ST. LOUIS – A few of his predecessors favored a liquid diet. Mike Zimmer doesn’t seem clear on the concept.
Sunday morning, before winning his debut by a wider margin than any other Vikings head coach, Zimmer chugged Pepto-Bismol. At the end of the game, he tolerated a Gatorade bath. Sunday night, he promised to abstain when others might celebrate.
“I’ll probably watch the game on the way home,’’ he said. “We have an early start tomorrow. So no red wine for me.’’
For a 58-year-old coaching lifer getting his first chance to run an NFL team, champagne would be more appropriate.
His team committed zero turnovers, confused the St. Louis Rams offense with a variety of alignments, victimized the esteemed Rams defense with a deft offensive game plan, and won 34-6 at the Edward Jones Dome.
The quality of the opponent is in question; the caliber of the Vikings’ coaching was not. The Rams were favored in Vegas, even with backup quarterback Shaun Hill starting. The Vikings defense chased Hill from the game, whether because of injury or ineptitude, and routed a physical team, producing the Vikings’ first victory on the road since December 2012.
“We came in with a great game plan,’’ said defensive end Everson Griffen. “We came in prepared. He makes sure we’re in the best call possible on every play.’’
Zimmer’s reputation around the NFL isn’t based on innovation. He is renowned for making players better.
As recently as three weeks ago, cornerback Josh Robinson appeared in danger of becoming the next Chris Cook, a talented player at a position of need who would become more problem than solution. Sunday, Robinson produced the most important play of the game, a leaping interception along the sideline in the second quarter that allowed the Vikings to take a 13-0 lead into halftime.
A month ago, nose tackle Linval Joseph suffered a gunshot wound to the calf. Sunday, he produced five tackles and a sack.
Last season, Griffen often looked lost or misused. Sunday, he produced sacks on consecutive plays.
Early in the 2013 season, receiver Cordarrelle Patterson rarely visited the offensive huddle. Sunday, Zimmer’s key hire, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, got Patterson the ball six times. Patterson produced 128 yards from scrimmage, including what for Patterson was a routinely spectacular 67-yard touchdown run.
“I assume there won’t be very many of these,’’ Zimmer said. “But I do think the fans of the Vikings will like how this team plays, and I think when they watched the game today, they’ll be excited about continuing to watch us. We played with a lot of heart and for the most part we did the right things. So, on to another week.’’
Vikings head coaching debuts aren’t always predictive. Norm Van Brocklin and Leslie Frazier won theirs; Bud Grant lost his first four games. A better parallel for Zimmer might be the work of Tony Dungy, who inherited a porous defense when he arrived as Denny Green’s defensive coordinator in 1992.
Dungy turned journeymen like Todd Scott, Audray McMillian and Jack Del Rio into Pro Bowlers, and coached his defense to think of not only producing turnovers, but also scoring on them.
Robinson’s interception might have been the key play in the game. The most symbolic, for Zimmer, occurred in the fourth quarter, when an aggressive pass rush flattened the quarterback, safety Harrison Smith intercepted the resulting wobbly pass, and Griffen sprinted the length of the field to block for Smith’s 81-yard touchdown.
“Today was a great learning experience for us,’’ Zimmer said. “Being a new program, a young football team and learning how to win on the road … I’m proud of them.’’
Van Brocklin and Jerry Burns were known to hoist a few. Mike Tice had his own parking spot at Bunny’s in St. Louis Park. Brad Childress once said he would celebrate a victory by drinking a glass of vodka as large as the head of a large-headed reporter.
For Zimmer, a glass of red on Sunday might be a reference to his traditional pregame Pepto.