Long before their recent roll, Mike Zimmer tried to pass along a lesson to his young Vikings team about finding success, then building upon it.
In his experience, and the coach has a lot of it, he named four stages, or “learns,” as he calls them, to becoming a championship football team.
“1. First you learn how to compete.
“2. Then you learn how to win.
“3. Then you learn how to handle winning.
“4. And then you learn how to be a champion.”
Right now, according to Zimmer, the Vikings still are on step No. 2. But with three consecutive victories and a 5-2 record that has left them within one game of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North, the Vikings now have their sights on that next step.
The hype that declared them playoff contenders before the season even started has been validated. Right now, they are sitting in the second wild-card spot in the NFC. They are one of the teams that others will be gunning for.
While he won’t really know for sure until the Vikings prove him right, Zimmer believes this team is equipped to handle its recent success.
“The one thing that I have noticed about this team ... [is] they’re not a tight, nervous kind of team. I think they’re confident but they’re also focused on the job,” he said. “When you haven’t had success, it’s easy to fall into that trap. But I think we have enough veteran guys to remind them of these kind of things … and [the coaches] kind of stay on their rear ends a little bit.”
Or, as veteran defensive end Brian Robison put it, “We’ll be fine.”
While winning these close games, the Vikings haven’t relied on just one unit. Sure, their defense has statistically been one of the league’s best. But the offense and special teams have made a difference when needed.
In Week 6, the Vikings jumped out to a 13-0 lead on the Kansas City Chiefs at TCF Bank Stadium and nearly squandered it, but Zimmer’s defense, lights-out all afternoon, made two late stands and the Vikings won 16-10.
In Week 7, they spotted the Detroit Lions an 11-point lead. Then, with their offense and defense both clicking, they reeled off 22 points and picked up their first road win against an NFC North rival since 2012.
On Sunday, against the Chicago Bears, their special-teams unit provided 16 points, the defense played well enough and the offense conjured up some late-game magic with two clutch drives to steal another key road victory.
“I just think we’re getting a mind-set that we’re pretty battle-hardened,” Zimmer said. “We’ve got a lot of fighters on this football team. I do think they believe when it gets to the crucial situations of the game that we can perform.”
In recent weeks, Zimmer has used outside doubt — whether it’s real or fabricated is up for debate — to motivate his players. First, it was that the Vikings couldn’t win on the road. Then it was they couldn’t beat the Bears at Soldier Field, something they did Sunday for the first time since 2007.
So what is Zimmer going to tell the Vikings this week? That the critics are saying they can’t beat the Rams, something they haven’t done since, well, the last time they played them way back in the 2014 season opener?
“He is definitely going to have something on Wednesday to fire everyone up,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who joked that Zimmer might go with “no one has said we can win the second week of November.”
Even Zimmer admitted that one of his bosses told him it might be time to tone down that kind of rhetoric, at least when microphones are around.
“It’s a long story. I take coaching well,” is all Zimmer would reveal.
Here’s a chip for the coach’s shoulder this week, if he is still looking for one: The Vikings have yet to beat a team with a winning record this season. Their five victories, including two against the one-win Lions, have come against teams with a combined record of 8-23.
This Sunday, when the 4-3 St. Louis Rams visit TCF Bank Stadium, the Vikings can beat a team with a winning record for the first time since early last season against the Atlanta Falcons, who ended up going 6-10. The Rams have one of the NFL’s most ferocious pass rushes and a powerful rookie running back, Todd Gurley, who is drawing comparisons to Adrian Peterson.
Starting with the Rams, five of their next six games are against teams with winning records. And the other, the 4-4 Seattle Seahawks, should have one by the time they travel to Minnesota in early December.
Those six teams have a combined record of 30-15.
The good news is the Vikings, now 12-11 on Zimmer’s watch, appear to have figured out how to win. But the next “learn” on Zimmer’s list is going to be much tougher to check off than the first two, especially when considering the upcoming competition.
“I would say we’re moving in the right direction,” Zimmer said. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”