But Zimmer did go for the second interview and continued to impress general manager Rick Spielman and the team’s ownership. The long-time defensive coordinator became an NFL head coach for the first time in his life.
The former college quarterback at Illinois State is now quarterbacking the on-field operations of the coaching staff, schemes and players. After 33 years as a defensive coach and coordinator in college and the NFL, this is now Zimmer’s show, and he’s doing it with a group of players that largely weren’t even born when Zimmer started coaching.
The coach of three decades is getting a lot out of players that haven’t been walking much longer than two decades. Inexperienced youth is being served by Zimmer’s experience, especially on defense, along with the four decades of experience of coordinator Norv Turner on offense.
It hasn’t always been an easy transition for Zimmer as a rookie head coach. His most expensive and talented player, Adrian Peterson, gave him only one game before legal troubles derailed his season and possibly ended his days in purple. There have been other legal entanglements, too, but Zimmer never seemed to break stride or let it bother him.
Zimmer just keeps coaching.
And the players he has relied on heavily have been the ones just recently acquired, including numerous draft picks this year. The rookie head coach and rookie and second-year players are growing together.
“When we’re trying to develop guys, partly to continually understand the schemes and the techniques,” Zimmer said. “That’s why we’re bringing guys out early (in practice). That’s why we’re doing extra stuff with them.”
Defensive coordinator George Edwards said the coaches start at ground zero, and that was necessary case this year, even with veterans, in new schemes on both sides of the ball.
“We don’t take for granted that anybody knows anything,” Edwards said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a veteran, it doesn’t matter if it’s a rookie, we’re going to go through the scenarios and put them through those situations through practice, through training camp, through the week as we get ready. We’re going to go through those situations and make sure that they understand crystal clear exactly what it is that we’re expecting them to perform versus certain things. I think the combination of being consistent, them knowing exactly how we want to do something, and then there is always things that you have to adjust to, but being able to be consistent with the fundamentals and techniques of what we’re teaching, I think that is the biggest part of it.”
To date, Spielman and Zimmer appear to be selecting players and coaching them the right way. Zimmer looked at the linebacker corps he inherited and immediately helped transform it. Erin Henderson was released and Marvin Mitchell wasn’t re-signed. Chad Greenway was the only holdover start, and Zimmer has made him a go-to leader in the locker room.
But all around him, youth was put in place.
The Vikings drafted Anthony Barr higher than most figured, ninth overall, and he has become such a force that he has to be considered for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He has already earned a Defensive Player of the Week honor and continues to get better each week, putting him in consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Xavier Rhodes is developing into a worthy starting cornerback in a scheme that fits his skills better than the one he was drafted to play in last year. Sharrif Floyd is hitting his stride at defensive tackle. Josh Robinson has become a solid contributor at cornerback. Harrison Smith is playing at a Pro Bowl level. And Everson Griffen was named Defensive Player of the Month in October.
The record doesn’t reflect the strides the Vikings have made, but there is progress and a promising future.
The same is true on offense. Some of the best players this year have been first- and second-year guys. Teddy Bridgewater has struggled at times, but Zimmer continues to believe he is the young franchise quarterback the Vikings have sought for more than a decade, and there is good reason to believe that when looking at his poise under duress.
Jerick McKinnon is shaping into a legitimate candidate to replace Peterson if the future Hall of Famer is done in Minnesota. Cordarrelle Patterson has immense talent that still hasn’t been fully realized.
“The thing we were talking about a little bit as coaches, the young guys, when they come in, they’re pretty mindful of the seniority thing,” Zimmer said. “You talk about three years down the road – now you’ve got guys like Barr, who I’m sure will be much more vocal, and Teddy and McKinnon. But we’re trying to bring them up the right way and they’ll (grow) up the right way and continue on that way.”
The present has been frustrating for many with a 3-5 record, but the signs of a developing team are obvious. Zimmer and Turner have changed the schemes, but the biggest challenge is changing the attitude.
Zimmer has talked repeatedly about getting the players to understand that losing isn’t OK, and Floyd said last week that the players were finally tired of losing. The transition may be painful and hasn’t been immediate, but look at the many of the best players on the team. They are all mostly young players still in their rookie contracts or in their first contract since.
The seven first-round picks in the last three years are the building blocks and getting some of the most extensive time on the field to hasten the trajectory of their careers. Barr and Bridgewater are quiet off the field but have both shown in streaks their potential to make noise on the field. Floyd, Rhodes and Patterson are all on the rise. Smith is already there, and Matt Kalil has the talent even if he hasn’t played to it this year.
It’s hard to ignore the possibilities in the future, even with as frustrating as the present might be.
“If you keep bringing up young guys that understand how you want it done, what my expectations are, what the other coaches’ expectations are, I think that breeds for getting better all the time,” Zimmer said.
Developing young players hasn’t replaced the priority of winning now, but the Vikings’ best players are some of their youngest.
“There’s four or five plays in the game that we had a chance to make plays over 25 or 30 yards and we didn’t make as many of them as we could have,” Turner said. “If you’re going to score points, you’re going to make big plays at some point. In our touchdown drive we broke off a 25- to 30-yard run to get us into the red zone. In the two-minute drives, we got a couple of big plays out of it to give us a chance to get in scoring positon.”
The Vikings are 27th in the league with 139 points, and three of the team below them have played only seven games.