A couple of newly crowned, first-team All-Pro defensive backs were bantering with a reporter at Winter Park about Sunday’s potentially epic playoff collision between Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Drew Brees and a top-ranked Vikings defense that seemingly has everything except postseason W’s and a nickname for the ages.
“We got a nickname, right?” said cornerback Xavier Rhodes, nodding to safety Harrison Smith. “They call us the ‘Grim Reapers,’ right?”
Not exactly, said Smith.
“It’s ‘Zim Reapers,’” Smith said of a nickname that is gaining momentum via social media and the Mike Zimmer Foundation’s sale of trademark shirts to raise money for Minnesota’s underprivileged youth.
“Oh,” Rhodes said as the play on words finally dawned on him.
Smith smiled, looked at the reporter and said, “You can tell how much we care about nicknames around here.”
The Vikings have bigger concerns heading into their NFC divisional round game against the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium. Nicknames aside, they would like to just earn their first playoff victory since Jan. 17, 2010, when a 34-3 rout of the Cowboys set up the franchise’s infamous 31-28 turnover-filled overtime loss at New Orleans in the NFC title game.
“I don’t think we can really talk about [nicknames and comparing] ourselves to great defenses without going forward and winning,” Smith said. “Everything we’ve worked for was to set us up for this opportunity in the postseason. Now, we have to take advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, after three straight 7-9 seasons, the Saints drafted four standout starters in the first three rounds, became historically balanced offensively with two backs each topping 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and used eight new defensive starters to go from 31st in points allowed (28.4) to 10th (20.4) this season. Since an 0-2 start that included a 29-19 Week 1 loss at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Saints have traded Adrian Peterson and gone 12-3, including last week’s 31-26 wild-card victory over the Panthers.
‘Z-fense’ favored by 4½
Several fans on Twitter and Facebook suggested “Z-fense” and “Purple Reign” as nicknames. “Purple Pillage People” was floated by Niechet Aaron Barnett on Facebook.
“Yeah, you see stuff on Twitter,” Smith said. “I’m not surprised we don’t have [a nickname]. We’re not really that type. If someone gives us one and it sticks, it’s cool. But you can’t give yourself a nickname. Plus, we just like to play football. We don’t care about the extra stuff.”
So how good is this defense?
Well, for starters, it led the league in points (15.8) and yards (275.9) for only the third time in franchise history. And in their past three games, all victories, the defense allowed an average of 3.3 points (Chicago’s lone touchdown was a punt return) and 200 yards while opposing quarterbacks completed just 48.6 percent of their passes.
Here’s another way to measure just how good this defense has been: In a pass-happy league where experienced quarterbacks become even more valuable in the postseason, Brees is a 4½-point underdog against … Case Keenum!?
Yes, Keenum — an undrafted, 29-year-old career journeyman — has shocked the league by playing all but six quarters of a 13-win season. But he will be making his career playoff debut against a still-in-his-prime 39-year-old Super Bowl-winning quarterback with 260 career starts, including 12 in the postseason.
“What makes him Drew Brees is he’s Drew Brees,” Rhodes said. “Accurate in his throws. Makes great decisions. Throws his receivers open. You can be on a guy tight, and he can still beat you.”
What’s scary is New Orleans won 11 games while purposefully becoming less reliant on Brees, who passed for fewer yards (4,334) than any season since 2005, when he was still with San Diego. But when Carolina stonewalled the Saints running game last week, Brees stomped on the gas and threw for 376 yards.
Purple People Eaters
Some of the greatest defensive nicknames in NFL history came during the 1960s and 1970s. The “Fearsome Foursome” in Los Angeles. The “Steel Curtain” in Pittsburgh. The “No-Name Defense” that helped Miami post the league’s only undefeated, untied season in 1972.
And, of course, the “Purple People Eaters” in Minnesota. Oh, how that defensive front of Jim Marshall, Alan Page, Gary Larsen and Carl Eller must have loved that nickname for the ages when it was bestowed upon them by the winner of a local radio contest in the late 1960s.
“We hated that nickname,” Marshall said. “We thought the more appropriate name for us would be the ‘Purple Gang.’ Not the Purple People Eaters. But it stuck.”
Did it ever. Forty-one years after the last of the Vikings’ four Super Bowl appearances, all generations have heard of the Purple People Eaters. Marshall, Page, Larsen and Eller played together from 1968 through the midway point of the 1974 season. Doug Sutherland stepped in for Larsen, and those four went another 3½ years together.
“What a lot of people today don’t know is they named us after a song that was going on at the time,” said Marshall, referring to a Sheb Wooley song written in 1958.
It was a catchy, cartoonish tune about a “one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater.”
“It was a goofy, silly song,” Marshall said. “We weren’t goofy and we weren’t silly.”
Another suggestion that arrived via Facebook from Tim Peterson: “The Artists Formerly Known as the Purple People Eaters.”
What say you, Mr. Marshall, 19-year former Viking?
“I don’t think nicknames are important,” he said. “All I know is their front four is very aggressive. They’re across the line quickly, and that messes a lot of things up on offense.
“I’m so very proud of the way this team has been playing this year. You know I still bleed purple.”
Win something first
On Twitter, @matthewkrier suggested we call them “The Acme Packing Closing Company.” Multiple people suggested “The Norse Force.” And, on Facebook, a man named Tim Peterson came armed with a good point and a bucket of ice water.
“Win something,” he wrote, “and then get back to me.”
The first Vikings defense to lead the league in fewest points and yards was in 1969. That team gave up only 9.5 points per game, advanced to Super Bowl IV and was routed 23-7 by the Chiefs as a 12-point favorite.
A year later, the Vikings again led the league in fewest points and yards. They went 12-2 and held opponents to 10.2 points per game, but still lost a divisional round game 17-14 at home to the 49ers.
(Purple Pessimists might want to turn away for this next part.)
The QB that year was Gary Cuozzo, a 29-year-old career journeyman who shocked the league while going 10-2. But in his playoff debut, he completed nine of 27 passes with two interceptions and a 33.9 passer rating.
(OK. Knock solidly on wood if you must and bring the Purple Pessimists back into the room.)
‘For the kids’
Zimmer’s daughter, Corri, runs the coach’s foundation. She said more than 1,000 “Zim Reapers” T-shirts and sweatshirts have been sold at $28 and $45 a pop.
“I think it fits because people are scared of our defense, to be honest,” she said. “[Zimmer] was kind of taken aback by [the nickname] because he doesn’t want it to be all about him. But he’ll always say, ‘You know what, it’s for the kids.’ That’s all that matters to him.”
Of course, for sales to improve, the Vikings need to actually win. Two more wins and, well, maybe the nickname and those T-shirts will share a portion of the Super Bowl LII stage in downtown Minneapolis in a few weeks.
“You can’t create a nickname for yourself,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “It has to come naturally. Right now, we just have guys who show up every day and want to win. We hold each other accountable and do the little things, the basic things no one talks about. That’s what makes us who we are.”
Offensive tackle Rashod Hill smiled when asked what nickname he would give the defense.
“They got some individual nicknames, like Everson [Griffen] is ‘Sack Daddy,’ and [Brian Robison] calls himself ‘White Lightning,’ ” Hill said. “I’m going to have to ask them why they don’t have a group name.
“Of course, someone will think of something if we win the Super Bowl. That’s the goal. But we all have a lot of work to do first.”