Vikings coach Mike Zimmer made his name over 13 years in Dallas — his last seven as defensive coordinator — but whether he can coach against his old team on Thursday night is uncertain after having emergency eye surgery late Wednesday.
The Cowboys are as hot a team right now as they’ve ever been in their long history. At 10-1, they have a chance to post their best record since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978 (the Cowboys went 13-3 in 1992 and 2007).
Zimmer was asked if there’s something in particular that makes the Cowboys different than other NFL teams and gives them that designation of being “America’s Team.”
“Well, I think because they travel so well as a fan base,” said Zimmer, who got his NFL coaching start with Dallas as a defensive backs coach back in 1994 and won Super Bowl XXX with the team one year later. “They’re everywhere. A lot of the Southwest, internationally in Mexico, they have always tried to promote their brand.”
Still, Zimmer said it’s hard for him to see the difference between Cowboys fans and Vikings fans, though he did say that playing in Texas is unique because football is so huge there at all levels.
“Not really [a noticeable difference], I mean you know the fans here are great, as well,” Zimmer said. “We were fortunate my second year to win the Super Bowl and that was kind of the height of the Cowboy hype, I guess you’d call it. I guess one of the biggest things is that when you put the star on your helmet down in Dallas, you become an instant celebrity, maybe more so than anywhere else.”
Zimmer has had some tough playoff runs since that Super Bowl. He reached the postseason five more times with the Cowboys but only once made it out of the wild-card round, defeating the Vikings 40-15 in 1996. Then he reached the playoffs four times as the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, but that team also never made it out of the wild-card round.
Still, Zimmer said that winning the Super Bowl 27-17 over Pittsburgh was an amazing experience, but that season still bore similarities to any other season that he has coached.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “You go back and think about the memories of the season, how hard the season was — everybody, when you win the Super Bowl everyone thinks the season went really smooth, but it never does. You always have to deal with a lot of ups and downs and adversity, but when you finally accomplish the goal and they say that you’re the best team in the NFL, it’s pretty special.”
After starting 5-0 and looking like a genius, Zimmer has gone through the toughest stretch since he became the Vikings head coach, going 1-5 with three losses by one score or less.
Still, there’s no question that he has done what he set out to do when he was named the head coach here. The Vikings are still No. 3 in the NFL in total defense at 307.0 yards per game, and they’re second in points allowed at 17.5 per game, just 0.5 points behind the NFL-leading Seahawks.
And despite losing several key players to major injuries, the team is still in the hunt for the NFC North and just half a game out in the NFC wild-card race with five games to play.
So when asked how the team can turn things around, Zimmer pointed to last week’s loss to Detroit and said it’s all about making the key plays.
“Yeah, well, part of that is us executing in the critical situations of the game,” Zimmer said. “We had third-and-15 and we let the quarterback scramble. We had third-and-7 and we got a defensive penalty, we hit the quarterback hard and he made a good throw. But we lined up incorrectly on a third down that we converted. There’s some things that we’re doing, as well, that we need to clean up. If we clean those things up, we’ll win games.”
But Zimmer said he was proud of the way that the team has stayed together.
“The biggest thing is the guys are playing hard, they’re executing, they’re doing a lot of good things,” he said. “We just need to get over the hump. Every game is a one-week deal, but you go back to Arizona and we made a bunch of critical plays in that ballgame to win the game. We just have to get back to doing that and we’ll be OK.”
Dallas has superstars
Backup Cowboys tackle Emmett Cleary has been with six teams and here is what he said about the Cowboys offensive line that the Vikings will face: “I have the advantage of being with several teams. You’re talking about some modest guys,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “We have three Pro Bowlers, we have the best, most talented line in the league. But we also work harder and more purposefully than most teams. ... It’s a combination when skilled, gifted workers really care about it. Your are seeing the results on the field.”
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has put together one of the most impressive rookie quarterback campaigns of all-time. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns and has thrown only two interceptions all season.
Super Bowl-winning quarterback Doug Williams, who threw four touchdown passes in one quarter of the 1988 Super Bowl, was in Dallas last week and spoke to the Morning News about what he sees from Prescott.
“What he’s done has been phenomenal,” Williams said. “For a guy who wasn’t rated that high on the food chain, to play with the poise that he plays with ... he never gets rattled. The decisions that he makes, some of the throws that he makes ... two interceptions in 11 games? That speaks volumes right there. Most young guys will force balls because they believe they can get it there. He hasn’t done that.”
Speaking of high praise, former Gophers and Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy talked to the Morning News about what he’s seen from star running back and potential MVP Ezekiel Elliott, the other great rookie on the Cowboys squad.
“He hasn’t surprised me,” Dungy said. “Before the season I thought he would be a 1,200- to 1,500-yard rusher behind this offensive line. Now because of Tony Romo’s injury, he has gotten more carries and will be 1,500 to 1,800 yards. If Romo had played all season, I don’t think they would have relied as much on the run. You know, Tony Dorsett and I came into the NFL together in 1977. I figured Elliott had a chance to have the same impact as Tony, but his season has been enhanced because he is playing with a young quarterback.”
Yes, it will be a great game for the Vikings on Thursday, but if they’re going to win, they’re going to have to overcome a star-studded offense.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org