MINNEAPOLIS – Mike Zimmer’s wait to get an NFL head coaching job finally came to an end on Jan. 15, 2014, when the Vikings gave him the opportunity that at least six other teams in the league hadn’t.
A well-respected defensive coordinator in the NFL since 2000, Zimmer had been passed over for coaching jobs after interviews with the Rams, Browns, Dolphins, Buccaneers, Chargers and Titans, not to mention University of Nebraska.
It got so bad that Zimmer came close to turning down a second interview with the Vikings because he thought it would only end in another disappointment.
“It was like, ‘Why even do this?’” Zimmer told Fox Sports in the spring of 2014. “It was to that point. I figured I was getting too old. I thought, ‘Forget this.’ But I talked to a couple of people who said, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go. What are you doing?”
Zimmer and the Vikings owe those people a debt of gratitude. The Vikings also would be wise to send those six NFL teams a thank you note.
In his second season after taking over a franchise that had lost its direction, the 59-year-old Zimmer guided the Vikings to their first playoff berth since 2012 on Sunday night. Playing against a New York Giants team that had been eliminated from the playoff picture, and showed little interest in playing in the Minnesota cold, the Vikings cruised to a 49-17 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Vikings will have an opportunity to win their first NFC North title since 2009, when they play the extremely vulnerable Green Bay Packers next Sunday night at Lambeau Field.
“If you would’ve told me in July that we have a chance, last game of the year on January 3rd to play for a division title, I would’ve been excited about it,” Zimmer said. “It’s still going to come down to executing, and doing things right. We’ve played well on the road this year, but we haven’t beat Green Bay. Something we’ve got to get done.”
There will be plenty of buildup for that game. But it’s also worth reflecting on what Zimmer has managed to do in a short time before looking ahead.
The Vikings finished 5-10-1 in Leslie Frazier’s final season as coach in 2013 and then went 7-9 in Zimmer’s first season. The record wasn’t impressive, except for the fact that star running back Adrian Peterson played in only one game before being sidelined because of a child-abuse charge.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, one of the Vikings’ two first-round picks in 2014, was forced into action far earlier than expected when veteran Matt Cassel was lost because of injury in the third game of the season.
Zimmer’s team easily could have fallen apart, but that did not happen. There was a mental toughness to this organization that hadn’t been seen in several years in part because Zimmer is a defensive guy and teams built on defense aren’t soft.
The Vikings will enter the regular-season finale with a 10-5 record, their most victories since going 10-6 in 2012 before losing in a first-round playoff game at Lambeau Field.
“He set the team as a physical, disciplined team and he emphasizes that every day at meetings,” guard Brandon Fusco said. “I think it’s just rubbing off on everyone. He’s going to coach us up, yell at us, all he has to do. But I think it’s for the best. He’s a guy you want to play for. A hard-nosed coach. …. He’s just a guy that you really want to work hard for.”
One thing Zimmer has mentioned frequently this season are the discussions he has with his former boss, Bill Parcells. Zimmer was Parcells’ defensive coordinator in Dallas.
Their friendship makes it somewhat remarkable that the Vikings did not find Zimmer sooner.
To say that Vikings owner Zygi Wilf and team president Mark Wilf are obsessed with Parcells might be an understatement. The brothers grew up rooting for the New York Giants and it was Parcells who returned the Giants to championship status in the 1980s.
After buying the Vikings, Zygi Wilf often talked about wanting to own a franchise that was as consistently successful as the Giants. Wilf did not want a team that rode a roller-coaster on a yearly basis. Yet, that’s exactly what he seemed to have under Brad Childress and then Frazier.
General manager Rick Spielman deserves credit for hiring Zimmer, but it’s Zimmer who gives you the feeling that for the first time under this ownership group the Vikings will be able to achieve sustainable success. This doesn’t seem like a fluke and that’s because Zimmer has a plan.
“His second year being a head coach, I think he’s better,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who found himself in hot water at times last season because he didn’t always play the system that Zimmer wanted. “Me, as a player, I feel like I’m better. If you look at his track record, he always turns defenses around. That’s something he does and he’s a great coach.”
There is still work to be done. For the most part, the Vikings’ victories this season have come against teams they should beat and not upper-echelon clubs.
Zimmer’s team will get a chance to alter that thinking a bit next week at Lambeau. A victory over Green Bay would end the Vikings’ five-game losing skid against the Packers – the winless streak is at six if you include a tie in 2013 – and would be another step in the right direction.
The best part if you’re a Vikings fan is that your team is playoff bound and yet still climbing the mountain.
The Vikings have Zimmer, and the six teams that passed on him, to thank for that.