Confidence can be a fleeting feeling
Five weeks into the season, the Minnesota Vikings were the last undefeated team in the NFL and fielding questions that compared their defense to the historically great ones in NFL history. Four games later, the Vikings are currently sitting outside the playoff standings in the NFC and wondering what the final seven games of the season will hold for them.
“They asked me in the Arizona phone call, ‘How do I keep the team mentally stable?’ I said, ‘Well, I have to worry about myself first,’” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer deadpanned at his press conference on Wednesday. “This is what the NFL is. It’s not one of those for the faint of hearts. You’ve got to fight for 16 weeks. You’ve got to grind. You’ve got to keep going. The weak-minded typically don’t make it very far. We’re going to continue to stay strong-minded.”
At least Zimmer broke one streak last week. It was the first time in three weeks that he didn’t need to have a procedure to his right eye to repair the retina. Over the previous two weeks, he had two procedures and six needles stuck in his eye. On Wednesday, he triumphantly raised his fists over his head as he exited his press conference when asked if he was procedure-free this week.
Now if only Zimmer could be triumphant on the football field he might be able to give his eye a needed rest. Instead, he’s been grinding over film as hard as ever, increasing his already-draining office hours and trying to find a way to manufacture a win for a team staggered and dazed by injury.
“We’ve been fortunate with some of the other things that have happened in the league that we’re still in a good place. We can go out and win,” Zimmer said. “I know everybody thinks I’m crazy, but my goal is to win the division. So, go out and get some wins and get going again. That’s all.”
The Vikings still control their own destiny in the division race, tied with the Detroit Lions at 5-4 and playing them on Thanksgiving to try to even the tie-breaker. The difference is this Vikings team 10 weeks into the season isn’t the same one that started the season and the depth chart appears rubbed to the nub at offensive tackle.
At some point, that will likely catch up to them after losing (in order) Phil Loadholt, Mike Harris, Matt Kalil, Andre Smith and Jake Long there – five players for two spots all gone until at least 2017.
Zimmer termed himself a “fixer” when he was hired, and he has fixed the defense over the last two-plus years. However, the injuries to the offensive line might be too much to handle when facing the better teams in the league (of which the Vikings were one of them before the Bataan Death March of injuries).
Still, he’s managing the message to the players.
“I remind myself that we have good football players that will do good things. When we get the opportunities, we’re going to win games,” he said. “Don’t know when it is, but that’s our plan and that’s our mission.”
Veteran cornerback Terence Newman indicated the team just might not be as good as people thought during the tail end of their five-game winning streak but might not be in the dire straits observers feel after this four-game losing streak.
“To start the season, you guys were like, ‘Man, this team is like the ’85 Bears and all of this’ and I said, ‘Hey, it’s only five games.’ It’s a long season,” Newman said. “The good thing is we’re at the middle part of the marathon. It’s not a sprint. We just have to finish. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. We started well. We had a bad stretch. Now we’ve got to finish. We’ve got to finish and pull through this thing. We still have a chance to do that. But whether we will or not remains to be seen. I’m confident that we can get this thing turned around.”
But as the losses have mounted over the last month so has the pressure. Zimmer admitted he maybe tried to do too much last week against the Washington Redskins, and sending blitzes on 45 percent of defensive snaps was part of that. Players admitted to trying to do too much, as well.
The result was an atypical Zimmer defense. Players were out of position at times. Tackles were missed more often they should have been – Harrison Smith is credited by Pro Football Focus as having missed seven tackles in the last three weeks, or as many as he did all of last season.
“We do feel as a football team we’re pressing too hard,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “I can speak for the defense and it feels like we’re trying to make every play. We’re trying to go out there and we’re trying to do entirely too much and trying to make every play. We’ve got to calm down.”
Perhaps that’s why Zimmer allowed music to be blaring at practice for the first time this year during this week’s preparation for the Arizona Cardinals. He said he’s just trying to change things up, not necessarily a move to loosen up the players.
Right now the Vikings are the projected eighth seed in the six-team NFC playoffs, but there is plenty of time for that seeding to move up … or down. It’s up to them which way it goes.
The one thing that can’t be faulted is Zimmer’s effort in trying to fix it. He isn’t interested in letting his ailing right eye and questionable vision there take his focus off his team. He’s getting to work earlier – usually in the 4 a.m. hour – and staying late, sometimes even overnight.
Most wouldn’t consider it a healthy lifestyle, but getting back on the winning track would at least relieve the angst.
“We’ve got to put this fire out,” Munnerlyn said, “and start winning football games around here.”