As a general rule, Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer views a barrage of questions from the local media much in the same way an outdoorsman views an unexpectedly rousted up swarm of bees – you don’t run from them, but you don’t want to be around them and seek the quickest, easiest way to get away from their sting.
However, on Tuesday, Zimmer stepped on a one-man hive in play-by-play man Paul Allen and morning sports-talk host on the Vikings flagship station, KFAN. A litany of questions – at one point, Zimmer asks Allen if he had them written down – were joined by follow-up queries to openings.
Things started front-burner with a first-take assessment of new running back Latavius Murray. As would be expected, Zimmer was effusive with praise of the new featured back picking up the PT (Peterson Torch) and running with it.
“First of all, he’s a great kid,” Zimmer said. “Very knowledgeable. Obviously, he’s a big back – almost 6-3, 225. He’s got strength in his running game, power in his running game, catches the ball well out of the backfield and is a good pass protector and receiver.”
Asked what he liked about Murray’s particular skill set, it appeared as though Zimmer threw some veiled shade Peterson’s way when he was expounding on Murray’s strengths, which also were Peterson’s acknowledged weaknesses.
“His big-play ability, just being able to catch the ball, not having to substitute him on third downs,” Zimmer said. “I think a lot of those are big for him. Sam does a great job of getting the ball checked down when he needs to. I think he’s got a chance to do that. If we get him to continue to break tackles and make some long runs, that’s really what we’re looking for.”
When most fans heard about the Murray signing, all they seemed concerned with was his fantasy stats and his history as a goal-line touchdown sniper. But, what Zimmer and the offensive coaching staff like best about Murray is his willingness to do the critical dirty work on third down when blitzes are coming and the running back has to neutralize them before they get to the quarterback.
Zimmer pointed out that, while it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, Murray does some of his best work when others are putting up yardage numbers, because he knows the complicated role of being a blocker.
“There’s a couple elements to that,” Zimmer said. “Number one is knowing where the pressure is coming from. Typically that back has more than one guy in protection. He may have three or four different guys and he has to pick out the one that has to come. He has to be knowledgeable in that. Then being able to step up in there and take out a big linebacker or big safety that’s blitzing.”
It was at this point, that the questioning went scattergun – to the point where Zimmer said he felt like he was being interviewed by staccato stream-of-consciousness catch-all radio personality of yesteryear Paul Harvey. Zimmer couldn’t wait to hear, “Paul Allen…(wait for it)…(wait for it)…good day!?”
The topic of injured defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd came up. There was speculation that, if not for a leg injury that has sidelined him since September, the Vikings might not have picked up the fifth-year option on Floyd.
Does Floyd have the potential to be a key ingredient to the 2017 Vikings defense?
“That’s up to Sharrif,” Zimmer said. “He’s trying to get healthy. He’s got this thing in his leg – I don’t know if I should get too specific with it. We’re just waiting for it to get healthy. If that’s the case, then I think he can have a good year.”
Without naming names, Allen switched the topic to wide receiver. Having lost two receivers in free agency, do the Vikings need more help at the position and will that happen in the draft?
“I do think we need more receivers,” Zimmer said. “I think it would be important for us to get some guys who can stretch the field a bit. It’s not saying I don’t feel good about the guys we have, but we lost a couple in free agency and we’re going to have to add one or two maybe.”
Staying on offense, the line of questioning turned to the line – locking down offensive tackles Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers. Allen asked if they were the legitimate tough guys Zimmer tends to prefer and how he thinks they will help an offensive line that was crushed by injury in 2016.
“I think they’re tough, smart guys,” Zimmer said. “They’re going to fight you all day long. The one thing I was impressed with Remmers, even though there were times he got beat, he changes up his sets all the time – just the way he uses his hands. He’s going to fight you all day long. Reiff is the same way. His versatility – being able to play the left or the right if something happens – I think that’s a big bonus. He’s a tough guy. I think they’re both smart, tough guys that will add some physicality to our offensive line.”
Ahead in the pitch count, Allen threw a curveball that Zimmer likely was prepared to see from the plate, he just didn’t know on which pitch it was coming.
When Rhett Ellison signed away by the New York Giants, professional sports dad Riki Ellison, perhaps trying to keep pace with LeVar Ball, claimed the Vikings had “toxic leadership,” which wouldn’t fall far from the feet of Zimmer.
Asked to respond, Zimmer was quite candid about the lack of follow-up conversation.
“I tried to call him actually,” Zimmer said. “Unfortunately, he didn’t return my call. I’m trying to get to where his comments were made, but he didn’t see fit to call me back.”
Pulling a classic Monty Python interview style – and now for something completely different – Allen delved into the defense. With Chad Greenway now leading Crew 52 seeking Super Bowl volunteers, there is a vacancy at his weakside (Will) linebacker position. Will the Vikings consider joining the growing trend of putting a hybrid linebacker/safety (The Artist Formerly Known As a ‘Tweener) on the field as a regular position in a defense.
Would Zimmer consider using a hybrid safety like Deone Bucannon is used in Arizona?
“I think that’s part of what’s coming into the league now and we have to be adapt and adjust with it,” Zimmer said. “There are some big safeties in the draft this year. That position – the Will linebacker – is a spot, for us anyway, that is usually covered up by the three-technique and it’s a guy who can run and hit a little bit more. He doesn’t have to run and take on as many guys. I do think that’s a possibility. A lot of times, depending on who the linebacker is, that guy is not in the nickel defense anyway.”
The discussion took a 10-step move inside in the middle of Zimmer’s beloved defense. Would he sign off on moving Eric Kendricks outside and put SEC tackling machine Kentrell Brothers in the middle for the base set?
Zimmer seemed to endorse the move, but it was tinged with a “tap the brakes” overview of making such a dramatic defensive shift in policy.
“Kentrell showed a lot of good things this year, special teams especially,” Zimmer said. “He played very well in that role. He did a nice job on the scout team and when we had practices. I think that’s what he is – probably a two-down Mike linebacker. Eric can play any position. I’m not sure moving him right now is the best thing. I thought he played very, very well for us this last season. He’s a playmaker and if you do put him at Will linebacker, he’s probably not going to make as many plays as he does when he’s playing the Mike.”
Watching the interview bobber submerge for a second, Allen moved to the third level of the defense with a question on whether Mackensie Alexander will be Bachelor No. 1 in the assignment of replacing Captain Munnerlyn’s role in the defense.
“Yes,” Zimmer said. “What he does with it is up to him.”
Answers do get shorter, but not many.
Shifting gears – from fourth to second – the topic changed to pro days. Where are you going? What are you looking for?
Zimmer is going to be taking the tour of the Big Ten. Later Tuesday, he went to Michigan State Pro Day. He will be at the Ohio State gaudy pro day today and will hook up with Michigan megalomaniac Jim Harbaugh on Thursday.
“The number one thing I’m looking for in most of the players – not every position obviously – is how fast can they get from Point A to Point B,” Zimmer said. “The acceleration when someone tells them to go somewhere or go do something, how fast can they get from Point A to Point B. The other thing I’m always curious to find out is how they interact with the other players out there, how they interact with the coaches when a coach is putting them through the drills – and sometimes it’s me – how they listen, if they pay attention, how they take to the coaching. When I work them out, even when I’m not working them out, I go in there and tell them what I want them to do and see if they’ll do it.”
At this time of year, local media appearances are rare for Zimmer. Fortunately for the rest of us, Allen took care of questions across the spectrum.