Mike Zimmer strolls through the mass of players stretching prior to most practices with a gait that exudes quiet confidence.
It hasn’t mattered whether Zimmer had zero NFL games under his belt as a first-year head coach last summer or the 16 he currently holds with the Minnesota Vikings. He is a self-assured sultan of player management without being the tyrant of the team.
In his previous roles as defensive coordinator, success has followed him. But that might be shorting him on credit; he has earned success.
In his second year as an NFL coordinator, in 2001 with the Dallas Cowboys, they were fourth in the league in defense. Two years later, they were fifth, and in his second-to-last season with the Cowboys, they were 10th. He spent a chaotic year in Atlanta in 2007, when head coach Bobby Petrino quit on the team after a 3-10 record and Zimmer rightfully called him out for it. From there, Zimmer went to Cincinnati, where the Bengals were 4-11-1 in Zimmer’s first year coordinating the defense, then had only one more losing record during his six years as coordinator, producing the No. 4 defense in the league in 2009, No. 7 in 2011, No. 6 in 2012 and No. 3 in 2013. In Cincinnati, no less, which has been known for frugality with player contracts.
Last year, the Vikings had the 14th-ranked defense in the league and Zimmer is far from satisfied. Despite high praise from many corners of the periphery – media, fans and even his general manager – Zimmer didn’t want to hear any of it. In February, he said he couldn’t wait for the team to re-assemble for offseason workouts so he could show the players everything that went wrong.
What mostly went wrong was missing personnel, from Adrian Peterson’s 15-game absence to being forced to start a rookie quarterback to injuries all around. Still, the roster resurgence appears clear. The king of defensive back technique continued to work with a less than fully loaded defensive backfield, and the results showed in Xavier Rhodes’ maturation and Harrison Smith’s continued high level of play.
Slowly but surely, the buildup of talent endures. How good can Trae Waynes be once he is comfortable with the techniques? Likely very good, while the addition of veteran Terence Newman should help, along with improvement from Jabari Price and others looking to ascend on the depth chart.
But as good as Zimmer has been at working the defensive side, he’s been equally adept at managing the team. That’s not always the case with coordinators making the jump to the head position, but the quietly confident Zimmer has the full backing of all the key components – his ownership, his general manager, one of the better coaching staffs the Vikings have assembled in the last 20 years and, finally, the players.
He refused to let the injuries of 2014 – those that took players out of the lineup and with the players that played through them – define his team. There were no excuses or “woe is us” attitude.
Zimmer simply and confidently stood front and center raising the expectations for each player, substitutes included. Without Peterson, he expected Matt Asiata and Jerick McKinnon to perform. When Asiata’s limitations showed, McKinnon was inserted as the starter. When McKinnon was injured, Asiata bounced back with try-hard efforts.
When Kyle Rudolph finally succumbed to surgery, Chase Ford was expected to pick up the tight end mantle and did so decently. When the offensive line was a mess for myriad reasons, they kept searching for the right mix. When Greg Jennings didn’t prove to be the right fit for Norv Turner wanted in his vertical offense, they bit the salary-cap bullet this offseason and released him after trading for the more expensive Mike Wallace.
All along the way, Zimmer stood in front of his players and the public without excuse. He expected more. He demanded it. And he got as much as he could out of his first team.
But this offseason may have been the most public display of Zimmer’s acumen. Even if his statement about Adrian Peterson eight days ago, saying he would play for the Vikings or no one, wasn’t an emotional ultimatum, it was impressively effective. There was tantrum or ill-will pill – he steadfastly stated his support of the superstar running back he had for only one game in 2014.
It was a simple, succinct statement in fact, but one that yielded a surprisingly speedy result. The lines of communication between Peterson and Zimmer quickly resumed, and Peterson’s camp came to the realization that no matter how hard they pushed, Zimmer wasn’t going to be pushed where he didn’t want to go.
Zimmer gained plenty of favor in Purple fandom by that statement, but at its core, that’s just what he does. He is confident to the core, feeling no need to pry where he shouldn’t (something that seemed to be the undoing of Brad Childress’ regime) but stating his case without threatening.
It was classic Zim. And while it was the most public display of his acumen in attitude, it was just one of the many right moves Zimmer has made in his short stay.
Minnesota fans can only hope it’s a prolonged Purple marriage of Zimmer and the Vikings.
Sunday slant: Zimmer has all the right moves
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