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This season could define Mike Zimmer’s career as a head coach

Dec 18, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer looks on during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium. The Colts defeated the Vikings 34-6. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Zimmer’s last press conference of Minicamp was a reminder of the Good Old Days of his tenure as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

Zimmer talked for 19 minutes with the same comfort as he would sitting on the back deck in July with charcoal smoke in the air. And despite a salty disposition toward a media he believes turned on him, Zimmer still opened up when asked about perspective he gained reflecting on last season’s collapse.

“It takes awhile to learn how to do this job, it really does,” Zimmer said. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but there’s a guy in New England that’s doing pretty damn good now that might have had a rough start…so that’s kind of my mentality, to continue to grow.”

That summertime chat with coach Zim was the type that endeared him to Minnesota and that had been missing since the Vikings’ ship started to take on water in November (and ultimately sunk in December). In the Good Old Days – the stretch of games where he went 16-5 in the regular season and was a Blair Walsh shank away from a playoff win – he’d been considered tough and straightforward, not abrasive or frustrated.

The return of Good Old Days Zimmer might be a sign that he’s put last year behind him. Or it might be a way of appearing confident and cool heading into a 2017 season that could make or break him.

We tend to remember the beginning of the Vikings’ downward spiral as the bye week. They had demolished Houston in Week 5, then Zimmer supposedly attempted some type of motivational tactic involving stuffed animals, then crushed his team in the media after a loss to the Eagles and everything fell apart after that. But that version isn’t exactly right.

After a gut-punch loss in Chicago, Norv Turner resigned and Zimmer had his first eye surgery to repair a torn retina. But the Good Old Days Zimmer was making appearances because the Vikings’ head coach is an optimistic man who always believes he can just keep working until things go his way. If he wasn’t, Zim would have given up his goal to be a head coach long ago. Even after Teddy Bridgewater, his QB-for-life, went down with a potentially career-threating injury, Zimmer ultimately reverted to, “the sun will come up tomorrow.”

On November 3, a few days after the Soldier Field debacle, Zimmer told a great story about how his disposition came to be:

“I feel the roller coaster ride,” Zimmer riffed. “I was telling the coaches earlier today, we won the Super Bowl in Dallas my second year there, we were 6-1, we played San Francisco at home, Elvis Gerbac was the quarterback because Young was out. The first play was minus-2, then the second play was an 82-yard touchdown to Jerry Rice and they beat the heck out of us. Now this is a long story…

“So we’re going out to play the Raiders the next week and they’ve got all these fast wide receivers and we think if we don’t beat them, we’re fired. We go out there, play great and we win. We kind of mill around the whole season. Then (receiver) Kevin Williams on 3rd-and-12 makes an unbelievable catch laying out to put us in the playoffs. So we’re going to Arizona on Monday night, we don’t have home field advantage, the team was just kind of meh, we go in there and on the way out there, on the flight out San Francisco loses. So if we win Monday night, we get home field advantage. We got off the plane and it was a different team. We go in there, beat the heck out of Arizona, it was 42-7 or something like that. Then we played Philadelphia at home, beat them, we get Green Bay at home, beat them and then we win the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh. At the end of the year, regardless of what happens, I went in the locker room and said, ‘my god that was nuts.’ So I get it, that’s how this thing works. We’re not the only team to have ups and downs, every team has those, it’s the NFL.”

But even the most hardened of believers in any philosophy will start to question themselves when they can’t catch a break. Zimmer caught none in the second half of 2016.

First it was Norv and the eye, then it was injuries, then more Blair Walsh, then the referees on the final play against Dallas, then it was the players appearing to go against Zimmer on Christmas Even in Green Bay. All the while, the Good Old Days coach faded into a state of irritation with both media and players – and likely extreme discomfort caused by several more eye surgeries.

Now Zimmer’s eye is better – especially after a team-ordered break at his ranch in Kentucky. The team is better – especially on the offensive line and in the backfield. Zimmer says he’s learned a lot after spending some of his offseason soul searching and picking successful coaches’ brains. The Adrian Peterson distraction is gone.

All the excuses/explanations for why 2016 crashed and burned are out of the way and the pressure is at its peak during Zimmer’s tenure.

People who work in downtown Minneapolis aren’t particularly happy this summer dealing with construction on every corner. Projects are on a tight deadline as preparations for hosting the Super Bowl are in full force.

There’s an argument to be made that 2017 is one of the most important seasons in Vikings history.

Not only are they hosting America’s biggest sporting event and looking to bounce back from an opening season at US Bank Stadium that was wrought with disappointment and Deadspin headlines, but by the end of 2017, the Vikings will also have answers about their quarterback, coach and GM.

After two years of Sam Bradford, we should all have a good feel for whether he’s the long-term quarterback. After four seasons of this coach/GM combination, three of which have come with strong rosters, ownership should know whether they want to continue down this path. There’s a huge difference in the NFL between one playoff appearance and zero wins in four years and two playoff games and the hype of having a shot at playing the Super Bowl at home – even if it’s just for one postseason week.

If this season is like last season, it will sting much more because of the spotlight.

And there’s no patience in the NFL – especially when the team has been built to be a contender over years of drafts and a first-round pick was traded for the starting quarterback.

As dire as that all may sound, success with the Vikings would be as sweet as failure would be devastating. While Zimmer’s 11-5 season already proved that he is able to lead a winning team, he will have an opportunity this season to earn long-term job security and solidify his legacy as the coach who shouldn’t have been overlooked.

The incredible range of potential outcomes for Zimmer and the Vikings in 2017 makes this season and the build up quite fascinating. Over the next month of training camp, we will be looking for any signs pointing in the direction of a return of the Good Old Days or a 2016 redux. Whichever way it goes will shape Zimmer’s future.


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