MANKATO – Mike Zimmer held his first welcome-to-my-training-camp meeting as the Vikings head coach on Thursday night.
His message? “Why I think this team can win,’’ Zimmer said.
So: Why? “I’ll keep that between us,” he said, meaning himself and his team.
This is what Zimmer could have said, if he were guaranteed his comments would be kept secret:
“Guys, we’re going to win more because there’s no way we can make as many bad decisions this year as this organization did last year unless someone drops hallucinogens in the Winter Park water supply. I mean, we can throw three Love Boat parties and threaten to nuke another demographic, and we’ll still do better than that.”
Coming off a season in which they made the playoffs, the Vikings won five games last year. Five. There are NFL teams that have to grunt and strain to make it to five victories. There are NFL teams that deserve to finish with five victories. To win only five games, the 2013 Vikings had to repeatedly perform the lowest form of slapstick comedy, tripping over cracks in the sidewalk, walking through panes of glass, stepping on the wrong ends of rakes and spraying themselves in the face with mace.
The only way the 2013 Vikings could limit themselves to five wins was to utterly fail at three of the most pivotal positions in an NFL organization: quarterback, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator.
Given a full offseason to solidify his position as a winning NFL QB, Christian Ponder demonstrated in the Week 1 loss at Detroit that he couldn’t handle the job. Ponder’s failure led to the team yo-yoing Matt Cassel in and out of the lineup, even giving Josh Freeman a one-game tryout in which he seemed to be throwing alley-oops to Manute Bol.
Whether General Manager Rick Spielman, the Wilfs or head coach Leslie Frazier was calling the shots, the Vikings mismanaged the most important position on their team. That alone might have cost the Vikings a couple of victories. In last-minute losses to the Browns and the Bears, late-game collapses by the defense might not have been possible if Ponder had completed one more wide-open pass and kept the offense on the field.
Bill Musgrave, the Vikings offensive coordinator, stubbornly kept spectacular rookie Cordarrelle Patterson on the sideline most of the season. Forget about play-calling and schemes. That alone might have cost the Vikings a victory or two.
Alan Williams, the Vikings defensive coordinator, was so inept that after losses, veteran Vikings either complained publicly about his coaching or complained to each other privately in a way that allowed those nearby to understand their concerns.
Williams’ coverage schemes and calls allowed opposing offenses to drive for winning or tying scores late in five games.
Slightly more competence at quarterback, offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator could have gotten the Vikings to eight wins.
Zimmer, a renowned defensive coordinator, hired George Edwards to replace Williams. Zimmer is less likely than Frazier to be deferential to his underling. Norv Turner, a renowned offensive coach, replaces Musgrave. Turner’s arrival should mean big numbers for tight end Kyle Rudolph, veteran receiver Greg Jennings … and Patterson.
At quarterback, the Vikings still have questions, but they are better questions because they revolve around a first-round pick, Teddy Bridgewater, who looks polished.
“There’s no way we should have only won five games last year,” said defensive end Brian Robison. “I think Zimmer’s already seen that. Bottom line, you’ve got to finish games.
“I think we’re going to be really aggressive this year. We’re going to keep offenses off-balance. I think teams are really going to have to scheme us to beat us this year.”
“Man, they lost a lot of close games last year,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who left the Carolina Panthers to sign as a free agent. “I’ve been a part of teams in Carolina that lost a lot of close games. You have to learn how to get over the hump. We did last year and went 12-4. The sky’s the limit for this team.”
Aiming for the sky might be ambitious, but competent coaching and professional quarterback management would get the Vikings back to level ground.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. Twitter: @SouhanStrib