Vikings defenders say they were prepared for this, even if they were surprised.
Less than 24 hours after his third eye surgery to fix a detached retina, Mike Zimmer stood in front of his players at the team hotel — 1 mile west of U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis. Players had just heard Wednesday night, after the week’s final practice, that Zimmer might not be able to coach. A follow-up visit with doctors Thursday morning confirmed he wouldn’t.
Before interim head coach Mike Priefer was fitted for a headset, Zimmer followed through with one last “go out and bust your” tails pregame message, defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. Players could see Zimmer’s obvious discomfort even though he delivered an otherwise typical speech.
“Same old, same old,” Johnson insisted. “Do your job. No one has to make the great play. Go out there and make the solid play and everything will be OK.
“It’s embedded in us, man.”
Johnson references a way of thinking instilled by Zimmer, the 60-year-old hard-nosed coach who tried to maintain normalcy through a 1-4 stretch since injuring his eye.
Zimmer called four games, more practices and led even more meetings since first undergoing an operation to repair his right eye Nov. 1. From the players’ perspective, there were no differences outside of the sunglasses he immediately required whether indoors or under a cloudy sky. Three days after his first operation, the glasses were gone.
Now a month and three surgeries into the issue, Zimmer is taking his recovery “day by day,” General Manager Rick Spielman said. The head coach will be back with the team in at least some capacity next week, including handling the meetings with media.
Before Thursday, Zimmer did not miss a practice or meeting. He applied eyedrops and pursued other remedies, along with regular checkups during an unforgiving work schedule.
“Completely normal, nothing had to change,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said of the month leading into Thursday. “He’s still been going over plays with us, calling plays, letting us know what we were going to get; how we can win the game, things like that.”
For the first time in his 45th game as Vikings head coach, Zimmer wasn’t delivering defensive play calls during Thursday’s 17-15 loss to the Cowboys. Still, the defense played well even though the Vikings fell to their sixth loss in the past seven games.
They’ll need the defense to continue to be stout to keep playoff chances alive through the final four games, for which Zimmer’s short-term availability to coach is uncertain.
“This season, we’ve always had a next man up mentality, attitude. That’s even with coaches and all,” Munnerlyn said. “It seems like we always have to have that.”
Without Zimmer on the sideline, the Vikings held the Cowboys dynamic duo of quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott to just one third-down conversion and a season-low in passing yards while defensive coordinator George Edwards called the shots. Through 12 games, the Vikings rank second in points allowed (17.4 per game) and third in yards allowed (303.4 per game).
“We had a couple busts here and there,” Johnson said. “Zeke kind of bust off a short edge, I think, Prescott had a little boot or whatever where he was able to come off and gain yards. For the most part, we did what we wanted to do.”
As an organization, the Vikings move forward awaiting word about whether Zimmer will be available for the next practice Tuesday or the next game Sunday in Jacksonville. Priefer could continue to serve as interim head coach if necessary. The Vikings staff also has former head coaches in interim offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and offensive line coach Tony Sparano.
The most uncharted territory now may be preparing a week’s game plan without Zimmer’s fingerprints on every page.
“You know he’s going to battle,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “He wants to be out there with us. He wants to be a part of this. He’s invested a lot into this football team and organization. We appreciate that, but we also know that he’s got to take care of himself.”