Sunday slant: Vikings have trust established

With expectations deservedly raised, GM Rick Spielman has building confidence in his first hand-picked coach.

With roles now entrenched, the two men most entrusted with building a championship team for the Minnesota Vikings now have trust in each other.

Head coach Mike Zimmer has a year under his belt after his initial voyage into one of the top 32 coaching spots in the richest football industry in the world. General Manager Rick Spielman now knows he can trust that the first coach he hand-picked is competent enough to handle things on his own.

Last year at training camp, both men were still getting to know each other just seven months into their professional relationship after Spielman became one of the driving forces in giving Zimmer his first head coaching job. Zimmer arrived at the 2014 training camp with a plan in place for his players. Spielman arrived at that training camp with a series of tests for Zimmer in an exercise that Spielman believed would help Zimmer’s on-field decision-making in his first year at the helm of the Vikings ship.

These days, with trust established, that test has been tossed aside.

“He did pretty good last year. He was very good,” Spielman said Saturday as Zimmer prepared to brief his players for their first meeting of 2015 training camp. “I probably spend more time with him than my wife to be honest with you, and that’s not always a good thing. But we spent some time in the offseason and just looked through some of that stuff.

“But I thought he did an unbelievable job last year and some of things you look back just like we evaluate what we do from a personnel standpoint and the things – we did positive things, we did negative – and the things we did negative, how do you fix that, how do you correct that?”

Spielman and Zimmer have found common ground from the outset. Both were sons of coaches, giving them an old-school upbringing that helped each relate to each other.

But last year Spielman wanted Zimmer to be as prepared as possible. He was the first hire in which Spielman had most of the control. Zimmer’s performance, along with the selection of Teddy Bridgewater, would be driving forces in which way the tale of Spielman’s competency would sway. He is in charge of the personnel and it was important for him to get to know what kind of athletic and personality traits Zimmer wants most in his players.

“I feel good about understanding the communication between Rick and myself, the expectations of the fans,” Zimmer said. “There’s so many things that you don’t realize your first time going through and how tough the job is in a lot of different ways, but I feel much more comfortable in knowing the players better and knowing the setup better. So it’s exciting. It’s just as exciting this year as it was last year, maybe more so.”

Expectations are higher, too, with the return of Adrian Peterson, several key players returning from injury and the emergence of Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. Raised expectations in Year 2 are natural and can be healthy, but it will be incumbent on Zimmer to make sure the players don’t buy into the hype too much. He believes the roster has improved, and the key quarterback position appears settled with the promise of Bridgewater.

The fact that Spielman has “his” coach and “his” quarterback in place gives him some indication that this is shaping into a team that can win more consistently. Ultimately, everyone in the NFL is judged on wins and losses, including general managers that have to answer to owners.

“This was my first opportunity to be involved in a hiring of a head coach and to get a quarterback like Teddy, a young guy in place that we think is going to definitely be the face of this franchise and lead us on the field for a long time,” Spielman said. “But not to crown him king yet. He still has got a ways to go. He still has to learn. But if you can have those two pieces, I think any time you feel confident that you have those two pieces in place and then start building around that, those are the two hardest positions to fill.”

Spielman should know. He swung and missed with his last first-round quarterback, Christian Ponder, who is now a backup with the Oakland Raiders. The promotion of the last head coach, Leslie Frazier, was mostly a move made to save face and keep some consistency after turbulent end times under Brad Childress that saw him fired and Brett Favre and Randy Moss both come and go within a two-year time period.

The franchise was changing and Spielman finally had his opportunity to directly influence and exact the change as he saw best.

A step forward from a 7-9 season to a playoff berth is predicted by many but not guaranteed. The pieces appear to be in place but not completely puzzled together just yet.

“You see these guys and you see what they are athletically, but now you can really start honing in on what they are in as football players because they got the pads on and some guys that showed up at minicamp as an athlete the speed and everything you saw all of that,” Spielman said. “But now let’s see what they do with the pads on.”

This is just the start of the second season, but Zimmer established credibility with the players last season and Spielman’s player puzzle is coming together.

“I know it’s a young football team,” Spielman said. “But I also know what coach Zimmer and his staff do with the young guys and how well they develop these guys and get them to perform.”

Last year, Bridgewater said it was as much Vladimir Ducasse and Jabari Price’s team as his. That quote turned into somewhat of a running joke as Bridgewater constantly tried to deflect praise from himself onto lesser known players. Now Ducasse, the reserve offensive lineman, is gone, and Price, the reserve defensive back, is suspended for the first two games of the season.

No, this is Bridgewater’s team. This is Adrian Peterson’s team. But, more than anybody else, this is Zimmer and Spielman’s team. To Super Bowl or NFL death do they part.

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