Mike Zimmer’s preparation for his first NFL training camp as a head coach didn’t end, even when he fell asleep.
“It seems like every night I dream about football, even when I’m off,” the new Vikings coach said.
The Vikings report to Minnesota State University Mankato on Thursday to start camp. Since being named coach in January, Zimmer has spent pretty much every waking second — and apparently a lot of sleeping seconds — thinking about reviving a team that went 5-10-1 last season.
Zimmer talked last week about variety of topics, including top draft pick Anthony Barr, second-year speedster Cordarrelle Patterson, what excites him about these Vikings and, yes, that three-way competition at quarterback.
Here’s the Q & A with Zimmer.
Q This is your first training camp as an NFL head coach. What needs to happen for you to consider this successful?
A I have an idea of how we want to improve each day, and to be successful, really, there are three areas: We need to make sure we find the right starters, [find out] who the substituted guys are and continue to build depth. Obviously, we want to be disciplined and tough coming out of training camp. But there’s a fine line, and we need to make sure we get out of there healthy, too.
Q How much of your focus will be teaching and how much of it will be player evaluation and installing your schemes?
A All three will be the same. We’ll continue to teach every day. There are some things in the systems that we will have to continue to build on from where we were, just to get them introduced in case we decide to use them during the regular season. The other part is perfecting the things that we are doing.
Q You have trumpeted that there will be competition at pretty much every position. Are there any camp battles you are particularly looking forward to?
A I’m interested in seeing some of the guys that I didn’t see in the spring. At the safety position, [Andrew] Sendejo and [Jamarca] Sanford, I really don’t know much about them. That will be interesting, just to see where they are at and where they compare to other guys. And it will be interesting to see the young guys that we drafted and how they progress when we get the pads on. Football is a different game when you start playing with the pads instead of shorts. Some guys show up more, so the physicality part of the game will show up a lot, I believe, in the training camp part.
Q In the spring workouts the media was allowed to watch, Matt Cassel and Teddy Bridgewater got the majority of the reps at quarterback. Does Christian Ponder have a real chance to start? And what are you looking to see from whoever wins the job?
A Actually, I think Christian has done a very good job in the time that we’ve had him and how much he has improved in that amount of time. We’re going to try to give everyone a fair shot, and preseason games will help determine it. We want someone who is going to take care of the football, lead the team in the right direction and when called upon be able to win football games. To me, the starting quarterback also comes down to what kind of team we have — the defense, how good we are there, and the offensive line. Those things are all important to understanding who the quarterback may be, as well.
Q When making that decision, how much does what they have done so far weigh into it, how much does what they do in camp weigh into it and how much does how they perform in the preseason games?
A I think all three. We’re not going to forget what they did in the spring. But we’re going to continue to evaluate them each day as we get going. The preseason games will probably be a little bit more of a judge, when we’re going against other people.
Q When would you like to have a starter in place?
A I have an idea in mind, but I’m going to keep that to myself right now.
Q Do you think Cordarrelle Patterson is ready to take a big step forward as a downfield receiver? What is the challenge of balancing an expanded role for him on offense with what he does as a returner?
A We want our best players to get their hands on the ball as much as possible. We’re not going to keep him from returning kicks because he is such a dangerous weapon there. He’s been a very hard worker, he has improved his route running since we’ve been here and things are going to change for these guys in training camp when we are able to start playing bump-and-run. For him to take the next step, we’re going to have to see how he gets off a jam and the things that people will try to do to take him away.
Q Are defensive linemen Sharrif Floyd and Everson Griffen ready to step into bigger roles?
A They’ve both had good springs. Again, I think it’s going to come down to how they look in pads and how they perform in those situations and what kind of stamina they have, how many plays they can play during a game. And a lot of the time when you’re dealing with young guys, how do they have process information during the course of a game? Sharrif has a lot of ability. Right now, he’s trying so hard to be perfect on every single snap. He just needs to relax and let it free-flow a little bit more.
Q How much are you looking forward to seeing what first-round pick Anthony Barr is ready to do? He wasn’t around in the spring very much due to NFL rules.
A Yeah, obviously a lot because we only had him for four or five days. So that part, how much he can progress within the system, how much he can handle without us overloading him mentally? But it should be exciting to watch him, and [David] Yankey and [Scott] Crichton also.
Q Is Chad Greenway a realistic option to start at middle linebacker?
A It’s a possibility. We keep working him in there. We’re just trying to find the best 11 players we can and then figure out where the rest of the guys are going to fit. It’s not out of the question, but time will tell a little bit more on that.
Q What about the battles for the third cornerback spot and, as you mentioned, the other safety spot alongside Harrison Smith? What do you covet most in the secondary?
A Consistency. They’re going to have to be mentally tough. They’re going to have to contest balls; we’re going to have to be closer in coverage than we have been. And then we’ve got to tackle. Typically, the worst defensive teams are the ones that tackle the worst. So we’re going to have to be good tacklers on the back end. I don’t think we’ll make a lot of mistakes mentally because we’re fairly simple in what we try to get accomplished, so I don’t worry much about that. But they do have to be in the right position, be able to tackle and contest balls.
Q What excites you most about this year’s team?
A I think that maybe everyone is underestimating us. I love to prove people wrong, and hopefully our team will want to be the same way. It’s easy to sell the guys on proving people wrong. Saying that, we can’t talk about it. We’ve got to go out there and do it.
Q What makes you think this team can get back to the playoffs this season or that you can at least get these guys heading in that direction?
A They work hard. I think they’re hungry. I think they’re paying attention. They’ve been intent on trying to do things right, in meeting rooms and at [Organized Team Activities]. They’ve been trying to please with everything we’ve asked them to do. That’s exciting for a new coach. It’s also easy for players when things change to want to try this or try that. I’m sure there will be some rocky times, but we’re going to work through it.
Q Is the team still actively looking at avenues to improve the roster — whether it is through a trade or free agency — before Week 1 rolls around?
A Every day. Every day. There is not a day when we don’t try to improve the roster. And [General Manager] Rick Spielman does a great job of that. He’s on top of it all the time, and we talk frequently. But we’ve had discussions about that already going into training camp.
Q How much are you looking forward to getting your first season as an NFL head coach officially underway?
A It seems like every night I dream about football, even when I’m off. It will be fun to get going again and try to figure out how to win with the team that we have and what strengths we have and how we can accentuate them. I’m excited about our coaching staff. I think they did a great job in the spring. And we’ll continue to coach our rear ends off to try to get better every day. And I think the players are excited, too.