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Sunday slant: Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer calmly riding the roller coaster

Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was calm last week despite the storms swirling around and relayed a Super Bowl experience he’ll keep in mind as he navigates a season of expectations and setbacks.

In what he hopes is the end of a losing streak at two games, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer seemed more affable than ever on Thursday and Friday.

It was a strange time to turn on Uncle Mike’s story time. After all, his team had suffered a second straight loss, this one on the nationally televised “Monday Night Football.” You couldn’t have blamed Zimmer if he was trying to scratch his eyes out after seeing his defense play perhaps its worst game of the season and his offense continue to struggle mightily. But, really, Zimmer did scratch his eye during the game, causing blurred vision and the postgame instruction that he should visit the eye doctor. Turns out, he needed to have a procedure on Tuesday and said it needed to be taken care of right away or blindness would have been a possibility.

So, Zimmer got that taken care of Tuesday morning and – of course, as you would expect from a coach that grinds over film – returned to the office to begin formulating and honing his game plan for the Detroit Lions with one eye and reading glasses on as he dissected the film. He stayed overnight at Winter Park, because sometimes obsessed coaches do that. When he was getting back at it the next morning, his offensive coordinator, and arguably the most important hire Zimmer made more than 2½ years ago, informed him he was resigning.

So, you know, why wouldn’t Zimmer be in a good mood in the coming days?

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His sessions with reporters can be tense at time, with little injury or strategy information given out most times. Still, Zimmer seemed to have a calm about him last week, perhaps secure in himself in the eye of the hurricane.

“He knows what we have to do and he knows that being around us for the last couple years that when this team hits some adversity and there’s a chip on our shoulder we usually respond pretty well,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “He has confidence in us going into this game. We’ve been humbled the last couple weeks and we’ll bounce back.”

Players didn’t notice a decidedly more relaxed Zimmer, but he was about as forthcoming as ever, at least during a season, when he told reporters a story that seemed to aptly apply to the Vikings’ current situation.

They may be on a two-game losing streak against teams they were favored to beat, but Zimmer knows a midseason grind can still evolved into a Super Bowl championship. It happened when he was coaching defensive backs in Dallas in 1995.

Asked about a stressful roller coaster ride this season, Zimmer relayed the story of the 1995 Dallas Cowboys from his perspective in about 400 words after telling it to his assistants last week.

“I feel the roller coaster ride,” Zimmer said as he transitioned from thinking about his current situation to one of his past experiences.

Those Cowboys started the season 6-1 before their bye week, then won two more before getting drubbed 38-20 by the San Francisco 49ers, their NFC rivals at the time, at Texas Stadium, despite Elvis Grbac filling in for an injured Steve Young.

“They had all these guys out. The first play of the game, we got a minus-2. The second play was an 81- or 82-yard throw to Jerry Rice for a touchdown,” Zimmer said. “They beat the heck out of us.”

The Cowboys had to travel to the bay area the next week to play the Oakland Raiders and WR Tim Brown and beat them 34-21.

“They’ve got all these fast receivers,” Zimmer said. “I know if we get beat that week we’re fired. Right?”

Well, maybe not that drastic, but the Cowboys lost two of their early December games to finish the season 12-4 but still had an uneasy feeling about facing San Francisco in the playoffs.

“We kind of mill around the whole season,” Zimmer said.

But on the way out to Arizona to play the Cardinals in the regular-season finale, the 49ers lost to the Atlanta Falcons and the Cowboys secured home-field advantage in the playoffs with a win over the Cardinals. The Green Bay Packers beat the 49ers in the opening round of the playoffs and the Cowboys took care of the Philadelphia Eagles and Packers at Texas Stadium to advance through the NFC, then beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

“I went in the locker room at the end of the game and said, ‘My God, that was a long season!’ So I get it. That’s just how this thing works,” Zimmer said, advancing that lesson to his current situation. “We’re not the only team to have ups and downs. Every team has those. Buffalo is doing great right now; (Rex Ryan) was (rumored to be) fired five weeks ago or whatever it was. So, hey, it’s the NFL.”

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Zimmer’s team certainly has warts. Two weeks ago he said he still had faith when asked about his porous offensive line.

“I do have faith in this football team and obviously, you know, faith is belief without proof,” Zimmer said. “Right now, I don’t have any proof so I have to have faith that we’ll get it done. I think we will. But until we prove it, it’s just throwing stuff against the wall.”

His tone changed some after the loss to Chicago a week later, when QB Sam Bradford was sacked five more times despite the Bears only blitzing twice, bringing Bradford’s two-game sack total to 11.

“It’s difficult right now. I mean we haven’t proven it yet,” Zimmer said on Monday night after the loss. “So, I don’t know if ‘hopeful’ is the right word right at this second. We gotta get it fixed though.”

He returned from that game with an eye in need of medical attention and an offense that appeared to be on life support. In the heart of preparation for another division opponent, his offensive coordinator quit.

Yet, a day later, Zimmer was telling stories about lessons to draw upon from the past and keeping hope very much alive.

“Every week is a new week. And that’s the good thing about it, too. Every week is a new week,” he said. “When you’re 5-0, you’re still grinding. When you’re 0-2, you hope for the next week. It is what it is. It’s just a new week.”

The Vikings are still in the lead for the division and still very much in the playoff race. There remain two months of games that could dramatically shake things up, but right now Minnesota is the projected second seed in the NFC playoffs.

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“The season is so long, there’s so many ebbs and flows and ups and downs,” safety Harrison Smith said. “Things happen and you deal with it and you move forward. I think we have guys on this team that know how to deal with that and we know what we have to do moving forward. It’s a rare find where everything is great all year. You know there’s going to be adversity and that’s what makes the success so sweet.”

The roller coaster could change direction again – probably several times before the postseason starts in January – but Zimmer was amazingly calm and upbeat last week as storms swirled around him.

“He has a pretty good feel of this team and what we need to go out and do,” Rudolph said. “He’s mentioned a couple of times: Everyone on the outside may tell us the walls are falling in, but we’re still 5-2, we’re still the defending NFC North champs and we’re still in first place. As rough as the last two weeks may have been, let’s just get back on track and take care of business.”

QUICK SLANTS

  • Bradford, who went from St. Louis to Philadelphia to Minnesota in the span of two years, said this is “probably the most bizarre” year of his career after Norv Turner stepped down.
  • Maybe it is because there aren’t many other options on the Vikings’ roster, but Zimmer is sticking with T.J. Clemmings at right tackle despite his recent struggles.
  • “The thing that I love the most about T.J. is he competes, he shows up every day, competes every day. He may have a couple bad plays here and there, but it doesn’t seem to affect him on the things that he does,” Zimmer said. “That’s what I told him. ‘You’re a fighter, that’s what you do. You go out there and fight.’ Started 17 games at right tackle, whatever it was last year, and has played I don’t know how many it was this year and he doesn’t miss practice. He’s going to go out there and he’s going to work as hard as he can and he’s going to give as great of effort as he can. That’s important.”
  • As the Vikings navigate more injuries, look for Jeremiah Sirles to start at left guard for Alex Boone (concussion) and Audie Cole to play in the base defense for Eric Kendricks (concussion) and Chad Greenway to stay in the game and take Kendricks’ snaps in the nickel defense.

 


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