LANDOVER, MD. – Mike Zimmer answered questions while gazing at the floor, his right eye red from a recent surgery. He wore all black, a color that not so long ago would have bespoken single-mindedness but on Sunday morphed into something funereal.
Five weeks into his third season as an NFL head coach, Zimmer had a battered Vikings team atop the NFL at 5-0. The surge seemed nothing less than a continuation of his coaching magnum opus. In three seasons, he had improved the Vikings from embarrassing to competent to contending to, now, it seemed, a threat to win it all.
Sunday afternoon, Zimmer coached the Vikings to a fourth straight loss, and that quickly they are 5-4, stuck ankle-deep in the league’s mediocrity, lacking an offensive line, a running game, a reliable kicker and the defensive fearsomeness that had previously made their most gut-churning injuries irrelevant.
In the four weeks since the Vikings entered their bye week undefeated and Zimmer placed stuffed animals around the complex to remind his players not to become “fat cats,” they have lost four straight seemingly winnable games, casting this season and the direction of Zimmer’s program into question.
“I’m concerned, obviously,” he said. “But I still believe. I believe that we do a couple of things here and a couple of things there and we’re going to win games. I see it every week in the NFL. I just feel like if we can get over the hump, if we can just keep fighting until we do, that positive things will happen.
“But it doesn’t look like that right now.”
The team’s gumption shouldn’t be in question. The Vikings came back from a 14-0 deficit on the road to take a 20-14 lead. They moved down the field in the final minute to position themselves for a pass into the end zone before the pocket collapsed twice around Sam Bradford, making the final Washington 26, Vikings 20.
They have withstood dire injuries to the offensive line, their star running back and their franchise quarterback. They had their offensive coordinator leave at midseason, the kind of move that would be called traitorous if NFL coaches didn’t publicly protect each other.
That they are 5-4 under these circumstances is not alarming; it is the manner in which they arrived — surprised in Philly, upset in Chicago, ambushed against Detroit and now this, another game in which their vivid flaws outweighed their strengths.
“The big thing is if we don’t have fight, we don’t have a chance,” Zimmer said. “We have guys who will fight but just aren’t playing well enough right now.”
This is the first crisis of his head coaching tenure. This is the first time he has gone backward, the first time the public has glimpsed an alternate reality to the expected rise to power.
Minutes after the game, the first social media messages arrived, calling for the firing of Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman. This is expected, and wrongheaded.
If there was a mistake in judging Zimmer and this team, it was extrapolating early-season success into future dominance. Instead, what we have here is typical of the NFL. Injuries, game plans and in-game coaching decisions can tilt a season one way or another at any time.
For perhaps every NFL franchise other than New England, the league is like marbles on a flat table. Any tremor can send them rolling in any direction.
Zimmer’s team should still be celebrated for winning five straight with a new quarterback, running back and offensive line, but what that stretch did was place the onus on Zimmer to keep operating as an illusionist.
He hasn’t. He botched decisions that cost the Vikings against Detroit, and he came close to botching clock-management decisions at the end of the first half at Washington.
Zimmer’s coaching made the Vikings a supposed Super Bowl contender, and it will have to be his coaching that breaks their fall.
If one line captured the mood in a quiet locker room on Sunday, it was one from guard Alex Boone, describing the losing streak and the work ahead:
“It’s hell. We’re looking forward to it.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On