In his first season as the Vikings head coach, Mike Zimmer saw his star running back get suspended and his rookie quarterback ushered into action because of an injury. His second season was a stirring rise to an NFC North title. In his third, Zimmer led a team through three starting QBs in 21 days, nine different starting offensive linemen and two offensive coordinators — all while dealing with a detached retina that caused him to miss the first game of his NFL career.
He couldn’t be faulted for pining for a bit of normalcy in Year 4. But in true Zimmer fashion, he spent more time this offseason working for change than wishing for it.
The Vikings have four new starting offensive linemen and a three-man running back crew as they seek to improve the NFL’s 32nd-ranked run game. Zimmer introduced a new practice period to help a team that lost four games by six points or fewer manage end-of-game situations. And the coach who made his reputation as a defensive mastermind spent more time with the Vikings offense this summer, in an effort to broaden his skill-set as a leader and establish relationships across the roster.
As the Vikings prepared for Monday night’s season opener against the New Orleans Saints, Zimmer sat down with Star Tribune Vikings beat writer Ben Goessling last week to discuss his outlook on the 2017 season.
Q You talked a little bit this summer about wanting to get back to being more blue-collar. How do you feel the group did with that?
A I think we’ve got the right kind of guys here. I think — and a lot of this is still, we have to prove it — but I feel like we’re going to run the football better. I think that’s kind of where it all starts. I feel like we played the run better in the preseason, defensively. That’s kind of where it starts: the mentality there.
Q The run defense, I suppose, has been a sticking point at various times over the past three years. What gives you the impression it’s going to be better this year?
A Just throughout the preseason, I think we’ve done a nice job with the linebackers, and we’ve done a nice job with the defensive line. I don’t know; I just feel like, from what I’ve seen in the preseason thus far, with the group that is probably going to be playing, I feel like it’s improved.
Q You guys have more new faces this year [than at any point in your tenure], and you’re younger than you’ve been in a while. What does all that youth do for a team and for you as a coach?
A Well, there’s pluses and minuses, obviously. But last year, we kept a lot of the veteran guys that we’ve had here, and it didn’t finish the way we wanted it to finish. So we felt like we needed to get some new blood in, get some young guys and kind of maybe start fresh.
Q I remember you talked in the summer about how a lot of head coaches don’t get the time to learn the job and get better because of that. Now that you’ve had three years, how has that time helped you as a head coach?
A Well, the one thing I learned is probably that you just can’t be involved with the defense. You have to manage more of the game. The game management part is obviously more important — not more important, but you spend more time on that part. It’s not just about the Xs and the Os anymore; it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes and trying to get them to understand what things are important, how to try to build a team. And then dealing with all the other stuff you have to deal with. The other part is a little bit of time management. You’re trying to divide your time up in a lot of different areas.
Q On that front, you talked this summer about how you’re a better coach when you’re more spread out. Does that change going into the season, or do you keep that same philosophy heading into the year?
A Well, it’s important — I’ve messed around with some of the stuff in the preseason, but it’s important that we continue to play well defensively. I mean, I have a much better understanding of the offense, and things like that. I have a much better relationship with [Sam] Bradford, and really, all the offensive guys, probably than I ever have in the three years I’ve been here. But at the end of the day, I still have to put my mark on where I think needs it.
Q Do you plan to hang on to the play-calling duties on defense, for the most part?
A I mean, we’ll see. I know what I’m going to do.
Q I’m just kind of curious, because you’ve talked about how that’s your baby, in a lot of ways.
A Yeah, it’s my baby.
Q Would it be hard to give that up, if you end up [not calling plays]?
A Well, yeah. If we don’t play good on defense, I’m going to feel like I didn’t give the best chance to the team.
Q With the switches on offense, you have almost a completely new coaching staff there and a lot of guys in different roles. How do you feel that group has worked together?
A I think they’ve been great. The communication is good. They want to do things that I want them to do. If I make a suggestion, they want to try to do it, or look at it at least, almost to a fault sometimes.
Q Are you over there now more than you were in the past?
A Yeah — I mean, a lot more in the spring. I may not be over there as much this fall, but in the spring, I was in the offensive room a lot. I was sitting in the offensive line meetings a lot. I’ve been in the offensive team meetings and talked to them a lot. You try to divide your time up where it’s needed.
Q What’s the biggest thing you want to see change about the offense?
A Obviously, running the football. I feel good about our play-actions. I feel good about the offensive line. Are we going to struggle at times? Sure. Are we going to get beat sometimes? Yeah. But these guys are fighters. I think we’ve got a good nucleus of the things we’re trying to do offensively, whether it’s running the football, play-actions, the shots down the field. I feel like we have a good nucleus of that.
Q Who do you feel are the leaders of the offense?
A Well, the captains on offense are [Kyle] Rudolph, Riley Reiff and Bradford. So those guys, in their own different ways, kind of how they are.
Q When Adrian [Peterson] was such a central point of the offense for as long as he was, was he kind of a leader in the offense? Did you look at him that way?
A I don’t know. I’m not going to talk about past players.
Q I’m just curious how it changes the offense, since he was such a focal point of it for so long.
Q Is this one of the more experienced defenses you’ve had, in terms of guys that have been here for a while with you?
A I don’t know. When we were in Dallas, we had a lot of guys that were there for a long time, and the same thing in Cincinnati. This is their fourth year, and most of them — not all of them — but a lot of them have been here.
Q When you have new guys on defense, how do the experienced players help new guys get acclimated to things?
A Well, a little bit, it depends on the player. Some guys don’t need as much help as others, and some guys need more. But I think that those guys can explain things to them in a different way than I explain it to them, or [defensive coordinator] George [Edwards] explains it to them.
Q How do you feel the division stacks up and how do you feel you guys sit in the division?
A Obviously, Green Bay is really good, and Detroit is really good. Chicago, I think they’ve gotten a lot better. I think it’s a great division. It’s hard for me to say where we stack up. That’s why we play the games.
Q You’ve talked about how you have a lot of people counting on you to succeed and to deliver. Does the way last year ended put any more of an emphasis on that?
A No, I think that’s the same every year. I mean, I understand the fans and the media and the outside people, they all look at the last 11 games, and we can go back through five or six of them, that, coulda, woulda, shoulda, whatever. But I still look at the personnel, the players, the things we have in place, the things we’ve added, and kind of the makeup of them. The fans remember the games in November, but I have to remember all of them.
Q With some of the close games you mentioned, you lost a few of them last year, you won a lot of them the year before. What have you learned from those as a coach, from a game-management perspective?
A Well, I mean, some of it probably was game management, but I tried to put the team in a lot of those situations in the offseason. That’s really what I tried to do, so the first time we go into that situation, it’s not new for them. They’ve been through several of these areas. That doesn’t mean they’re going to play it out the right way, or somebody’s not going to make a play to win the game. But they’ve been in those pressure situations for, I don’t know how many times now — 20-some times. I’m trying to put them in game-ending situations, really, at the end of the day. It’s caused them to think about this situation, and, “OK — what’s the offense trying to do? What’s the defense trying to do? For special teams, what are we trying to do here?”