The Minnesota Vikings knew head coach Mike Zimmer wanted to be coaching them on the field Thursday night. Instead, about 12 hours removed from emergency surgery to repair a detached retina, Zimmer made a quick appearance Thursday morning at the team hotel.
That night, the Vikings lost a two-point heartbreaker to the team with the best record in the NFL, the now 11-1 Dallas Cowboys.
“They fought to the bitter end and I know Coach Zimmer would have been very, very proud of them,” interim coach Mike Priefer said after the 17-15 loss. “Obviously, my thoughts and prayers go out to him and a speedy recovery. I know as tough as he is, he’ll be back before long. We’ll get this thing righted and keep fighting, try everything we can to win that next game and keep plugging away from there.”
Priefer, the special teams coordinator, was tabbed as the replacement for Zimmer because general manager Rick Spielman, Zimmer and others viewed that as the least disruptive way to operate Thursday night.
It allowed defensive coordinator George Edwards to make his debut as a defensive play-caller and he proved more than capable as the Vikings held an explosive, sometimes overpowering offense that had been averaging over 400 yards a game to 264 yards.
It allowed Pat Shurmur, a former head coach, to continue calling the offensive plays that have been part of his duties since Norv Turner resigned in November.
It allowed another former head coach, Tony Sparano, to continue to desperately seek ways to plug the holes in a leaky offensive line.
Zimmer was told to listen to the game at home and give his right eye the rest it probably should have received after the first of his three procedures on the eye in the span of one month. But since Zimmer was taken into surgery Wednesday night after his vision started to regress quickly after a final team walk-through on Wednesday afternoon, he wanted a chance to address the team at the hotel in advance of their game.
“It was pretty short, but he just wanted to let us know that he wasn’t going to be able to be here with us tonight. And if there was any possible way that he could be there, that he would be here,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I think we all know that and just go out there and play hard.”
Minnesota had a shot to become the first team to beat the Cowboys since Week 1 of the season, but eventually many of the same problems that have plagued the Vikings all season came back to haunt them – penalties at key moments, lack of scoring touchdowns and a close-but-no-payoff ending.
Priefer said he talked game strategy with Zimmer Thursday morning.
“He has an imprint on everything that we do – offense, defense and special teams. I just spoke with him briefly this morning because he came in and talked to the team. It was tough for him,” Priefer said. “It was really tough to see his emotion knowing that he wouldn’t be there with the team tonight. It would have been hard for me, because he’s such a competitor. That’s why I love working for him. He’s a tough guy, he’s a competitor and it would have been awesome to have him here (Thursday night).”
Players knew that Zimmer was doing the right thing by not coaching on Thursday night. He was told a month ago that loss of vision in his right eye was a possibility if he didn’t have surgery then. He did, but he returned to the office that day to watch film and prepare for the next game plan. He did that again a week later. This time, Spielman said he had a heart-to-heart talk with Zimmer, telling him that his vision was more important than one NFL game.
For now, the Vikings hope one game is all he misses, but it’s too soon to know that. The team has 10 days before their next game and has time off until Tuesday. His message to the team on Thursday morning made an impact.
“It was emotional. Coach Zimmer is competitive and wants to go to war,” running back Jerick McKinnon said. “Not having him on the sidelines was tough and he spoke to the team, which was tough as well seeing him like that. We wanted to come out and win for him tonight and not being able to do that is just frustrating. That was the biggest thing for everybody on the team, trying to get this win for Coach Zim. Coming up short, I am pretty sure everybody took it pretty tough.”
Zimmer has a follow-up appointment on Friday that will likely be the first step in determining if he will return to the team next week. For now, the team waits to see when Zimmer will return to the sideline.
“He did a great job with the team this morning, he really did. It was very, like I said, difficult for him to do, but I’m proud of him that he stood up there and told the team what he had to tell them,” Priefer said. “I think he did the right thing. He’s stubborn and tough, but at the end of the day, your eye, you could lose the use of your eye – that’s crazy. I’m glad he stayed home and again I wish we could have done more to get him the victory.”
That was the basic sentiment from everyone.
“It was tough. We miss Coach Zimmer and he will be back shortly,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “He has to deal with himself and deal with his eye. We missed him today, but we fought for him, and we fought for the guy next to us.”