Mike Zimmer laughed when told there are times he doesn’t appear to be the happiest guy in the world.
“Do I still enjoy it?” asked the 62-year-old, sitting in his TCO Performance Center office during another long day of grinding toward Year 40 as a football coach, Year 25 in the NFL and Year 5 as Vikings head coach.
By this time in Bud Grant’s life, the fellow outdoorsman was four years into his second and final retirement as a coach. So, yeah, Zim, do you still enjoy it?
“I enjoy being around the players; I enjoy coaching and teaching and getting into the meeting room,” he said.
The next part came as somewhat of a surprise.
“I hate game day,” Zimmer said. “It’s a grind. A grind. Wins and losses. We get 16 tests a year. If you win eight of them, there’s still a chance you’re fired.”
On Sunday, per usual, Zimmer will arrive at U.S. Bank Stadium at 8 a.m., four hours before the season-opening kickoff against the 49ers. His day of full-tilt stress won’t end until long into the night or early next morning as his mind races to the next opponent and he’s drawn to his iPad to watch tape.
Should the Vikings beat the 49ers, Zimmer will follow another one of his rituals the first time he sees General Manager Rick Spielman.
“I retire after every game we win,” Zimmer said with a laugh. “After every game we win, I tell Rick, I say, ‘Hey, did I tell you I just retired today?’ ”
For Zimmer, the wins don’t seem as satisfying as the losses seem crushing. One particular loss hit Zimmer as hard, if not harder, than any he’s ever experienced.
Eagles 38, Vikings 7.
“We were so dang close [to the Super Bowl],” said Zimmer, referring to the NFC Championship Game loss at Philadelphia eight months ago. “I felt I let people down.”
Zimmer went home to his ranch in Kentucky to unwind. He said it took a couple of weeks to clear his head enough to start thinking about the next season.
“It wasn’t so much we got beat, but the way we played,” said Zimmer, whose No. 1-ranked defense allowed 456 yards and 31 points. “It was just me thinking back, ‘What could I have done better? How could I have prepared us better?’ ”
In hindsight, Zimmer said he thinks the euphoria of beating the Saints on the last play of the game the week before played a role in how the team played in Philadelphia.
And he blames himself for that.
“I still think I misjudged the magnitude of that [Saints] game,” Zimmer said. “I didn’t make a big deal out of it with the players about getting back focused. And I’m not saying that’s why we lost. It might be why we got our butts kicked, maybe.”
Zimmer flew from Kentucky to Minneapolis to attend the NFL owners’ Super Bowl party the Thursday before Super Bowl LII. He left town right after. It was too painful to be in town as the Eagles prepared for what eventually would be a Super Bowl win on the Vikings’ home field.
“I watched some of the Super Bowl at home, but not much,” Zimmer said. “Let’s just say I didn’t go to any Super Bowl party.”
As the pain subsided, Zimmer’s to-do list quickly grew. After hiring Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo to replace Pat Shurmur as offensive coordinator, Zimmer, Spielman, DeFilippo and the entire organization had to settle on a quarterback. Their top three quarterbacks — Case Keenum, Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater — were all heading into free agency.
Early on, the team decided Bradford’s and Bridgewater’s health simply could not be trusted.
“Teddy and Sam are good players,” Zimmer said. “I love Teddy and Sam, but we just felt it was best to add a little stability to the quarterback position.”
Keenum was a career journeyman before leading the Vikings to 12 regular-season wins and their first playoff victory in eight years.
Why not re-sign Keenum? Zimmer was asked.
“I think Case had a great year, but do you look at the year or the career?” Zimmer said. “It was just a decision we all made.”
The Vikings, of course, went with the stronger-armed Kirk Cousins, giving him the NFL’s first fully guaranteed, multiyear contract at $84 million over three years.
That’s a lot of faith in a player with a losing record and no postseason wins as a starter.
“But the guy is really accurate, he’s really smart, he can make all the throws. He can throw into really tight windows. Bradford is a terrific thrower, and Kirk throws the ball a lot like him. With Case last year, he kept plays alive scrambling around, but Cousins is a really good thrower.”
Zimmer said DeFilippo “will do a great job” with Cousins and the offense. He’s already done a good job helping Zimmer sort through the Eagles debacle and introduce versions of the run-pass option that worked so well for Philadelphia.
“We spent a good deal of time together, and I had him come in a couple times and talk to the defensive coaches about what the Eagles saw, what, when and why they did things, the reads, what the quarterback saw,” Zimmer said. “It was interesting to see who they were trying not to let affect the game. And how [DeFilippo] said they didn’t think they could execute 10-play drives against our defense. So they had to take some shots with things like the flea-flicker.”
Ask Zimmer what he’s worried most about, and he’ll say, “Everything.” Injuries, the unsettled offensive line, a rookie kicker and covering kicks on special teams are a few off the top of his head.
“I’m even concerned that the ball bounces the wrong way,” Zimmer said. “I think we have a good team. But there are a whole bunch of good teams, especially in the NFC.”
Mourning Tony Sparano
These are some of the things Zimmer used to sit and talk to Tony Sparano about. But his former offensive line coach died of a heart attack two days before training camp.
“I miss him a lot because I was in his office a lot talking about a lot of things, and not always football,” Zimmer said. “Now, every time I walk by his office and I see his name still on the door, it’s like, ‘Man, I wish he was here.’ ”
Zimmer still hasn’t come to grips with the circumstances surrounding Sparano’s death.
“You wouldn’t think you’d be released from the hospital on Friday and die on Sunday morning,” Zimmer said. “I’m trying to say that in a nice way.”
According to Zimmer, Sparano’s death prompted owners Zygi and Mark Wilf to set up annual executive physicals for the coaching staff beginning next offseason.
Asked if he’s doing anything extra to take care of himself, Zimmer said: “I think about working out a little bit, but I don’t. But I never work out during the season.”
But he does make it a point to spend fewer nights sleeping on the pullout bed in his office.
“I don’t think that’s healthy,” Zimmer said. “I’ve got a house over here in Eagan. I just think it’s healthy to get away from here some.”
At that point, Zimmer was asked how much longer he thinks he’ll coach. As he thought about it, Bob Hagan, vice president of football and media communications, chimed in.
“I said you’re going to 70,” he said.
“So, eight more years, I guess,” Zimmer joked.
Truth is, Zimmer said he doesn’t even think about retiring. Not even if the Vikings won the Super Bowl because, “Then I got to get two.”
“Actually,” he said, “I’ll probably do this until they kick me out; ’til nobody wants me anymore. I don’t know. The players, they come and mess with me all the time. So I’m still having a lot of fun doing this.”