Part II: Will the Minnesota Vikings finally "rise" under Mike Zimmer?
Not everyone believes in Zimmer. Others call him everything from "an equal-opportunity asshole" to a "big blamer." What he has built is now being put to the test. (He'll need Kirk Cousins, too.)
Read Part I here, in case you missed it
Right when we all assumed the Minnesota Vikings were ready to make their Super Bowl move after that “Miracle” season, right when they won the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes and paid Diggs and married an aerial assault on offense with the league’s No. 1 defense, the Vikings went… drumroll please… 8-7-1.
If things are in fact going downhill, this can be pinpointed as the turning point.
This was when cracks in Zimmer’s foundation were exposed.
Problems began that spring when, with the offense’s play script in hand, Zimmer would call specific plays on defense to blow up whatever the offense was trying to run, per sources. There’s a reason Minnesota never injected RPOs into its scheme like every other smart team seemed to after Nick Foles (miraculously) upset Tom Brady in the Super Bowl — Zimmer purposely mucked those plays up and then chastised the offense for being too gimmicky.
It became a running joke with offensive players.
Cheat code in hand, Zimmer called plays to screw them over.
When the offense followed orders and stuck to a steady diet of runs and play-action and screens in practice, Zimmer asked them to run more dropback passes the next practice. They did. They felt Zimmer’s wrath. “What!?” one source remembers him shouting. “We’re a dropback f------ team now?”
Nonetheless, the offense took flight. Adam Thielen became the first player ever to eclipse 100 yards in each of the first eight games of a season. Cousins became the first quarterback ever to throw for 4,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and 10 picks or less while completing 70 percent of his passes. Diggs was happy. Diggs averaged 10 targets per game. And if not for putrid kicking, a scary incident involving Everson Griffen before a loss to the Bills (one source recalls the building being on lockdown for three hours, saying “guys were on edge, concerned”) and the defense hemorrhaging 556 yards to the Rams, the Vikings no doubt could’ve entered a Nov. 18 showdown at Chicago even better than 5-3-1.
And yet… Zimmer was boiling.
To him, this was not how you won in the NFL. All this passing.
Out of that night’s 25-20 loss on national TV, the head coach issued a public mandate that the Vikings needed to run the ball more. Just like that, everyone knew the Vikings were going to run, promptly shut down the run, the offensive coordinator was fired and — in Week 17, against the Bears’ B team, at home, a playoff spot on the line — the Vikings produced 10 points and 164 yards. Says one of the many ex-assistants to cycle through this staff: “That tells you everything you need to know about what the players think of Zim. Right there. That game.”
Nobody was shouting “Skol” that day, but you could see Cousins and Thielen in a heated argument over a route while Zimmer stood a few feet away — arms crossed, facing the field — either oblivious or checked out.
That moment could’ve been declared rock bottom. Which is perfectly normal. So many teams simply run their course. Typically, however, action is taken — the Seahawks dismantle the “Legion of Boom,” the Packers fire Mike McCarthy, even the greatest coach ever (Bill Belichick) and greatest player ever (Tom Brady) split. Here, the general manager has been in town since 2006 and the head coach since 2014 and, sure, the Vikings have won 57 percent of their games since 2014. A virtual barricade still seems to stonewall them from Super Bowl contention.
Zimmer may, now, be that barricade.
Past co-workers describe the head coach as everything from “a very disgruntled, pissy old man” to “joyless” to “a big blamer” to “an equal-opportunity asshole” to “pissed about everything.” One source close to the team’s inner-workings believes his intensity worked initially with so many young players dying to prove themselves but, as time passed, it became white noise.
“Everything is everyone else’s fault,” this source says. “Or the answer is always, ‘You have to work harder.’ Maybe it’s your scheme. Maybe it’s your stubbornness. Maybe it’s your inability to adjust. Maybe it’s your lack of communication. If you keep bringing Zimmer back and Spielman back and Cousins gets extended for $30 million a year, you’re going to lose the locker room because you’re losing some guys.”
There are players, he adds, who have viewed Zimmer’s form of leadership as “his way or the highway,” saying Zimmer tries to make players out to be selfish when this locker room, in reality, has been unbelievably unselfish.
“He’s a very demanding coach — which is fine — as long as you know how to love them up sometimes,” he says, “and tap them on the back and they trust you. Which a lot of guys don’t.”
This isn’t much of a secret. Zimmer is never afraid to blame players and coaches publicly.
In 2016, he called the Vikings’ offensive line “soft” after a 21-10 loss to the Eagles. The line was not happy about that comment. That same season, Zimmer said linebacker Anthony Barr had a “tendency to coast.” In 2018, Sharrif Floyd publicly ripped Zimmer for how he was treated when he tore his meniscus — he felt slandered by his coach. And just two weeks ago, we all saw Zimmer go absolutely ballistic at his special teams coordinator on Monday Night Football — seriously, it looked like he might start throwing haymakers — when ex-Viking Cordarrelle Patterson returned a 104-yarder to the house.
That look of pure rage was one so many former assistants remember well.
Spielman hasn’t stepped in because it’s widely assumed Spielman is tied to Zimmer.
One former co-worker who saw the two interact regularly, says Zimmer “treats Rick terrible. Like shit. The way he talks to him, it’s incredible.”
And while you could certainly argue that an emotionless GM is the best GM — Ted Thompson rarely blinked in Green Bay — one longtime Viking veteran describes Spielman as too distant, saying he’ll pass players in the hallway without saying a word.
Ownership doesn’t step in because it is mostly hands off and simply don’t want to get into the habit of hiring and firing at the top of the organization.
Add it all up and the status quo sticks. Everybody underneath Zimmer seems to leave. OC Norv Turner resigns midseason, OC John DeFilippo is fired, OC Kevin Stefanski leaves for Cleveland after being blocked from advancing his career before. On defense, last offseason, DC George Edwards and DB coach Jerry Gray left. And, big picture, it bothered assistants that even though Zimmer wasn’t in offensive meetings, he was quick to second-guess gameplans on Monday. Says one: “Zim is really hard to work for. Zim likes the head coach paycheck but doesn’t like to do the job. He didn’t understand that he was also coach of the offense as well. I’m not sure he’ll ever get that.”
That whole treating Player 1 through Player 53 thing can backfire, too.
Zimmer is never afraid to call out star players who do work their ass off which, obviously, tends to piss off those star players.
“Guys notice that shit,” one source says. “If you pick out a guy who’s been late to practice or not doing shit the right way, or whatever, that’s different.
“At some point, are you going to take any of the blame?”
It should come as no shock that age and money weren’t the only reasons the Vikings lost players last offseason. While cornerback Mackensie Alexander declined to speak himself, one source remembers Alexander telling him he took less money to sign with the Bengals because he was tired of Zimmer, tired of doing 99 out of 100 things right only to get benched. Zimmer wears on players, this source says, because “Everyone’s panicked and thinking and stressing.” Maybe we also should not be shocked that former first-rounder Xavier Rhodes — a corner in ‘n out of Zimmer’s doghouse throughout 2019 — is now having a career year with the Colts.
Then, of course, there’s Diggs.
All he’s doing now is dominating. His 906 receiving yards rank third in the NFL.
Yeah, Diggs is described as stubborn and immature and quick to turn that IG camera around on himself for the world to see… but not lazy and not necessarily wrong for wanting to bail and tweeting “It's time for a new beginning” after the Vikings extended Cousins this off-season. As the offense traveled back into time and the millions invested in Cousins and Diggs and Thielen now seemed somewhat wasted, some teammates agreed with Diggs’ intent. Run. Run. Pass. Run. Run. Pass. Few slants. Few double-moves. Nothing to get Cousins into a rhythm at all. Diggs saw his career flashing before his eyes — while other wideouts were making nearly $20 million a year — and wanted out.
A more progressive coach might’ve made fixing this relationship Priority No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 by bringing him into the office and telling him he’ll find ways to get him the ball.
Many see no such wiggle room with Zimmer.
“It’s the exact opposite,” the one source recalls. “It’s ‘Do what you’re f------ told.’”
That Miracle felt like a distant memory.
And you may have noticed Diggs did not mention Zimmer in his heartfelt Player’s Tribune farewell.
That is one interpretation of how the Stefon Diggs situation went down.
There is another.
Newman moved over to the Vikings coaching staff as a nickel/defensive backs assistant coach that tumultuous ’18 season. Looking back, he understands completely why Minnesota traded Diggs.
“He was more volatile than people understood or realized,” Newman says. “Yeah, you have a great player a la T.O. where sometimes when you have a player who’s upset or doesn’t see enough targets, then it’s a problem. So, there were obviously times when it didn’t go his way and he wasn’t happy about it. But for me being an older player — when you’re winning a football game and a guy is mad because he’s not getting enough balls thrown his way — obviously that’s going to rub other players the wrong way.”
Granted, the Vikings didn’t do themselves any favors in letting so many vocal leaders go post-Miracle, Newman adds, from Robison right “down the list.” There were players who could lead by example, yes. But vocally? Newman sensed a colossal void. Further, Newman doesn’t believe any amount of heart-to-heart chats between Zimmer and Diggs would’ve helped.
To him, it’s simple: Diggs is always drawing the most attention from defenses.
“How are you going to calm down a guy who’s getting double-teamed all day and has two guys on him? Sometimes three guys on him?” Newman says. “How do you calm that guy down? You’re not going to make everybody happy.”
Newman thinks the run-first attack actually would’ve helped Diggs because it would’ve alleviated those double-teams.
Instead, Diggs grew frustrated. Instead, Diggs was done.
The Bills are winning, and Diggs is getting his 10 targets per game again, so Newman doesn’t expect any problems in Buffalo.
“I’m not saying he was crazy,” Newman says. “But I just saw enough myself. I’m not even on that side of the ball — where, ‘Yo, you need to chill the f--- out.’ … The thing with wideouts is, you’re ‘always open.’ You’re going to be selfish because you want yards and touchdowns and everything else. But once younger guys get older, they understand, ‘OK, you know what? This Super Bowl shit is pretty tough.’ What becomes more important is having an actual run at winning the Super Bowl. Some people are just more vocal as players of ‘Hey, I need this. I need the ball.’ And other guys are like, ‘Hey, let’s just go out and win this f------ thing. I don’t give a shit who catches the ball. Let’s just get it done.’”
Greenway is in this camp, too.
To Greenway, this is simple: The NFL is always a grind and everyone reacts to that grind differently.
“It seems that he got what he wanted: to get out of here,” says Greenway. “If you’re being under-utilized or used differently than you think, my reaction to it was to stay the course, stay quiet and grind on. But that wasn’t his.”
Rather than just let the whole thing burn to the ground and start over, the Vikings slammed the pedal to the metal. The Vikings, still, sought to win now.
They replaced Diggs with Justin Jefferson, gave Cook the five-year, $63 million he deserved and went all, all, all in on a run-first attack. The bruising, explosive Cook is Zimmer’s rhetoric brought to life. He leaves a pile of bodies in his wake. This season, he’s averaging an NFL-high 118.8 rushing yards per game with an NFL-high 14 touchdowns and, sources say, he loves playing for Zimmer. He’s also only 25 years old with relatively low mileage. At offensive coordinator, maybe the fifth time’s the charm, too. Gary Kubiak somehow won a Super Bowl with the rickety remains of a 39-year-old Peyton Manning and Kubiak is a coach that players openly gush about every chance they get.
Multiple sources describe Kubiak as an accountable, fantastic communicator with a calming presence who can broker a little peace internally. By all accounts, his relationship with Zimmer is strong.
And this next wave of youngsters the team’s counting on is sincerely optimistic. And hungry. And more than willing to fight for Zimmer.
There’s tight end Irv Smith Jr., who was ready for anything Zimmer could throw at him after playing for Nick Saban at Alabama. He prefers hard coaching.
Says Smith: “You don’t want somebody that’s just going sugarcoat.”
There’s wide receiver Bisi Johnson, who had his baptism by Zim as a rookie last season. Late to meetings in back-to-back weeks, by about 30 minutes apiece, Johnson says he felt Zimmer’s wrath. And then some. There was plenty of yelling and screaming and, no, Johnson doesn’t delve too deep into the details but assures, “I got my ass whipped.”
Says Johnson: “Zim’s a hard ass. But everybody knows that. He’s only a hard ass if he has to be.”
There’s defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo. The Vikings are counting on him. Up front, they cut Griffen (now a Detroit Lion, he was pissed when Zimmer called him just a “good” player), lost Danielle Hunter to a herniated disc in his neck and traded away Ngakoue after 52 days. A trade that reeked of a team in no man’s land — one moment the Vikings are coughing up a second-rounder for one of the NFL’s elite pass rushers. Five losses later, off he goes to Baltimore. So, here’s Odenigbo, built like a bull at 6-foot-3, 258 pounds. He was cut himself four times — “fired four times,” he clarifies — but the 26-year-old end whose parents emigrated from Nigeria, who the Vikes gave up on twice themselves, is now the team’s best shot at pressuring the quarterback.
Odenigbo repeats that Zimmer is old school — a “creature of habit” — but echoes Greenway in saying the coach has added “progressive” elements to his coaching. Practice hard and he rewards you. He’s on the stricter side, yes, but Odenigbo believes there’s a good blend here. He did hear all about older players tuning Zimmer out in the past but does not see any of that himself now.
He makes a good point, too: As a Super Bowl-winning defensive backs coach in 1995, in Dallas, Zimmer was around the best of the best. Like Deion Sanders, like Darren Woodson.
No wonder it’s hard for anybody to impress him.
Zimmer is not the cool Dad letting his kids throw keggers in the backyard. Zimmer is not your friend.
“If you suck, he’ll let you know you suck,” Odenigbo says. “Other coaches will try to say things and they won’t be very honest with you but behind closed doors, with the front office, they’re saying stuff. He’ll let you know that, ‘Hey, you need to get better.’ … People want you to cradle all your players. When you get to this profession, you know what to do. So for all those people who feel they need to be cradled, hey man, Coach Zim is not the right coach for you.
“He’s that old-school father. Once he’s really impressed, that makes you know you got on his good side and it makes you feel happy inside like ‘Hell yeah.’”
The Vikings sure made Dad proud with that three-game surge. After Cook ran twice as much (30 carries) as Cousins threw the ball (14 attempts) — a Zimmer paradise! — in that win over the Packers, the coach gathered the team together for a speech that sounds like something out of a high school football movie: “It just goes to show you if you believe and keep fighting and keep working and keep trying to get better, we’re going to continue to win a hell of a lot of games.”
He even praised the offensive line. Nobody was “soft” after this one.
The Vikings slugged two more NFC North teams and, briefly, the Vikings’ thinking all along started to make sense.
Then, more growing pains.
Against Dallas, one of those rookie cornerbacks who replaced the departed, Jeff Gladney, was burnt on a fourth and 6 that would’ve won the game with two minutes left. But can you really blame him? Gladney was 1 on 1… in the slot… against Amari Cooper, who easily took advantage of this rookie handing him outside leverage. After Dallas scored to go up 31-28, the rookie Jefferson — who’s been mostly incredible — had a brutal drop that could’ve sparked a game-tying drive.
Newman, for one, expected the good, the bad and the ugly this season with such a young defense.
He’s heard alllll the calls for Zimmer’s job and doesn’t get it, citing the youth, the lack of leadership and the lack of a real off-season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s quite difficult for all these first- and second-year players to learn Zimmer’s defense from scratch via Zoom. “It’s one year,” Newman says. One year of defensive struggles, to him, shouldn’t get Zimmer fired. Shouldn’t give owners any contract remorse.
“If you look at any extensions, I would say, why in the hell did you extend the quarterback?” Newman says. “That’s what really put stress on this team in the first place.”
No doubt, a major reason a guy like Gladney is even in that spot against Cooper is the $84M deal Minnesota gave Cousins. Zimmer can yell all he wants, run the ball all he wants. For the Vikings to ultimately rise, Cousins must rise.
He’ll face Teddy Bridgewater on Sunday.
And remember, the plan all along was to be better than Bridgewater (and Case Keenum).
This game and this final month will define Cousins’ career, too.
These are the moments that can spike your quarterback’s heart rate.
Precisely when your quarterback has every reason to panic.
When you face a 28-3 deficit. (Hello, Tom Brady) When it’s third and 15 and the season’s on the line. (Holy, Patrick Mahomes) When you’re at the 1-yard line facing the greatest defensive mind in football and you’re nothing but a backup quarterback who nearly quit the sport two years prior. Right then, the ice must course through your veins and you must be cool enough, calm enough to bring up “Philly Philly” to your head coach like Foles did that night.
If there is one common trait in Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, it’s such serenity when the entire world is watching. Calm. And, most of his career, Cousins has not displayed such calm.
He is undeniably talented. Cousins can throw the ball, as Newman says, as well as anyone.
“Sometimes,” Newman says, “the moment’s just too big for people. It’s a lot of pressure. You either bolt or you rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, for Minnesota, their quarterback has not risen to the occasion very often.”
So when he did, in his first Monday Night Football win ever two weeks ago, Cousins was really, really jacked up. He’s now 1-9 on MNF and some who’ve been around the quarterback believe there is something to that alarming record.
One of Cousins’ ex-coaches describes him as “really tight” and “really nervous.” One personnel exec whose teams have played Cousins several times from Washington to Minnesota guarantees the Vikings will never win a Super Bowl with Cousins. To him, it’s as if the Vikings entered a marriage, discovered real problems that should get divorce court rolling and, last offseason, decided to renew their vows anyways.
Says the exec: “When they go out, they smile and everyone acts like everything is good. You’re paying this dude like he’s one of the top guys in the league. And he’s kind of, you know, OK.”
Which is why Robison and Newman and so many others were skeptical when the front office took that financial plunge. Out of the 13-3 “Miracle” season in 2017, the Vikings could’ve rolled with Keenum or Bridgewater at a fraction of the cost knowing full well that pouring so much capital into the quarterback position comes with another price. Since then, the Vikings have had no choice but to gut the roster.
Robison does not want to live in a world of hypotheticals. He kindly points out that he’s old enough to remember the Donovan McNabb hype in 2011. (Yes, McNabb was a Viking.)
But that ’17 team was special. With Keenum.
“At the time,” Robison says, “I thought, ‘Yeah, we should probably roll with Case.’ Giving him an opportunity, we did really well with Case. That didn’t happen.”
Adds Newman: “Obviously when you give the quarterback that much money, you’ve kind of handcuffed yourself. … I don’t mind Kirk. He’s a damn good quarterback. He can throw the ball with the best of them. But like most undersized quarterbacks, once you have a team that has a good pass rush, that quarterback is probably going to get antsy.”
When the Vikings were panicking about Cousins’ restructure, last spring, the best thing they probably could’ve done is swallow their pride and bring back Keenum. He was a free agent again and eventually inked a three-year, $18 million deal to be a No. 2 in Cleveland.
Or sign Jameis Winston for $2 million. Or draft a QB earlier than the seventh round.
Instead, the Vikings opted not to bring in a threat to Cousins.
To critics, this exposes why the Vikings are in “no man’s land.” This magnifies the bigger problem: Not admitting mistakes. Holding onto high draft picks or splashy signings out of stubbornness. In 2012, the Seahawks had no problem drafting and starting a rookie named Russell Wilson over the quarterback they had just unloaded millions to in Matt Flynn. In 2019, the Titans pulled the plug on their former No. 2 overall pick (Marcus Mariota) for a Dolphins castoff (Ryan Tannehill).
Yet the Vikings double-downed. On Cousins. Even as their offense went old school. Even though the whole point of the historic contract was for the recipient of the historic contract to do more than hand the ball off and work off play-action. Scouts around the league now believe the Vikings’ best bet is to copy San Francisco’s 2019 model by (somehow) fusing exceptional play-calling with a high-tech run game with a dominant O-Line with a top-3 defense. And if one of those things falters, as one evaluator puts, you’re screwed. This formula propelled the 49ers to the Super Bowl but eventually caught up to the 49ers themselves — Shanahan dialed up what should’ve been the game-winning play against the Chiefs and Jimmy Garoppolo missed the throw.
Sure, the defense is greener than grass but Cousins’ 10 picks hurt the Vikings more than anything through this season’s 1-5 start.
One would assume Cousins should fill that leadership void Newman described, too.
Has he? That’s debatable.
One of his former coaches who actually loves Cousins’ talent says Cousins “doesn’t have any presence” and is “socially awkward.” The league source familiar with the team’s thinking doesn’t believe players rally around Cousins like they did for Bridgewater and Keenum and believes teammates view the “you like that”-speeches as forced. He finds it’s startling that the coach and GM can’t see this.
“Or you see it,” he says, “and you don’t address it, which is even crazier to me. You can’t fake that stuff. You’re either a leader or you’re not. I think if you asked guys on offense ‘Who’s the leader?’ a lot of guys would say ‘Dalvin Cook.’ Guys that show up to work, do what they have to do, they’re great teammates, they’re likeable off the field. Who doesn’t want to rally around that?”
Instead, he believes some players see Cousins’ contract and roll their eyes.
Players, on the record, one by one, go to bat for Cousins.
Bisi Johnson gets that the speeches, from afar, “may look forced” but he maintains they are not. He was there in the visitor’s locker room after Cousins stunned the Saints and calls such passion “definitely real.” This was a quarterback sniping back at his critics. Johnson concedes that Cousins is a nerd but, to him, it’s a “good nerdy.” An endearing nerdy. He loves Cousins’ “old school” sense of humor even if he doesn’t get the punchline on most of his jokes.
Irv Smith Jr. calls his QB’s right arm “amazing” and says Cousins is the leader you absolutely want on your team.
“He’ll deliver,” Smith adds. “He’s the guy you can count on at the end of the day — that we’re here to win championships. I’m very confident in Kirk.”
Adds Odenigbo: “He gets heat but people just like talking just to talk. His stats are right up there with anybody else in the NFL. That’s my quarterback.”
To Odenigbo, anyone out there who really thinks the team doesn’t have Cousins’ back or the head coach’s back just needs to replay the Vikings’ playoff win in New Orleans last season. The noise was deafening. The defense his quarterback faced was elite. And Cousins went 19 of 31 for 242 yards with a walk-off touchdown. When Cousins then got the extension, Iloka viewed it as a clear sign of a fantastic marriage. He absolutely sees this team as a Super Bowl contender with Cousins. (“You can’t argue with me,” Iloka says. “He’s a better pure passer than Jimmy Garoppolo.) And to Greenway, that Saints win should’ve shut everyone up.
“Who else do you want?” Greenway says. “Who else are you going to replace him with and be better? Who can go into New Orleans and make those types of throws? And win on the road in New Orleans, one of the toughest environments in football? The answer is, probably not many people. Kirk is the guy.”
You certainly can’t put that Cowboys dud on Cousins, either.
He was lights out. He hit 73.3 percent of his passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns.
Maybe bringing everyone back is not Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity, you know, “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Maybe this is all just crazy enough to work out and an old-school coach is exactly what this young team needs — they’ll harden, they’ll be ready for all adversity. The Vikings have a 20 percent chance to make the playoffs, per the analytics site 538. You’d sure hear the “You like that?” to end all You like thats if the Vikings somehow get in and win. And you can almost see ex-Vikings on NFL Films one day, reminiscing about those dog days of summer with Zimmer, too, if Zimmer somehow wins a Super Bowl.
Maybe he is a coach everyone appreciates in time.
First thing’s first: Defeating Carolina.
Newman gets fans’ angst. Newman knows Vikings heartbreak just stings different. He implores all to believe.
For a little longer.
“If there’s one thing I learned over my 15 years in the league,” Newman says, “the majority of them being with Coach Zim, never count that guy out.
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