Since May 8, 2014, when they were united as top rookie draft pick and first-year head coach, Anthony Barr and Mike Zimmer have resurrected the NFL’s worst defense, butted heads over Zimmer telling reporters Barr “tends to coast,” expressed a mutual desire to continue their partnership beyond 2018, and now face the possibility of Sunday being their last regular-season game together.
“Like I told Anthony, ‘You were my first draft pick, so I have a certain affinity to you because you started how we elevated this Vikings program,’ ” Zimmer said. “I always want what’s best for the player. But I’m also selfish. I want Anthony back.”
First things first. Before Barr’s contract expires, coach and player have a date with the Bears (11-4) on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. A win or an Eagles loss at Washington sends the Vikings (8-6-1) to the playoffs for the third time in the five seasons Barr and Zimmer have been together.
Barr’s head is clear and focused. Now, at least, say the four-time Pro Bowl linebacker and Zimmer, who adds, “Anthony is playing exceptional this year.”
Last spring and fall were a different story for Barr’s mind-set. In a span of 138 days from March through July, the Vikings committed $186.9 million in guaranteed money to land quarterback Kirk Cousins and extend deals for linebacker Eric Kendricks, defensive end Danielle Hunter and receiver Stefon Diggs.
“I was just waiting my turn,” Barr said. “But if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. I was bothered by it throughout the summer, through the spring. It definitely haunted me.”
There was a point when Barr said he stepped over into the business side to try and help as the two sides talked. He quickly backed out, fearing he’d lose focus on football and saying, “What’s done is done. They know what I can and can’t do.”
Barr said the sides “tried to work out a deal, but it was not really what I had expected. So I didn’t go that route.”
He also blames the CBA rules that give teams a fifth-year option on first-round draft picks.
“You can outplay that contract in the first two years and for three years get paid pennies on the dollar over what you probably could be getting paid,” said Barr, whose fifth-year option pays him $12.3 million.
The system, Barr said, probably has more to do with his situation than management’s belief in the 26-year-old’s future.
“If I’m wrong about that, I’m wrong,” he said. “If they don’t care, whatever. There are 31 other teams out there. I’m sure somebody will be willing to take me on.”
‘Coast’ wasn’t clear
Two years ago, after a 34-6 loss to the Colts at home, a reporter asked Zimmer about Barr’s play after Zimmer had said Barr needed to play better in all phases.
“Anthony sometimes has a tendency to coast a little bit,” Zimmer said. “I think when he cuts it loose a little bit more, that’s when you see him making the explosive plays, kind of the ‘wow’ plays.”
Barr was angry. He said he went to Zimmer’s office when he heard what was said. Zimmer said he can’t recall who went to whom, but “I do know it bothered him.”
“I took it personal, definitely,” Barr said. “Any time a coach challenges you, I would prefer him just coming to me as a person. That’s just how I go about my business. If there’s a problem, let me know. I told him that, and our relationship has been good ever since.”
Zimmer said he “probably shouldn’t have used that term.”
“I didn’t do it to bother him,” Zimmer said. “In fact, I kind of meant he’s such a smooth athlete that sometimes it looks like he’s coasting.”
Zimmer said choosing the right words and expressing himself clearly to the media is an ongoing learning experience that remains “very difficult” for him five years into the job.
“Two years ago, when we played at Philadelphia, I told the media I thought we were soft,” Zimmer said. “What I meant was our pass protection wasn’t firm enough. Well, ‘soft’ is not a word you use in football. I didn’t mean the players were soft. But the offensive line wasn’t happy with me. So those are the kind of things you have to be extremely careful about when you’re trying to say things because I always want the players to know I’m in their corner.”
Barr doesn’t hold it against Zimmer that the word “coasting” became a weapon that critics still use against him, particularly on social media.
“People say, ‘Oh, he’s lazy. He’s coasting,’ whatever he said,” Barr said. “And that was three seasons ago.”
But, in the end, Barr said Zimmer’s criticism helped.
“When I talked to him, he said, ‘I know you can do more,’ ” Barr said. “He said, ‘I know that there’s more in you that you’re not giving us for whatever reason. If it’s scheme, it’s you, if it’s at home, a relationship problem, whatever the issue was, there’s more to you than what you’re giving us’ at that time.”
Barr has news for people who accuse him of playing for a big contract.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to get a big contract and make a lot of money,” Barr said. “That’s what everyone wants, right? But there’s much more about it to me than that.
“I’ve been with this team for five years. A lot of these guys are my best friends. I owe it to them to play at a high level. I’m one of the more unselfish dudes you’ll ever meet. It’s really about the team for me.”
Barr said he does feel like the odd man out at the negotiating table, but he also doesn’t begrudge the big deals that teammates have signed.
“I understood Danielle’s deal,” said Barr, referring to Hunter’s five-year, $72 million deal, which came with $40 million guaranteed. “We all knew what he was capable of and what he’s going to be. The team probably got a discount in getting him for what they did.
“I understood Diggs. If you bring in an $84 million quarterback, you need weapons around him. And EK [Kendricks] is one of my best friends, so I was happy for him. I don’t count money in other people’s pockets. I want all my guys to get paid.”
When Barr knew he wouldn’t be getting a contract extension, he missed a week of OTAs to secure an insurance policy. Zimmer supported his decision.
“That was tough for me because I’m not a selfish person,” Barr said. “But I kept thinking, ‘What if something crazy happens?’ Teams look out for themselves. I got to look out for myself.”
Barr played seven games this season before missing three because of a hamstring injury. Now healthy, he has three sacks and five tackles for loss in the past three games.
Like Zimmer, Barr bristles when anyone starts talking about individual statistics or the popular website Pro Football Focus.
“If you watch a lot of teams — the Panthers, Miami, Oakland, Cincinnati — a lot of linebackers are going under blocks and not playing their gaps,” Barr said. “Either they get gashed or they make a big splash play. We play sound across the board. I think it also hurts stat numbers because we’re going to hold our gap and force the ball to go elsewhere.”
Bad look vs. Rams
Zimmer said teams routinely set their pass protections with Barr as the anticipated fifth rusher. That, he said, often gives other players free paths to the quarterback.
“Last week, Detroit was not going to let Barr get on mismatches,” Zimmer said. “They changed a lot of things that they normally do. Two weeks ago, Miami allowed us to rush him and we did. And he got two sacks.
“People don’t realize just how good an overall football player this guy is. I can tell him things in a game that even I’m still trying figure out, and he’s like, ‘OK, I got it.’ His intelligence is off the charts.”
Barr was savaged for his play against the Rams in Week 4. PFF slammed him with a season-low PFF rating of 38.7 in a 38-31 loss in which Jared Goff threw five touchdown passes with no turnovers and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
Barr took blame for the Rams’ first touchdown, saying he could have had better coverage on the 8-yard touchdown pass to Todd Gurley.
“On the Cooper Kupp [70-yard] score, we all were playing for the screen,” Barr said. “But they ended up sneaking a guy through. And because I’m the closest defender, it makes it look like it was on me. I don’t play corner. PFF probably gave me a zero because I was the closest defender.”
Later, Robert Woods scored on a 31-yard touchdown over Barr.
“Another good scheme,” Barr said. “They shifted to an empty formation. I should have flipped with the corner. But it was Holton [Hill]. He’s a rookie. I don’t have a chemistry with him yet. I was in the slot one-on-one with one of the better receivers. I didn’t have bad coverage, but they threw it in there and it looks like I’m the worst player ever and I was getting killed for losing the game.”
Zimmer defended Barr and blamed “schemes” that have since been changed.
“The bad thing is it looks like Barr played terrible, and that really wasn’t the case,” Zimmer said. “It would have been me who was responsible more than anybody else.”
Barr was appreciative of the schematic changes that ensued.
“I think we/I were trying to be too smart sometimes,” Barr said. “On that Cooper Kupp score, we’re thinking, ‘This is the screen formation, the screen action.’ You can’t play plays in this league. You got to read your keys, react and go. If you try to [guess] plays, that’s when you get hurt.”
Zimmer said he senses Barr wants to stay and continue evolving as a player in this defense. Barr said Zimmer is right, but there is that whole business side.
Barr could be looking at the deal Cleveland’s Jamie Collins Sr. got last year when he set the market for 4-3 outside linebackers at four years, $50 million with $26.4 million guaranteed. The Vikings, who could franchise tag Barr at what’s projected to be about $15 million, also will be trying to pony up enough money to keep defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
“In a perfect world, I will be back here next year trying to win a Super Bowl,” Barr said. “Whether or not we win one this year first is yet to be determined. But Minnesota is my home now. These are my friends and I think we have a good football team.
“So I do enjoy it here. But there’s also a business side. And if it’s time to move on to the next chapter, I’m ready for it.”