Part I: Will the Minnesota Vikings finally "rise" under Mike Zimmer?
They went for it in 2020. The Vikings convinced themselves they are contenders. Now, time is running out. Those forged in Zimmer's fire believe the surly head coach is the answer.
The panic was palpable. “Clear as day,” as one league source recalls.
There was no way to hide the pale concern across their faces because, last spring, the power brokers running the Minnesota Vikings weren’t sure how to make these numbers crunch.
This was a front office that forever inked starters to team-friendly deals to stay in the hunt. They cultivated a ton of talent around the quarterback position, finally invested heavily in a quarterback and, now, were seeing that stock plummet. Kirk Cousins’ guaranteed $84 million contract now felt like an anvil weighing down the organization. The team thought reworking the third year of his three-year pact would be a lay-up.
It was not. Cousins turned down their initial offer, per this source.
And the star wide receiver who pulled off the “Minneapolis Miracle” just two years ago was still pissed off.
And it’d be impossible to keep the defense together. And Dalvin Cook, the heartbeat of the offense, would be in need of a massive raise.
And both the head coach (Mike Zimmer) and general manager (Rick Spielman) were scheduled to be lame ducks in 2020.
The Vikings could’ve slammed the reset button. The other team that lost a conference title game two years ago, Jacksonville, was basically auctioning off its roster all off-season. The Vikings could’ve strategically bridged the present with the future by letting Cousins enter 2020 as a lame duck himself and drafting a quarterback in the first round. Their bitter border rival, a team that went 13-3 last season, targeted Jordan Love and drafted Love 26th overall. If that hurt QB1’s feelings, tough.
So, what do these Vikings do? They take a deep breath and… go for it.
They find a way to extend Cousins, kicking money down the road to make the cap work. (And exhale.) They ship Stefon Diggs to Buffalo for a bounty of picks in a receiver-rich draft. (And exhale again.) They replace a slew of veterans with untested kids and expect them to perform. Immediately. Into August, ownership extends both Zimmer and Spielman to multi-year deals. The Vikings then extend Cook and, why the hell not, trade for Yannick Ngakoue. The Vikings patch a few holes and effectively blare that horn at max volume to make it clear — to all — they are competing to win a championship.
The time to win isn’t tomorrow, their actions scream. It’s now.
We all know what happened next.
The Vikings lost five of their first six games. Most in familiar dagger-through-the-sternum fashion.
Around the NFL, this was not a shock. Most evaluators see a team, as one puts, “in no man’s land.” Utterly directionless. As if they were trying to convince themselves they were close when they were not. Because of Zimmer. Because of Cousins. To date, both are known more for coming up short in big moments. Yet where one source familiar with the team’s inner-workings says he has never met anyone who likes Zimmer — “not one” — the Vikings see value in his culture.
Where other franchises around the NFL are obsessed with finding the next 30-something offensive genius of a coach with the perfect tan who’ll take every single player’s delicate sensitivities into account, here’s a coach straight out of the ‘60s. Where others are obsessed with finding the next quarterback who can change everything you thought you knew about the position, here’s a team still believing in Cousins. A quarterback who’s as thrilling as a Sunday trip to Lowe’s.
The Vikings caught their breath at the bye week and, oddly enough, turned it on.
They punched those Packers squarely in the jaw, at Lambeau Field, 28-22.
They blasted the Lions, 34-20. They gritted out a 19-13 win over the Bears.
They then lost to the insipid Cowboys, a poorly-coached team that made everyone spit up their turkey four days later.
Now, this weekend, the 4-6 Vikings are in a must-win situation against the Carolina Panthers.
And wasn’t this franchise just asking its fans to believe?
Such is the plight of the Vikings’ fan. The tease. Nobody’s putting a bag over their head here through a torturous 1-15 slow burn, no, all Minnesotans are lured in with a siren call and led to believe a title is coming before, of course, one 38-yarder in the NFC title game hooks wide, Brett Favre’s No-No-No!-NOOO!-pass in another NFC title game across the body is intercepted, a 27-yarder in the NFC Wild Card shanks, Zimmer’s defense chokes against Nick Foles one game shy of another Super Bowl (a Super Bowl the Vikings would’ve, you know, hosted) and everyone is ejected back into the minus-35 degree wind chill for the winter to ice fish or cheer for the Timberwolves.
Forgive fans for feeling a little led on again.
The good news? This season isn’t over yet.
This final month will tell everyone everything they need to know about Zimmer as a coach and, also, Cousins as a quarterback. This could define their careers. If the season does unravel, the pressure to tear down the whole operation will be loud. Extensions, be damned. Of course, the Vikings could get hot, too. One longtime cornerback who knows Zimmer better than anyone from three stops with the coach — ex-Cowboy, ex-Bengal, ex-Viking Terence Newman — does not see inevitable despair.
Newman sees hope. Newman sees a different culture in a league inundated with “player coaches.”
This one eliminates the weak. This one creates a band of fighters forged in Zimmer’s fire.
“He might yell at you,” Newman says. “He might tell you you’re terrible. ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ But at the end of the day, you get in the game and not everything goes according to plan. So in the course of practice, he’s bad-mouthing you — Are you going to stop somebody today!? Now, you have to deal with him as well as doing your job. So you realize it elevates your game. You have to respond.
“You either go into the tank or you rise to what he’s telling you.”
The Vikings, now, must rise.
This is the head coach you hire when your franchise feels forever mired in embarrassment.
When your players embark on a “Loveboat” adventure, your stadium is literally collapsing, your Hall-of-Fame quarterback’s sexts break the Internet, the quarterback you then draft 12th overall is nearly as grotesque on the field, and your Hall-of-Fame running back is arrested for child abuse, this is who you want in charge.
This head coach was the perfect drug at the perfect time.
The day Mike Zimmer took over, Jan. 15, 2014, everyone could tell he had waited his entire life for this opportunity. He was a man, linebacker Chad Greenway recalls, “on a mission.” Every coach pontificates about culture but Zimmer wasn’t serving up word salads at press conferences. He meant it. One ex-Viking after another insists Zimmer treats every single person in the building the same and that, above all else, transformed the franchise from punchline to contender.
Zimmer, from Day 1, sincerely did not give a damn where you were on any perceived totem pole.
“Player 1,” Greenway says, was treated the same as “Player 53.”
As other head coaches pour potions together in a never-ending quest to find the next RPO-like craze, one player after another here insists this is the Zimmer edge, this war of attrition that inches a roster closer… and closer… to becoming an unbreakable group of 53. Those who’ve been through that ringer — with time to reflect — do not view Zimmer as cantankerous…
… it just takes some getting used to.
Newman played for both Zimmer and the Hall-of-Famer who groomed Zimmer (Bill Parcells) and both, he explains, are masterful at “getting under your skin.” They rip you. Berate you. Nudge you closer to your wit’s end. Nobody enjoys being castigated but that’s the point. It’s not a matter of enjoyment. The culture’s more boot camp than flat-brims. This coaching is designed to harden you to handle “all stressors” you could ever face in a game.
Nine of Newman’s 15 pro seasons were with Zimmer. Anyone who claims players tune this style out, he believes, is only seeing the “negative.” This style helped him play to age 39, unheard of for a cornerback.
He knows Zimmer didn’t just harden him for football. He hardened him for life.
“Are you going to just be pissed off and lay down?” Newman says. “Or are you going to fight?”
Every player reaches a potential breaking point with Zimmer. A moment you could bail, flip him the bird, drive out of dodge.
The same off-season Zimmer was hired, Greenway could have. He was established. He was 31. He was asked to take a pay cut. Greenway could’ve, easily, sneered at this new sheriff in town for not appreciating him. Yet instead of bolting for a Utopian franchise that’d appreciate him — a move proud veterans in his shoes have made a zillion times over — Greenway took that pay cut, “reinvented” himself and, he believes, earned Zimmer’s lifelong respect.
Earn this respect and it’s built to last.
“Zimmer’s never going to be the guy who pats you on the back and tells you how great you are and, ‘It’s OK, you don’t need to work hard,’” Greenway says. “Zim is who he is and that’s not going to change. When you have a guy who’s consistent, that’s what you’re looking for. You don’t want a guy who’s up and down and all over the place. You want a guy where you know the message.
“And to hold the team accountable to that level? That’s how you achieve greatness.”
So, obviously, not all vets react this way with “Zim.”
Many are simply eliminated from the equation.
One case particularly will stay in George Iloka’s memory forever. He played his first NFL season under Zimmer with the Bengals, in 2012, and Iloka remembers a mock game in which the then-DC told a veteran on the sideline to go in. (“Harvey…” says Iloka, thinking back to who it was.) This vet felt disrespected to play with this group of back-ups and refused. Zimmer didn’t snipe back. Didn’t say anything. As Iloka recalls, he simply walked into the locker room afterward and told the equipment crew to clear out that player’s locker.
Sure enough, a search through the Bengals’ archives shows that after a scrimmage on Aug. 5, the team did indeed cut Derrick Harvey — a former eighth overall pick by the Jaguars.
Harvey never played again.
The message was sent. To everyone. Zimmer has a standard, dammit, and you better uphold that standard. Iloka realized, right then, that if Zimmer is riding him it’s not because he’s a rookie. So, no, he didn’t take it personal as a Viking in 2018 when Zimmer benched him, didn’t re-sign him and it appeared his career was over. There was a two-way respect here, too. Iloka sat out the entire 2019 season and signed with the Vikings in 2020 to help lead a young secondary. (A torn ACL ended his season in October.)
Look at Zimmer’s “message,” Iloka implores, not the “delivery.”
Do this and you’ll appreciate the raw truth of what he’s saying.
That truth can be microscopic as lining up 12 more inches to your left in the deep hash. He harps on the details more than any coach any defensive player will have. Every football player knows he must physically prepare to play this sport — hence the incessant, shirtless Instagram spamming of training sessions every off-season — but few grasp the “mental fortitude” needed, ex-Vikings defensive end Brian Robison explains. Zimmer gets that. Zimmer, he says, is “going to wear you out” until you do something exactly the way he wants it.
You learn quickly that one mistake will get you benched. Or worse.
Zimmer is making you mentally tough, whether you like it or not.
“When you get fatigued, when you get tired, are you still going to do the little things right?” Robison says. “If you’re not doing the little things right and not giving maximum effort every single play, then those guys get weeded out.
“You’re either going to be all in or all out. He doesn’t put up with nonsense. Now, if you’re going to do everything he tells you to do and you’re going to give your heart for him, he’s the best coach you could ever have because he’s going to love you up and he’s going to respect you and he’ll be a guy you want to run through a brick wall for. But definitely, if you’re not all in for him and you’re not giving him everything you’ve got, then nine times out of 10 you’re going to end up going by the wayside.”
Adds Iloka: “What puts the cherry on top, is he knows what the hell he’s talking about. Some coaches will yell and cuss and their defense is trash. That’s not his situation.”
True, Zimmer’s defenses ranked third, first and fourth overall from 2016-2018. To watch film with him is to watch film with a “genius,” adds Newman, who thinks the fact that Zimmer doesn’t have little kids running all over his house helps. He can stay up as late as he wants immersed in X’s and O’s with no diapers to change, no kids to shuttle to school, only one defensive scheme to constantly tweak. And when this scheme’s on, man, it’s on. Quarterbacks never know who’s blitzing and who’s dropping with a seemingly infinite amount of coverages all camouflaged to look the same.
Zimmer doesn’t tolerate only 99 out of 100 things going right because it takes 100 out of 100 to confuse the greats.
To shut down Tom Brady like he did in 2013. Newman remembers Brady’s doe-in-headlights eyes that day. Brady had zero clue which defenders were ziggin’ and which were zaggin’ in that 13-6 Bengals win.
To stymie Rodgers. No coach has had more success vs. this future Hall of Famer.
To beat Brees in the playoffs. Twice.
To solve this next proliferation of quarterbacks redefining the sport.
Zimmer relishes the challenge and expects you to get on his level.
“There’s nothing wrong with his coaching style,” Newman says. “It’s proven to be successful. That’s just a fact.”
Even this season, he was able to confuse Russell Wilson for 58 of 60 minutes. The Vikings unleashed a scheme on Wilson that Wilson could’ve never prepared for, sitting back in Cover 2 nearly the entire game. Zimmer eliminated the deep shot — Wilson’s trademark “moon ball” — and forced Seattle go the length of the field 15 plays at a time. Newman watched from afar in awe. Imagine being the Seahawks, he explains. You prepare for one scheme all week, get to Sunday, and encounter something completely different.
That was Parcells’ M.O. He authored some of the best defensive gameplans ever.
Newman knows the two coaches still talk all the time, too.
Parcells, of course, is a legendary hard ass.
Parcells, of course, also happened to coach in a totally different era.
So, you cannot help but wonder how the hard-ass approach works with the Generation Z athlete. Greenway points to the first coordinator he had in Minnesota, a 34-year-old Mike Tomlin. Those defensive meetings were “confrontational as you’ll ever see,” he recalls, because Tomlin was no buddy-buddy “player’s coach.” He was demanding, too. Now, the 48-year-old Tomlin is considered the gold standard. He connects with players without sacrificing an octave of discipline and Greenway believes Zimmer is striking the same balance.
Is he, though?
Everything seemed to be culminating so beautifully on Jan. 14, 2018, when Stefon Diggs pranced into the end zone and the clock hit triple zeroes.
With one “miracle” of a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints, Diggs struck a pose, launched his helmet into the sky and was destined, on the spot, to have a bronze statue of himself built outside this $1.061 billion dollar palace of a stadium. Cameras flickered. Cannons blasted. A “Skol!” chant quaked. He was a hero. Instantly. And inside the locker room, there was Zimmer handing Diggs — “Diggsy,” he called him — the game ball. Huge smiles were plastered on both of their faces.
Diggs is, now, gone.