While Zimmer accepted some of the blame for the 2016 season that swirled southward, he wasn’t sure yet where he needs to improve and the extent of it.
“There’s a lot of things. Really, No. 1, is soul searching, a lot of the things I have to do better with,” he said Tuesday at his season wrap-up press conference. “Some of it is, there’s a couple game-management situations I could have done a better job in. Honestly, I put this on myself, what happened there, that I wasn’t able to pull this team out of that slump when we got in that slump.”
Zimmer faced his share of challenges from the start of preseason to the end of the regular season.
Starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending injury before the regular season ever started. The Vikings traded for Sam Bradford. Star running back Adrian Peterson was lost for all but 12 more plays after Week 2, the same week that starting left tackle Matt Kalil was lost for the season. Two weeks later, starting right tackle Andre Smith suffered his own season-ending injury. Several weeks after that, offensive coordinator Norv Turner resigned. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd joined the parade of first-round draft picks that were lost for the season, a list that also included free-agent signee Jake Long by midseason.
But Zimmer said he won’t use injuries as excuses.
“Regardless of all the things that happen – injuries, all that other stuff – they’re just excuses,” Zimmer said. “When we started out and we lost a couple games, I wasn’t able to get them over the hump. That falls on top of me, and I have to figure out the reasons why and how, if it ever happens again, I can get it redirected quicker.”
No doubt injuries played a part in the demise. Veteran defensive lineman Brian Robison was among the players that indicated that eventually the accumulation of talent on injured reserve helped bring down a once-promising season. But before Zimmer took some responsibility for the collapse, Robison also said the coach may put too much on himself.
“I think he puts everything into it every day, every week. I feel like he was the same guy. I feel like he did everything he could to pull us out of the funk we were in. And I think at times he even put more pressure on himself than what he needed to,” Robison said. “I think he did a great job of coaching us. I think he did a great job of preparing us. I just think when you look over the course of the first five weeks, what we were able to do and then the injury bug started hitting us and things like that, a lot of times there’s adversity and you fight through the adversity and you keep fighting, eventually sometimes it catches up to you and I feel like that was the case this year.”
Zimmer credited the players for continuing to fight and study and work hard.
While there may be questions about whether Zimmer works his players too hard, Robison said Zimmer has a “good understanding” of balancing hard work with overdoing it. But for Zimmer himself, there is little familiarity with letting off the pedal, as witnessed by him working through four procedures to try to correct his detached retina and missing only game. That came the night after the surgery that deemed an “emergency.”
“You’ve seen very few times where he’s had a little bit of a soft side, but it’s about winning ballgames. It’s about going out there and putting your best foot forward. It’s about working harder than the opposing team. That’s what he preaches to us every single day,” Robison said.
“I think he does a great job as far as understanding what he needs to do with his team. Even further, what he needs to do with individual players. He understand that there’s times they need to be pushed to the max and then there’s times, especially late in the season when a team is as beat up as we are, of taking care of us. Having a little bit different schedule, taking care of us, things like that. It just sucks that we weren’t able to put our best foot forward and take care of him in the same way.”
Zimmer said his self-scout soul-searching isn’t about “managing players” when it comes to pushing them; rather, he thinks it might help to change practice schedules depending on game schedules.
However, he already changes the schedule later in the season in an attempt to get the players off the field sooner on some practice days.
“Players know I’m going to be me all the time around them. I have to be smarter in other situations,” he said.
Some of things he will consider: Additional changes to the practice schedule and how and when to push them harder.
“I’m responsible for getting these players where they need to go,” he said. “That’s what leadership is, is taking a group of people somewhere they haven’t been before, and I haven’t done that yet.
“It will be our mission to get this thing fixed to be where we need to go.”