On Oct. 22, two days before their game against Washington, the Vikings turned their only full practice of the week into a walk-through. Players jogged through drills in jerseys and shorts, taking precious time to rest only two days after a victory at Detroit.
After winning 19-9, players were free to head home for a long weekend, with an extra day off for the third consecutive game. When the Vikings returned to pads Wednesday, they had all 53 players on the field, with only Adam Thielen a limited participant.
Whatever their 6-2 record owes to charmed health, the Vikings have tried to preserve it, with an emphasis on rest and recovery that even their old-school coach admits is “against my nature a little bit.” Veterans who’ve been with Zimmer since 2014 say they have noticed shorter practices and brief breaks for players who might not need as many repetitions. The Vikings added some veterans’ days off during training camp, and have tried to end meetings earlier, so players can get treatment and head home sooner.
“He’s starting to understand that it’s all about Sundays,” Thielen said. “There’s a happy medium of still grinding and getting better throughout the season, but there’s a certain point where you’re better off just letting guys get some more breaks, and still getting the mental stuff, but not as much physical pounding.”
Short injury reports
According to Pro Football Reference, the Vikings have listed players with an injury designation (questionable, doubtful or out) only 25 times this season. Only the Steelers, Titans, Giants, Saints, Buccaneers and Rams have done so less frequently. Of those six, only the Steelers have lost fewer games to players on injured reserve than the Vikings’ 29.
While Zimmer retains some skepticism about how much his efforts have to do with the Vikings’ good fortune, he sees no reason not to continue them.
“It could be just luck, but I’ve been trying,” he said. “We did things a little bit different in training camp this year. We’ve done things a little bit different during the season. Daryl Johnston, when he was playing with the Cowboys, said, ‘We get in great shape to get ready to go into the season, and then we go into training camp and beat the heck out of each other, and then we feel worse at the beginning of the season than we do at the end.’ That’s kind of stuck with me.
“I think there’s times you have to do the physicality part. Usually it’s at the beginning of your term as the coach, and then you kind of figure out as you go.”
On Sunday, the 63-year-old Zimmer will face the 61-year-old Andy Reid, another coach whose career began with more physical practices and longer offseason programs. Johnston — now an a NFL analyst for Fox Sports — can understand the plight of both coaches adapting to a new era, and hoped the NFL’s next collective bargaining agreement leaned on their expertise to find a better balance between player safety and teaching time.
“It’s a challenge for a lot of coaches, trying to find the spot where they feel comfortable with the restrictions and guidelines,” Johnston said. “I’m sure they can remember how far ahead we were. … Hopefully the NFL can bring in the Andy Reids and Mike Zimmers of the world, and a guy like [Titans coach] Mike Vrabel, who played and watched [for 14 years]. We can get a new system that gets players prepared and gives them the time in the classroom, but also keeps safety and injury prevention in mind.”
As Zimmer seeks balance now, he can leverage the Vikings’ continuity. Nine defensive starters have spent their entire careers in Minnesota, and 10 are in at least their fifth season with Zimmer. On offense, only three starters — Kirk Cousins, Riley Reiff and Josh Kline — have played for another team.
“Look at the dynamic of our team,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “In 2014, ’15, ’16, we were an extremely young football team. And now, you have a lot of guys who have been here six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years. We know what he expects, and he knows what we expect. I think when you have that, and you have a much more mature team than we had in 2014, when he came here, he can do that.”
Like many NFL teams, the Vikings track players’ movement and workloads via GPS chips embedded in their shoulder pads. Thielen, Rudolph and cornerback Xavier Rhodes said they haven’t spent much time looking at the data, and Zimmer’s decisions to pull back on a player’s workload seem to be based more on feel.
“He did a little bit last year,” Rhodes said. “He’s doing it more [this year] than he has ever done it. He always tells us, ‘I’m going to take care of you guys, if you do the things you need to do to get ready for Sunday.’ I believe he’s seeing if you give us a rest, and give our bodies some time to heal, we’ll be ready.”
The breaks, Rudolph admitted, are also more likely when the Vikings are winning.
But given how much the Vikings’ best year under Zimmer (2017) had to do with good health — they were 11th in the league with just 47.7 adjusted games lost that year, according to Football Outsiders — it makes sense they are trying to preserve what they have now.
“Zim is very old-school; he relies on Bill Parcells a lot, and he goes to Coach Parcells for a lot of advice,” Rudolph said. “I feel like he still tries to maintain that old-school mentality. But with that being said, he knows for us to play our best football, we have to be fresh on Sundays. He gave us a lot of time off this weekend; he let us kind of regroup and refresh both mentally and physically. He wants us to take care of him this Sunday. That’s what he looks for in return.”