When Mike Zimmer took over the Vikings, the team was coming off a 5-10-1 season in 2013 and had uncertainty on both sides of the ball. Now, two years later, the Vikings are NFC North champions, improving to 7-9 in 2014 and 11-5 in 2015.
If there is one certainty with the Vikings now, it is that they hired the right coach when they parted with Leslie Frazier.
While the season ended with one of their most difficult playoff losses, a 10-9 loss to Seattle in which they looked like the better team for the bulk of the game, Zimmer believes that the Vikings are only going to improve going forward. What follows is an interview just four days after the game where Zimmer talked about the difficulty of that playoff loss; the progress of a number of young stars including his quarterback Teddy Bridgewater; and what he sees going forward for the most promising Vikings team in nearly 20 years.
Q How do you feel about the loss now, after having a few days off?
A Disappointing. I thought we played well throughout the course of the ballgame. I thought our guys handled the cold well. We had opportunities to win the football game and we didn’t get it done. It’s unfortunate when Blair [Walsh] missed the field goal and everyone blames him. It’s just the finality of the position. If Blair would have made that last field goal he would have been the hero of the day. Unfortunately he missed it.
Q How about your progress this year?
A I think we’ve progressed well. I think a lot of people didn’t expect us to be where we were. I thought we played a tough brand of football really in all three phases. I thought our guys competed each week pretty darn good, and I see the mentality of this football team starting to change.
Q Were there some surprises you didn’t see coming?
A Obviously young guys like [Stefon] Diggs, you know he was impressive. I thought Rick Spielman did a great job in the draft this year. Danielle Hunter who came in and had [six] sacks. … [T.J.] Clemmings ended up starting at right tackle the whole year, [Eric] Kendricks started as a three-down linebacker most of the year. Joe Berger came in and played pretty well at center. There was quite a few guys really that upped their games this year, and I think that’s a credit to them.
Q Did injuries hurt you?
A It hurt us some, but everybody has injuries. You know injuries are all about making sure you have depth on your football team, and we have that. Guys stepped in, those guys on defense stepped in when we were hurt in Arizona. Anthony Harris came in at safety and did a good job. That will bode well for us for the future, and you’re never going to get out of a football season without injuries.
Q How do you view Teddy Bridgewater’s progress?
A Teddy continues to progress. He was awful careful with the football. I think he had nine interceptions this year in 16 ballgames, and that is good. There were a lot of times throughout the course of the year — the Chicago game where he came back and scored 10 points with two minutes left, the Seattle game at the end, put us in position to come back and win. I love the kid. I’m going to continue to say it all the time, he is progressing at the correct rate.
Q How much better is the line with a healthy John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt?
A With Sullivan and Loadholt, if they get back and they’re healthy and playing well it will obviously help our offensive line. We struggled there a lot of times this year. I think that limited us a little bit offensively because we had to play some games with not as many guys being out in the routes and helping in protection. Any time you have a good offensive line, that bodes well for your football team.
Q What about the veterans who may or may not come back?
A [Chad] Greenway is a great kid and hopefully we can get it worked out so he comes back. I know he has talked about coming back. He’s a great Viking, and he did a great job for us as a captain of the football team, his leadership, and when he had the opportunity to play it was big.
Q Do you see any big surprises coming?
A Not really at this point. We’re just trying to get better. We have to get better. I think the division will be better next year. I think Chicago and Detroit and Green Bay will all be better. We’re going to have to do a better job here as well. We won’t be the surprise team any more. We’re going to be the team that people are looking at.
Q But you’ll be improved next year, won’t you?
A These guys have been in the system now for a couple years, and I think they’ll continue to get better. It’ll be Teddy’s third year, Adrian [Peterson] for his second year with the things we’re doing. Defensively these guys, Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr will be here with a strong offseason. We’re going to have to work our rear ends off in this offseason, but I think with a strong offseason we have a chance to continue to move forward.
• The presence of Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino might have had something to do with the competitive game the Gophers, coached by Pitino’s son Richard, played against Indiana in losing 70-63 Saturday, rather than getting walloped by 25 points like they did against Northwestern and Nebraska. Word was that the senior Pitino talked to the Gophers and had some influence in their improved play.
• Chad Greenway definitely wants to play another year of football, preferably with the Vikings. But the 33-year-old linebacker would even play for the rival Packers if his only NFL team didn’t bring him back.
• Former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, the defensive coordinator the past two years for Tampa Bay, has been hired as Ravens defensive backs coach now that Lovie Smith was been fired by the Buccaneers.
• It is unfortunate Carter Coughlin suffered a concussion in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, and that he also needs shoulder surgery that will sideline him for three months. The Eden Prairie linebacker was being counted on to start as a freshman if he could take part in spring practice. Coughlin should be able to play this fall.
• Former Gophers basketball player and high jumper Wally Ellenson had season highs with nine points, eight rebounds and 20 minutes in Marquette’s 74-66 loss to No. 7 Xavier on Sunday. He is averaging 2.3 points and 3.1 rebounds this season.
• The combined 2015 win-loss records of Gophers 2016 football opponents is 71-73: Oregon State (2-10), Indiana State (5-6 in the FCS), Colorado State (7-5), at Penn State (7-5), Iowa (12-1), at Maryland (3-9), Rutgers (4-8), at Illinois (5-7), Purdue (2-10), at Nebraska (5-7), Northwestern (10-2), at Wisconsin (9-3). Clearly that’s a much easier schedule than they faced this past season.