There is no more overused word in sports than “culture.”
Every new coach wants to change it, every team that wins cites it as the top reason they were victorious, but the word is so nebulous that is can mean whatever you want it to mean at a given time. Normally in sports having good or bad culture equates more or less to having good or bad players. And sometimes in the NFL, you can have bad culture and win anyway because of a great quarterback.
But in the case of the Minnesota Vikings under head coach Mike Zimmer, the team has built a culture that appears to be impacting players’ decisions to stay with the organization.
During minicamp, new quarterback Kirk Cousins alluded to such an effect, citing a conversation with linebacker Eric Kendricks, who signed a five-year, $50 million contract this offseason.
“When I talked to Eric Kendricks and congratulated him on signing his extension, he said, ‘Kirk, really, I decided to sign and I wanted to be here because it’s all about winning here. There’s no other agendas. Let’s just win football games,'” Cousins said. “He looked at me and said, ‘you’ll see, you’ll see when we get there in the season and you’ll know.’ It’s great to hear that from a team leader like that, and minicamp reflects that. I felt that quite a bit day in and day out, and it’s why they’ve won in the past. Hopefully it gives us a great chance to win in the future.”
In a conference call to announce his deal, Kendricks talked about how the atmosphere impacted his choice to stick around.
“I just don’t come in to work, I’m never upset coming in to work,” he said. “I’m just always happy. Smile on my face, because I feel like I have a bunch of guys who are just like-minded, want to get the same things done as me.”
While Kendricks’ deal matched up with his likely market value if he hit free agency next season, defensive end Danielle Hunter agreed to sign on for a much more reasonable price than he would have gotten if he had left the Vikings after 2018. He also pointed to his teammates as a reason for inking a deal early.
“We build a bond together on defense,” Hunter said, “We go out there, we know we’re brothers. We fight together. We do our assignments. On and off the field we’re really, really close, so it really means a lot.”
Hunter was one of three players without contracts past 2018 that attended the team’s offseason activities and mandatory minicamp. Around the league, a number of stars like Aaron Donald and Earl Thomas chose to sit out.
“For one thing, all these guys, they like to be around each other,” Zimmer said. “So, I think that’s part of it. We’ve got a lot of really good guys on this football team that care about not just them, but they care about each other. It’s kind of just the way we do things.”
“It makes it easier when you’ve got good guys,” Zimmer continued. “It’s not like pulling teeth all the time. You get guys that come out here and want to work. They want to get better, they’re good teammates in the locker room. Honestly, that part, for me, has not been that difficult. We’ve got the right kind of guys here.”
Kendricks and Hunter aren’t the only players recently to agree to stick around. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, pass rusher Everson Griffen and nose tackle Linval Joseph all signed extensions last offseason.
Having the right kind of guys has paid dividends under Zimmer. When he took over in 2014, the team was coming off a 5-10-1 season in which they ranked 32nd on defense.
The defense has been overhauled since then with only Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, Griffen, Rhodes and Brian Robison remaining. Smith, Sendejo, Griffen and Rhodes have all grown significantly during Zimmer’s tenure.
The Vikings’ culture, in part, appears to be facilitated by drafting, signing and keeping players who learn and grow. Hunter was a third-round pick with unimpressive sack production in college but an incredible set of athletic gifts. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson — along with veteran players — helped him unlock his talent.
Zimmer has also valued players like Terence Newman, who the defensive backs consider a mentor and coach on the field. The Vikings signed the 40-year-old Newman to another contract this offseason.
During Zimmer’s time in Minnesota, the Vikings have also opened a new stadium and new practice facility. That probably didn’t hurt either. And the deals given out to players were hardly peanuts. Hunter will make $14.5 million annually.
So while there is a chicken-and-egg element of the team’s culture and talent, there is also enough evidence to suggest that Zimmer’s plan was to create a team that won with a combination of talent, smarts and drive on defense. Not many organizations could win 40 games in four years with different opening day quarterbacks each year.
There are two remaining star players without contracts past next season: Anthony Barr and Stefon Diggs.
During OTAs, Diggs indicated he wouldn’t be making much noise about an extension.
“Not any different than the approach I’ve had each and every year that I come in,” he said. “I look at it as I always want to get things done and I always want to come in with a mindset of having success, so I kind of let my resume figure itself out.”
The Vikings’ success and culture under Zimmer may or may not end up making a difference in a new contract for Barr or Diggs, but in negotiating other recent deals, it appears to have given the Vikings a leg up in keeping a very strong team together, extending their winning window.