The straight-shooting attitude of Mike Zimmer could help the Minnesota Vikings hit their targets in the coming months.
The biggest games played for the franchise in 2015 might be in the coming four months, when there are no games played on the field. Off the field, the continuous efforts to improve the roster should be hitting full stride with free agency and, more importantly, the draft.
Former coach Leslie Frazier was hesitant to criticize a player publicly, sticking with a theme of “hope” in quarterback Christian Ponder and playing the fatherly encourager among a mixed roster of veterans and fledgling talent. But if Frazier’s talks with reporters were any indication of how things went in the behind-closed-doors meetings when discussing personnel, the critiques might not have been impartial enough.
If that was indeed the case, it won’t be offseason business as usual at Winter Park this year. Mike Zimmer has had a year as Frazier’s replacement and proved he isn’t afraid to offer a publicly critical assessment of his players, no matter their status in the league. Several times he talked about veteran Captain Munnerlyn’s tendency to improvise away from the scheme or other players needing to be tougher about fighting through injuries. The coach that took only one day off for kidney stones demands a high level of toughness, effort and execution from his players, and his critiques of those players on his roster are apparently even more honest in the privacy of meetings with his staff and his general manager.
GM Rick Spielman believes that will be a big benefit as the Vikings assessed their roster last week and prepare to move forward with additions through free agency and the draft in the March and April.
“I think this is the clearest we’ve ever been on a direction with the coaches and the scouts all speaking the same language and identifying those same traits. With coach Zim, there’s usually not a lot of gray area with him,” Spielman said.
“I feel very confident, though not satisfied, that we are heading in the right direction. The optimism heading into this offseason is totally different, and the expectation level with these guys.”
Zimmer’s no-nonsense style of coaching and the way he handles his players is vastly different from Frazier. Zimmer wasn’t afraid to bench 2013 first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson in favor of 2014 waiver-claim Charles Johnson in the middle of the season, and that paid off. He wasn’t afraid to call out veterans like Munnerlyn when there was too much freelancing for Zimmer’s taste. And that unfettered honesty has carried over to the offseason evaluations.
The coaching staff and scouting department met for three days before the coaches took last week off. After that, Spielman – known in team circles as a stickler for details in his player evaluations – strutted away with a better sense of what kind of players Zimmer likes and what the coaching staff looks for in their players.
“I understand from a defensive scheme point, for example, what exactly a corner has to do and what’s going to be required of him, what exactly is required of a defensive end,” Spielman said. “There are things that, OK, he has to be able to do A, B and C, and can he do that on a consistent basis?”
Given that progress, and the improved play on the field, big expectations should lie ahead. A two-win improvement from 2013 to 2014 was a sign of progress, despite not having Adrian Peterson, veteran quarterback Matt Cassel and some of the starting offensive line in place for much of the season. Bridgewater went 6-6 as a starter without those aides, and the pass defense – Zimmer’s forte – showed marked improvement.
Now the challenge is to continue that progress with an evolving roster and in the second year of new schemes on offense and defense.
“The one thing that you did notice during the season was our team came so far from where we were at, even though we were having success during the preseason and even that opening ballgame,” Spielman said. “The way our guys were playing at the end of the season, there was a night-and-day difference just from the technique and all the nuances that these coaches are teaching. I think that foundation and that building block that’s in place after one year should carry over into the next year as well.”
The coaching points were clear at the start of last year’s offseason program. Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray were particular in their techniques with the defensive backs and the progress showed in the play of the cornerbacks, especially Xavier Rhodes.
The roster is younger and developing, giving hope that a few key additions can carry them to the playoffs in 2015 – and that has to be the expectation. Zimmer, too, saw progress but his demanding style wouldn’t allow him to be satisfied, and it shouldn’t. At least not until the day he can retreat to his tractor, wine and some offseason reading that includes the Vikings as Super Bowl champions for the first time in franchise history.
A year ago, that notion seemed laughable. These days, it’s Zimmer’s expectation for the near future.
Chances are the Vikings will be preseason longshots for the Super Bowl next year. They haven’t proven much yet, especially against winning teams, except that there is reason for hope at some point in the coming years.
“Looking over the year, I thought it was an invaluable year for us to grow as an organization,” Spielman said.
He said the coaching staff did an “incredible job” building the foundation in Zimmer’s first year. The evaluation on the current roster is finished. The initial draft board will be set prior to February’s NFL Scouting Combine, and the draft prospects will be placed alongside the strengths of free agency.
Zimmer’s honest evaluations have given Spielman a specific direction of what’s needed, both from the holes in the depth chart and the type of player needed to fortify those weaknesses. They have worked their way through their CTR list – cut, trade or release.
“The way we worked with Coach Zim and our scouts working with our coaches, to hear everything when they come in, they describe traits when they’re looking at players at each position. You can hear it,” Spielman said. “You can watch tape of some examples of it, but once you get into training camp and you watch them actually coach and what they’re trying to teach and we go through and we sit through the season and we sit here on Mondays and go through game evaluations and listen to them talk about personnel … just heading into the second year now there’s such a clearer understanding about the direction we need to go as far as what specifically each position trait is required to be effective in this scheme.
“It’s extremely tough because you’re trying to eliminate the human side of everything and that’s the hardest part of this job, is to take all that human element out of it and just look at it from a pure business perspective. I think if you’re able to do that, as hard as that is, that helps you make the best decisions you can.”
By May, the main pieces of the roster will be in place and Zimmer will be back in coaching mode, this time with a majority of the roster familiar with his tenants and techniques.
At that point, the expectations will be set and they will be high.
Sunday slant: Expectations high after evals
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