The last meaningful game played in the NFL was a spectacle, a boondoggle, an advertisement encouraging tourists to avoid Minnesota in February and, to Mike Zimmer, an affront. At least, he should have taken it that way.
In Super Bowl BRRR, played blessedly inside U.S. Bank Stadium, a former high school coach won the Lombardi Trophy with a journeyman backup quarterback and a roster more notable for depth than exceptional talent.
Doug Pederson beat Bill Belichick, who lugged another team to another Super Bowl with an average roster propped up by his brain and Tom Brady’s arm.
These acts of coaching genius left Zimmer looking more like an applicant to, rather than a member of, the NFL’s VIP coaching lounge. He can earn entry by proving himself in 2018.
Zimmer already has proved his worth as a builder and a teacher. He has improved the Vikings’ quality of play steadily over his four seasons, with only devastating offensive line injuries in 2016 interrupting an otherwise steady climb.
He can teach a raw athlete to play the game. He can scheme, and identify talent. He has instilled toughness like a true Bill Parcells disciple, and has won despite injuries that have subtracted three starting quarterbacks in four seasons if you count Matt Cassel, and why not be charitable?
But January and February did his reputation no favors. Not if he is going to become, to a deliriously desperate fan base, The One.
In the divisional playoffs and the first postseason game at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings took a 17-0 halftime lead over the Saints. Given that Zimmer was dueling with an excellent offensive coach, one of the most prolific passers in NFL history and a dangerous backfield, this was a tour de force performance, in front of a tinnitus-inducing crowd.
What could go wrong? asked everyone unfamiliar with Vikings history.
In the second half, Saints coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees broke Zimmer’s code. While Zimmer became passive, the Saints scored 24 second-half points to take a 24-23 lead late in the fourth quarter.
If Saints safety Marcus Williams had tackled Stefon Diggs, the game would have become the latest in an unconscionable list of playoff failures. In the NFC Championship Game, Zimmer’s team proved much more proactive, beginning its collapse in the first quarter.
Remember, the Vikings scored a touchdown on their first drive, providing an indication that crowd noise and pressure were not obstacles. It was their own undisciplined play that doomed them, as Zimmer’s defense extended its streak of terrible play to five important quarters.
With the Vikings’ season scheduled to begin next Sunday, Zimmer stands on the sharp end of a tipping point. He has been given a franchise quarterback. His owners have funded a talented roster and a world-class training facility. His general manager has given him a defense that looks like it could win a tug-of-war or a track meet.
The Vikings are loaded with talent, and experience, even if the latter is bitter.
Longtime Vikings fans will recognize the trail signs: A talented defensive line, mobile linebackers, a great safety, a (probably) prolific passing game and big-game frustration. Other coaches have done more with less, and two of them spent a February afternoon in Minneapolis.
Zimmer is set up to win big, which means he is set up to be blamed if he doesn’t. Vikings coaches have been here before, leaving us with memories of missed kicks and 12-man penalties.
Those five quarters in January sharpened the tipping point of Zimmer’s career.
Is he The One?
Or is he merely the latest?