Coming off an 11-5 season and division title, Mike Zimmer is facing big expectations

Head coach Mike Zimmer has spent two years energizing a fan base to believe the Minnesota Vikings are going to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender. For the most part, the fan base has bought in. Now what?

Expectations are a funny thing. They skew opinions of a fan base. What is success one year for one team can be viewed as failure for the same team a year or two later. Once expectations come into the mix, the price of poker goes up.

When Mike Zimmer took over as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in 2014, the franchise had been humbled, especially on defense.

The team was coming of a dismal season in which they lost their first three games and seven of their first eight. The team kept fighting, finishing with a record of 5-10-1, but the water taken on in the first half of the season had long since sunk the ship. The Vikings were an afterthought in the discussion of Super Bowl-capable teams.

The primary problem was defense. Nobody gave up more points than the Vikings – an insanely bad average of 30 points a game. When Zimmer came in, his expectations were that he would install a defense that has worked for him pretty much everyplace he’s ever been. Improvement was the only goal.  Zimmer’s tenure with the Vikings started off with a bang – a road win in St. Louis – but that would be the only game Adrian Peterson would play in 2014. Within four games, the Vikings didn’t have the player who was going to be the centerpiece of their offense and had a rookie quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater as the new faceplate. The goal of having two veteran quarterbacks (Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder) underscored the idea that the Vikings wanted to ease Bridgewater into the offense.

Four games into his rookie season, that game plan went in the wastebasket and a new one had to be devised.

To his credit, Zimmer led the Vikings to a 7-9 record in first season as head coach. To outsiders, that appeared to be a modest improvement, but his defense made clear and obvious strides from the previous year – a take made much more daunting by having an offense that was implemented on the fly and without its top star and focal point.

Expectations were rising among the fan base, fueled by comments made by Zimmer that the team is getting better, players convinced they would be hitting the ground running in the second year of Zimmer’s defense, Norv Turner’s offense and the return of Peterson from suspension.

The one thing Zimmer hadn’t conquered yet was the stigma he inherited – that the Vikings aren’t successful because they don’t win consistently on the road and struggle in the division, two prerequisites needed to be a division champion or a playoff team.

In his first year, Zimmer’s Vikings were 2-6 on the road and 1-5 against the division. Those numbers are recipes for sub-.500 records overall. Until he could turn those longstanding struggles around, the Vikings would consider Zimmer’s first year as a decent start given the circumstances, but not a ringing endorsement.

In his second season in 2015, Zimmer was talking tough and the fans and media were drinking the Kool-Aid. With Peterson back, Bridgewater the unquestioned QB and the defense finally able to ingest the entire Zimmer playbook, expectations were that the Vikings could be a playoff team.

They answered that challenge, knocking Green Bay off the top of the mountain in the NFC North for the first time in 10 years.

The true measure of success, which was glaringly missing from Zimmer’s first season, was winning against the division and winning on the road. Last year, the Vikings went 5-1 against the division and exorcised two demons by winning five of their eight road games – the last being a win at fabled Lambeau Field over the Packers to win the division title.

Welcome to the Land of Expectations, Zim.

You accomplished an initial checklist of goals that you came to Minnesota with:

  • Become a dominant team within the division. Check.
  • Learn how to win on the road. Check.
  • Make the playoffs. Check.
  • Win the division. Check.

Now what?  If you listen to the national media types who proclaim to be dialed in to all 32 teams, not just the Vikings, there isn’t the belief that the Vikings 11-5 season in 2015 is the next stepping stone to 12-4 or better in 2016. They’re still apparently getting Fed-Ex packages from Mike McCarthy for his particular brand of Kool-Aid and they’re drinking it up like nobody’s business.

To the outside world, a Vikings improvement in 2016 and a second relegation of the Packers to the wild card round at best would be a surprise.

To Vikings fans? To the Wilf family? Expectations are going to be gigantic.

It’s the price of playing poker in the NFL. We remember what you did last year, but that was then and this is now.

Welcome to Year 3, Coach Zim.

Expectations bring an anticipation of often unrealistic success. Zimmer should ask all of his assistants who were head coaches the pressure that comes with that.

With friends and families getting together for the Memorial Day Weekend holiday, at some point discussion will come up as to what is expected of the 2016 Vikings.

The conversations will be diverse. One theme will be central: expectations. And all that will do is wind up until those same friends and families will get together on Labor Day Weekend.

Between now and then, the Vikings won’t play a game in which a score matters. But expectations will be growing like corn between now and then, and by the time Zim gets to the regular season opener, losing won’t be an option for the fan base.

Buckle up, Mike. It’s going to be a fun ride.

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