The Vikings have built a 5-2 record without many eye-opening statistics. They’re ranked 29th out of 32 teams in total offense and 30th in the passing game. Total defense is much better, but still outside of the top five at No. 7. Thanks to star running back Adrian Peterson, they are No. 5 in the league in rushing yards per game.
There is one stat that has quietly played an important role in the team’s success entering the midway point of the season. Their 39 penalties are the fewest in the league, and they have been penalized a league-low 340 yards.
The offense’s 12 penalties and special team’s three are also a league low, while the defense has accounted for 24 of the penalties.
“It shows we’re a disciplined football team,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “We don’t coach penalties, and the players take it upon themselves to understand about doing things right.”
Most of the Vikings were unaware of their mostly penalty-free play, but weren’t surprised by it. Even the newest Viking, defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis, quickly caught on to the disciplined nature of this team.
“It’s a culture around here,” Ellis said. “Just doing your job and working hard within the rules of the game.”
If you don’t, Zimmer isn’t shy about letting his players hear about it. And the secret to building a disciplined team is simple, he said.
“Just make them do what you want them to do,” Zimmer said. “These guys are good. They’re on time. They do what you’re supposed to. They study. You just make them understand it’s important. Chew their butts when they’re wrong, when they mess up.”
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes knows that better than anyone this season. He has accounted for nearly a fourth of the Vikings’ penalties, with nine for 96 yards. In the Vikings’ Week 4, 23-20 loss against Denver, he had three penalties, one for which he was fined $17,363 for illegal use of hands on a horse-collar tackle.
The next day at practice the coaching staff put boxing gloves on Rhodes to teach him not to grab.
“Old school. He gets on you,” Rhodes said about the precedent Zimmer has set through a season and a half on the job. “Zim just wants the best of you. That’s all. If you mess up, he’s going to be on you and push you as far as you can go.”
That might mean putting the penalized names up on a board, veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, or stopping a play during practice to discipline the penalized player, receiver Mike Wallace added.
Longtime Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway joked that the team is No. 1 in fewest penalties because they’re afraid of getting yelled at. Then he changed his tone.
“No, it’s a conscious effort about it on our part to try and limit those mistakes,” Greenway said. “We’ve still gotten our fair share, but we’re just trying to limit those. … Any penalties will be negative against you. It can definitely slow down the offense or put defense at a bad spot and give up points. Any time you can limit those it’s huge.”
Playing a clean game isn’t as easy as the Vikings have made it look, especially for linemen, guard Mike Harris said. Harris said he’s never played on such a disciplined team that consistently practices right and manages the little details so well. The players even know what referees they’ll have each week and the tendencies that cause them to throw penalty flags.
“It’s guys buying into what we’re teaching,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “A lot of the penalties you get offensively are holding penalties. I think [offensive line coach] Jeff [Davidson] does a great job of teaching these guys how to block, how to use their technique and not have to depend on holding. The other part of it is just a matter of concentration and executing.”
Kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson said that if Zimmer says something, then the players probably are going to get it done for him, and playing penalty-free is something the coach harps on every day.
“It’s had a big part in [our success],” long snapper Kevin McDermott said. “We’ve got the fewest penalties in the NFL and I think that carries over into how we’re playing and we’re winning games.”