thinking.”

Zimmer finished 7-9 in his first season and led the Vikings to playoffs with an 11-5 record in 2015. The 2016 season ended with an 8-8 record as injuries plagued the roster. However, Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman continued building one of the deepest rosters in the NFL, establishing competitive depth. The coaching staff and Zimmer have developed first round draft picks Anthony Barr and Trae Waynes, transforming them into consistent contributors. Waynes allowed a 57.7 passer rating in the month of December, taking Minnesota’s defense to another level. Barr has been flying all over the field making plays and is an integral cog in the defense. Zimmer stood behind both of these players when others questioned whether they could reach their full potential. Nobody has been better at evaluating talent and finding players that fit his system than Zimmer. This is something the Vikings witnessed during the interview process back in 2013.

“[Coach Zimmer] has a great history of developing young talent; of taking veterans and having them even play beyond their ability,” Rick Spielman said during Zimmer’s introductory press conference.

Zimmer surrounded himself with a staff that could execute his mission. There were certainly rough patches like the departure of offensive coordinator Norv Turner in 2016, but Zimmer recognized when change was needed. He promoted Pat Shurmur and produced a top-ten offense this season. When things aren’t working, Zimmer hasn’t been afraid to surround himself with people who can enact change.

“I want guys to be themselves but most importantly I want guys to be great teachers, great motivators, great leaders, and, obviously, great technicians and football coaches,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer hired a solid staff to push players from fringe roster contributors to starters in the league. GM Rick Spielman and Zimmer searched for undrafted rookies to create competition at every level of the roster. When Zimmer arrived, the tone of training camp shifted as veterans were pushed and coached for every minute of up-tempo practices. Zimmer’s fiery style motivated his players to maximize their potential. A loud shriek across the practice field and a demonstration of proper technique transformed rookies into professionals. Zimmer is always coaching his players. It’s how cornerback Xavier Rhodes quickly became an All-Pro under the instruction of Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray. These success stories are something the Vikings’ head coach takes pride in. It’s why players love teaming up with Zimmer to unlock their full potential.

“I love players that have something to prove. I love taking guys that people said can’t play anymore or they are not smart enough to play, or whatever the reason is, because a lot of people said that about me, so I kind of feel a special bond to those type of guys,” Zimmer said in January 2014.

Zimmer made his mark on the team by adding high character role models for the community. He set an example by launching his own foundation in the Twin Cities. Zimmer wanted to find a way to continue the legacy of his wife, Vikki, who passed away of natural causes at the age of 50. He launched the foundation to impact the local community, something Vikki was extremely passionate about. Zimmer’s daughter, Corri, became the main leader behind the launch of the Mike Zimmer Foundation. Multiple scholarships, a shopping spree for children’s hospital patients and other events have allowed Zimmer to continue Vikki’s giving spirit.

On the field, Zimmer handled the adversity associated with being a head coach. Even when the issues were sensitive and difficult, he kept the team focused. Whether it was the aftermath of allegations brought forth by Chris Kluwe regarding special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, the Adrian Peterson suspension, or injuries, Zimmer always said, “next man up.” Zimmer pushed forward despite the 2015 season ending on a missed 27-yard field goal in the playoffs. He dealt with the loss of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater just days before the 2016 season. He rallied the team together and traded for Sam Bradford in an attempt to salvage the season. Zimmer found a way to motivate his team to prove everyone wrong. He’s done this throughout his four years in Minnesota.

"Everybody can count us out if they want but I think that'd be the wrong thing to do," Zimmer said in September of 2016 following Bridgewater’s torn ACL and knee dislocation.

In 2016, injuries piled up, long-time offensive coordinator Norv Turner departed and Zimmer’s eye injury led to eight surgeries. Zimmer didn’t quit, finishing the season and risking his health to keep pushing forward for the Vikings’ staff, players and fans.

“We will be on a mission to get this thing fixed to where we need to get to go,” Zimmer said in last year’s season-ending press conference. “I just know, ultimately, I’m responsible for getting these players to where they need to go, and that’s what leadership is. It’s taking a group of people somewhere that they’ve never been before. I haven’t done that yet.”

Leading the group toward a place they’ve never been is something Zimmer did in 2017. He started by injecting the roster with Dalvin Cook and Pat Elflein in the draft. The team signed Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers in free agency to patch the offensive line holes. Zimmer put faith in offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to bring life to an offense that finished last in rushing offense in 2016. Zimmer set out to find the team’s weaknesses, including stopping the run, red zone offense, third down defense and running the football. All of those areas became strengths this season. Zimmer spent practices going through situational components of the game, while addressing the reasons why his team finished 8-8 in 2016.

This season started with the Vikings trashing the Saints 29-19 on Monday Night Football. Quarterback Sam Bradford completed 27 of his 32 passes for 346 yards and three touchdowns. The Vikings caught the attention of the national audience and appeared poised for an exciting season.

Then the adversity hit again.

Following the week one win, Sam Bradford was experiencing knee discomfort, forcing the team to hand the reins to journeyman Case Keenum. Keenum went 1-2 in his first three games before Bradford tried to return during an Oct. 9 matchup with the Chicago Bears. A half of football was all Bradford could complete and Keenum led the team to a three-point win against a division foe. In between the Bradford injury, star running back Dalvin Cook tore his ACL and the Vikings were sitting at 2-2 through their first four games. Bradford and Cook were eventually placed on injured reserve and everything changed in unexpected ways.

Quarterback Case Keenum started grooving, found chemistry with his pass catchers and didn’t make mistakes. He led the Vikings on a three-game winning streak entering the bye week. The running game started showing signs of life with Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray leading the charge. Keenum was handling every challenge with ease, including a stretch of four road wins following the bye week. He was extending plays with his legs and taking care of the football. Keenum passed for 22 touchdowns and just seven interceptions, ending the season on a magical 11-1 run. In the process, wide receiver Adam Thielen surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since Sidney Rice in 2009.

The defense was debilitating opponents, holding every team under 20 points at U.S. Bank Stadium. Their third down defense set the NFL record, allowing a 25.2 percent conversion rate. Minnesota’s defense surrendered just 23 touchdowns in 2017, eight of which came at home.

In 2014, Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman’s roster construction started by building the defense inside with Linval Joseph. They moved to the edges with the additions of Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks and Trae Waynes through the draft. All of those players have developed and paired with veterans like Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Harrison Smith. The punishing defense echoes the 1970s Vikings teams which featured the Purple People Eaters. This year, Minnesota’s offense has been led by two undrafted rookies, marching the Vikings to a 13-3 record for just the second time in franchise history.

Many believe this Vikings team is the most complete unit since the 1975 team finished 12-2 and lost in the Divisional round on the controversial Drew Pearson push-off play. The top defense, paired with a top-10 offense have many fans hoping the Vikings can reverse past trends. The Vikings had the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense and No. 10 scoring offense this season. Over half of the 26 teams (14) to accomplish this feat made the Super Bowl.

Still, many are asking, what’s different?

The disciplined nature of the team, their chemistry, and punishing defense allow them to matchup with any team in the NFL. More importantly, Mike Zimmer is arguably the best overall coach in Minnesota since Bud Grant. He should be strongly considered for the league’s Coach of the Year Award as he handled injuries and led the Vikings to a 13-3 record with a journeyman quarterback.

Despite the success, there’s still caution from the Vikings’ fanbase, especially considering past trends.

The Vikings have made the Super Bowl four times and lost each of them. The team was stunned following Gary Anderson’s missed field goal in 1998 and handled “Bounty Gate” during Brett Favre’s magical 2009 season. Years later, they lost the 2016 Wild Card game on a missed 27-yard field goal by Blair Walsh at frigid TCF Bank Stadium.

Minnesota has a chance to erase the memories of 2009 when they host the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday. An Atlanta win could also set the stage for another redemption game if the Vikings can take care of business. The energy in Minneapolis is at an all-time high as the state rallies together for a playoff push. Everything halts when the Vikings are in contention as fans hope one day they can see their favorite team hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Caution still rears its head as the Vikings attempt to become the first team in NFL history to host a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Past teams have lacked the quality coaching Mike Zimmer and his staff can provide. (Taking a knee and 12-men in the huddle come to mind.) This team is built for future success, unlike the do-or-die scenarios the Vikings faced in both 1998 or 2009.

Mike Zimmer has been proving the naysayers wrong during his tenure as the Vikings’ head coach. He transformed the worst defense in football, ended the “can’t win in primetime” narrative and weathered the storm through countless moments of adversity.

All season, when Zimmer was asked whether quarterback Sam Bradford would return, he responded by saying, “I don’t a crystal ball.” Eventually, a local Twin Cities psychic delivered Zimmer a personal crystal ball. It sits in his office, along with a wood spirit hanging on the wall. Whether the Vikings can go the distance remains to be seen, but their confident leader is erasing away any doubt.

Silencing the critics, handling adversity and accomplishing goals is something Zimmer has done his entire career. The coach has one major goal left on the list, but past history has nothing to do it with it.

“I've got a crystal ball and I've got a wood spirit hanging in my office,” Zimmer said.

“So there's no damn curse."

1 comment:

  1. Awesome read. The revenge tour begins Sunday. 8 years ago(Saints)-19 years ago(Falcons)-43 years ago (Steelers)