Seven Vikings coaches have lasted with the franchise for four full seasons or more: Norm Van Brocklin, Bud Grant, Jerry Burns, Dennis Green, Mice Tice and Brad Childress. Mike Zimmer will join that group in four weeks.
And Zimmer is having great success. As it currently stands, his 36-24 regular-season record in his first four seasons (.600 winning percentage) trails Grant (35-18-3, .652) and Burns (38-25, .603). If Zimmer can go 3-1 the rest of the way, he will pass Burns by a half-game to have the second-best four-year start to his coaching career in franchise history.
Last year was a letdown for Zimmer, the team finishing .500 at 8-8 after a 5-0 start to the season. That came after a 2015 season when the Vikings went 11-5 and came within a missed field goal of winning its wild-card playoff game.
When the team entered this past offseason, it focused on one key issue it felt could solve a world of problems: the offensive line.
Zimmer explained how the Vikings went about that process, which has drastically changed their offense and has them one victory away from clinching a division title.
“The real story is that we tried to find the right guys, tried to find some athletic guys,” Zimmer said. “[General Manager] Rick [Spielman] found [Nick] Easton, he liked him coming out and then he was with a couple other teams and we made a trade with San Francisco. They wanted [linebacker] Gerald Hodges and we got [Easton].
“We went out and got the two tackles in free agency, [Mike] Remmers was here before, so we kind of knew him. Riley Reiff, Chad Greenway knew, a South Dakota guy. We knew him playing in the division. [Pat] Elflein was a guy that we kind of targeted in the draft because he has the same mentality.”
Zimmer said a few things had to work out to make this line gel.
“We didn’t know that Easton could be a guard,” he said. “We started looking at him some this offseason. We had a pretty good idea Elflein was going to be a good player. Do you ever know how good they’re going to be? I don’t know. But he has played very well. He fits the DNA description that we’re looking for with smart guys, tough guys, guys that put the team first and things like that.
“Those two guards in there move well. [Joe] Berger has had a great year and played very, very well. Then being able to get [Rashod] Hill, that was a steal getting him off of Jacksonville’s practice squad, a big, long guy that can really pass protect.”
Zimmer said he likes how that position group interacts. “They pretty much hang together, a good group,” he said. “They’re pretty tight-knit. They really want to go under the radar.”
Last week’s victory at Atlanta extended the Vikings’ winning streak to eight, and Zimmer said the Falcons game was telling.
“It was big. There are still a lot of people that doubt us. They didn’t think we could go there on the road and play a good football team,” he said. “They were on a roll. I liked the way that our guys hung in there and fought the entire game. It wasn’t necessarily the most pretty game, but we did what we had to do to win.”
Zimmer broke down some of the offensive players who are doing well right now, starting with quarterback Case Keenum.
“He is taking good care of the ball, making the right reads, running when he needs to. You know, I think the guys have developed an awful lot of confidence in him,” he said.
The Vikings’ running back tandem is working, with the NFL’s sixth-best rushing average at 122.8 yards per game.
“Jerick [McKinnon] has come in there and done some nice things, catches the ball well, good on the screens,” Zimmer said. “Latavius [Murray], I think he is starting to hit his stride right now.”
When it comes to tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has three touchdowns in the past two games, Zimmer complemented his all-around game.
“He’s blocking much better,” Zimmer said. “But he’s making a lot of plays in the red zone, third downs, he has a great catch radius and he’s another good guy, tough guy, smart.”
On the receiving group, Zimmer likes their lack of selfishness.
“None of them are divas, they all want to work and have success as a team,” he said. “They’re not crying that they don’t get the ball or anything like that. They work as hard as they can, and when the ball comes to them they make plays.”
Now Zimmer gets ready for the Vikings’ fifth consecutive game against a quality opponent.
“A very good football team,” he said of Carolina. “Before they got beat [by New Orleans] they had won four in a row. They have a terrific defense, sixth in the league, a very good front seven. They have two ends with 8½ sacks apiece, the linebackers are extremely active, and then offensively they’re sixth in the league in running the football. They do a lot of different things.”
It will be another tough test for the Vikings, but it’s becoming clear they already have one of the best coaches the franchise has ever seen steering the ship.
• Panthers receiver Russell Shepard worked out with Case Keenum the past three offseasons and will oppose him on Sunday. He told ESPN he is not at all surprised by Keenum’s success with the Vikings this season: “I know the challenges of being a guy that’s undrafted, a guy that expectations aren’t high for you, you don’t have the physical skill sets that a first-round pick has and the franchise guy has. When you can stay in the league [as long as Keenum has], it says something about your mentality.” Shepard, a native of Houston, also went undrafted out of LSU but is now in his fifth NFL season.
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on facing the great Panthers linebacker Julius Peppers: “I’ve seen him do so many things. … It doesn’t look like he’s slowing down any.”
• Former Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said he left “millions on the table” in March to return to the Panthers, where he was a seventh-round pick in 2009. Asked how he feels about the Vikings’ success, he said: “To see those guys 10-2, I’m happy for them. But when they leave here I want them to be 10-3.”
• Vic Viramontes, the California junior college quarterback the Gophers have recruited, must be pretty good, otherwise Michigan would not have offered him a scholarship before he originally signed with Cal in 2016. “I was close [to signing],” Viramontes said. “I visited their school twice, on an official visit and an unofficial visit.”
• How good will the Gophers football 2018 recruiting class be? Curtis Dunlap, a 6-4, 368-pound guard who is rated as the 130th-best player in the class, has decommitted from Florida and was one of many recruits visiting the Minnesota campus this past week.
• Reid Travis is averaging 17.4 points and 8.9 rebounds at Stanford, but the Cardinal might miss out on the NCAA tournament again despite the DeLaSalle product’s efforts. Last Sunday, Stanford fell to 4-6 with a 76-68 loss at Long Beach State, in its 11th season under former Gophers coach Dan Monson.