Mike Zimmer will arrive in Mankato at some point Thursday and meet with reporters on the eve of his first Vikings training camp.
Under different circumstances, Zimmer would be able to talk about his long journey to this point, a career assistant finally getting his opportunity to oversee his first NFL training camp as head coach.
If talking about himself made him squeamish, he could shift the topic to his quarterback situation. Or how he’ll fix his defense, or his plan for rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, or how Adrian Peterson fits with Norv Turner’s offense, or Cordarrelle Patterson’s second season, or his vision for a successful training camp … or any number of pertinent themes.
Anything is preferable to the public relations mess that has ensnared the Vikings as they report for the start of a new season.
Unfortunately, instead of talking solely about football, Zimmer must deal with lingering questions about Chris Kluwe and Mike Priefer. A punter he never coached and an assistant he didn’t have to keep. But this is Zimmer’s issue now.
The release of the Priefer investigation summary puts Zimmer in an undesirable position because he opens training camp with this hanging over his team. Now, it would be a leap to suggest this distraction will negatively affect the Vikings season, but a three-game suspension of a top assistant shouldn’t be brushed aside as insignificant, either.
If the Vikings are smart, they’ll trot out Zimmer, Priefer and General Manager Rick Spielman on Thursday to discuss the situation. Be transparent, answer every question, don’t run from the issue.
This is the Vikings’ chance to address the subject at length and then turn the focus to football once practices start Friday. They can’t control Kluwe, who seems determined to take the scorched-earth approach in seeking retribution for his release. If Kluwe files a lawsuit, this will drag on, and more unflattering information could come to light.
But for today, for right now, the Vikings shouldn’t act coy or dismissive, or pretend that nothing has happened.
Zimmer comes across as a straight shooter uninterested in spin. He doesn’t seem like a guy who runs from anything, however uncomfortable the topic might appear.
The most pressing question for him — and Spielman, as well — is why was Priefer allowed to keep his job? Why did they stick with Priefer after the initial allegations and then again after he finally came clean and admitted that he made anti-gay comments to Kluwe?
Remember, Priefer vehemently denied Kluwe’s allegations initially, which helped prompt the investigation. And so many are left to wonder if Priefer’s value as a coach is worth the damage that he’s inflicted on the organization.
Apparently, that answer is yes.
For context, forget about the Kluwe situation for a minute. Before this arose, you’d find many admirers of Priefer at all levels of the organization, from ownership to players. He was highly respected and viewed as someone who had head coach potential.
Zimmer retained Priefer off Leslie Frazier’s staff, even knowing about the Kluwe allegations at the time. That spoke to Priefer’s credibility and standing within the organization. Staffers came to Priefer’s defense privately and players voiced their support publicly.
In my professional experiences with him — interview sessions and small talk — he’s come across as smart, articulate, thoughtful and demanding. He seems like a good coach who, we now know, said horrible things that can’t be justified.
Priefer’s admission that he lied about making those comments must create some awkwardness for those who supported him, especially Zimmer, his new boss. It will be interesting to hear Zimmer’s thoughts on that.
And then there’s veteran long snapper Cullen Loeffler, who got caught in the middle of this situation. He heard Priefer’s comments and then told the truth to investigators when interviewed. Now, he’s under an unwanted spotlight.