Mike Zimmer spent time this offseason trying to figure out what he could do better as a head coach. That process involved talking to other coaches and former coaches around the NFL.
It seemed, at first anyway, one of his focuses was making better use of his practice time, perhaps having his coaches spend more time with younger players and dismissing older players from the practice field sooner.
“I’m really taking a hard look at how we as the Vikings can change some things,” Zimmer said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I don’t take all the practice time, but we could practice for three hours. Well, we might practice for two hours – I don’t care anymore – I might practice two hours and another hour with some of these young guys to try to get these guys up to speed a little bit faster.”
Zimmer said during that conversation that offensive line and cornerback were the two hardest positions to transition from college to the NFL. The Vikings drafted two offensive linemen, center Patrick Elflein and guard Danny Isidora, in the first five rounds, and a defensive back, Jack Tocho, in the seventh round.
During the second and final week of Phase 1 of their offseason program last week, however, some players indicated that Zimmer wouldn’t be going any softer on them this year. In fact, Everson Griffen said “absolutely not.”
“The biggest thing he told me, ‘I think I took it easy on you guys. Just don’t forget I’ve got three hours to go out there and practice, so if I don’t like it in the hour-and-a-half, we’ve got three hours to practice.’ Hopefully the guys know that,” Griffen said. “We go out there and practice good each and every week, but we’ve just got to change our mentality and change our attitude and know that 8-8 isn’t good enough. We have to get back on track and that starts by winning those close games. We lost a lot of close games last year and we’ve got to figure out how to win those.”
More than likely, it means Zimmer is looking for strong focus during practices and holding the hammer of the full three hours if he doesn’t get that.
Phase 1 of the offseason program, which is limited to strength and conditioning and physical rehabilitation only, is over. That was the previous two weeks. The Vikings now have three weeks of Phase 2, in which on-field workouts can include individual player instruction and drills, as well as team practices conducted on a “separates” basis – no live contact or team offense vs. team defense drills are permitted.
This weekend, the Vikings also have their three-day rookie minicamp. May 23 marks the start of organized team activities, which are basically non-contact, full-team practices. That’s when things will start to fully integrate with the offense facing the defense for a portion of those sessions.
But throughout the ramp-up to that, Zimmer has been talking to his players.
“He just wants us to get back to doing what we do – being a physical football team, a blue-collar team,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “We’re not going to beat teams by 30 points. Usually it comes down to the wire with us and we have to execute in the late-game situations and I think as we continue to mature together you’ll see us be better in those critical moments.”
Until then, one of Griffen’s favorite catch phrases – grind – will be in play, but a softer, gentler Zimmer might not be.