The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It's sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it's a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.
About 16 hours after he learned he would be needed under unfortunate circumstances to step in as interim head coach of the Vikings for at least one night, Mike Priefer stepped up to the podium after he nearly steered them to an upset of the top team in the NFL at U.S. Bank Stadium.
"It was a great opportunity for me," said Priefer, Minnesota's special teams coordinator since 2011. "I'm just sorry we didn't get it done."
His day had been a whirlwind. Priefer learned early yesterday morning that Mike Zimmer would be unavailable to coach the team after having emergency surgery late Wednesday night to repair a detached retina, and the two had a brief chat about inactives and other game-day logistics.
Zimmer gave a brief but emotional speech at the team hotel before the buses departed for the stadium, then Priefer, the son of longtime NFL special teams coach Chuck Priefer, took it from there, leading the reeling Vikings into a game against a Cowboys team with two MVP candidates in Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and a 10-game winning streak.
With Priefer executing the game plan that Zimmer had installed during the week, the Vikings checked off every box that gave them a chance.
The Vikings scored first, forced a pair of turnovers and dominated time of possession. Prescott and Elliott had quiet games by their standards as the defense, with Zimmer at home and George Edwards calling the plays, stood its ground against the most formidable offensive line in the NFL.
But after a game-changing fumble in the final quarter and a controversial two-point failure that should have resulted in yellow flags tossed at both sidelines, the Vikings lost, 17-15, in Priefer's debut as a head coach.
"He's that type of coach, with that type of mentality, we all want to play for Mike [Priefer]," veteran outside linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He understands situations as good as anybody and I think he did a great job."
That showed in the fourth quarter, when Priefer successful challenged the spot after a Prescott slide that had originally been ruled a first down. After the review, the ball was spotted a yard short of the sticks. Prescott couldn't handle the third-down snap and the Cowboys were forced to punt, giving the Vikings their last gasp, which came up two points short.
All things considered, the 50-year-old came off in a favorable light in the primetime spotlight in probably the biggest game of a football life that has led him from the Youngstown State Penguins to VMI to the NFL, after, of course, he served as a Navy helicopter pilot in the early 1990s.
"I think you kind of, hopefully, have been preparing [for this opportunity] your whole career — learning, understanding the game," Priefer said at the podium. "I appreciate what [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and Coach Zimmer did, giving me this opportunity to help our football team win tonight. Obviously, I didn't do my part and we didn't get it done."
It remains to be seen if Priefer will get another opportunity to get it done. Spielman said yesterday morning that they will reevaluate the situation with Zimmer's health today and start determining how to handle next weekend's game in Florida. It is possible Zimmer won't be able to fly, but I wouldn't rule out him rolling into Jacksonville on the Zimmer Cruiser.
If Zimmer can't make the trip, Priefer will be ready if called upon again.
"I hope I'm not needed in that capacity. Looks to me I have my work cut out for us for special teams," said Priefer, taking a dig at himself. "If Rick and Coach Zimmer think that we need another week for him to keep healing, then I would obviously love to do it. I would be honored to do it."
Priefer, who has coached special teams for five NFL franchises since 2002 and is considered one of the league's best, has aspirations of being a head coach. In 2013, he interviewed for the Bears opening that went to Marc Trestman. But then Priefer was suspended for the Kluwe scandal, which could prevent him from getting serious consideration for future openings.
Six and a half minutes into his postgame press conference last night, he was asked if he had allowed himself to think about what this opportunity filling in for Zimmer could mean for his coaching career going forward.
"I haven't thought about that at all. I just wanted to win tonight," he said, taking a swig of water, "and give Coach Zimmer another win. But that didn't materialize. I don't, it doesn't matter for me. I want to help our team. "
If Zimmer misses more games and if Priefer, after nearly upsetting the Cowboys, helps the Vikings get back on track, perhaps that will change.
FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS
1. Starting quarterback Sam Bradford, who was already dealing with an ankle injury, got drilled in the ribs late in the first half and had to leave the game to get his wind back. Backup Shaun Hill subbed in for him, taking the final two offensive snaps of the half. Bradford returned at the start of the third quarter and said after the game that he’s going to be fine.
2. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who missed last week’s loss to the Lions with a knee injury, played 58 of the 74 offensive snaps in his return to the lineup. Adam Thielen led the way with 63 snaps, followed by Cordarrelle Patterson with 47, Charles Johnson with 26 and Laquon Treadwell with 11. Jarius Wright suited up but did not play on offense or special teams.
3. Terence Newman also returned after a one-game absence and subbed in as the fourth member of the team’s cornerback rotation. Xavier Rhodes played 49 of 52 defensive snaps, often lined up across from star Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant. Trae Waynes started alongside Rhodes and played 31 snaps. Slot specialist Captain Munnerlyn played 29. Newman got 22.
4. Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith played all but one snap in the loss. But afterward he was spotted in the locker room with a walking boot on his left foot and he had to use crutches to leave the stadium. It was Anthony Harris, not rookie Jayron Kearse, who spelled him for that one snap.
5. With Joe Berger out, center Nick Easton played all 74 snaps in his first NFL start. All five starting offensive linemen played every snap for once.
FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM
1. "They fought to the bitter end and I know Coach Zimmer would have been very, very proud of them. … I know as tough as he is, he'll be back before long. We'll get this thing righted and keep fighting." — Priefer
2. "I am just going to say it right now. I'm sick and tired of referring in this league. I'm sick and tired of it. You got holding calls all over the place that people don't want to call. Bradford gets hit in the face at the end of the game and you don't call it. I'm not laying this loss on refereeing, but at some point it has to get better." — defensive end Brian Robison
3. "Welp, I'm probably getting fined." — Robison after his rant ended
4. "They're a great offensive line. But we are a good football team. We are a great defensive team. We are capable. To say we respect them, absolutely. To say that we were going to be overwhelmed, we just didn't feel that way. We know what we have in our front seven." — Greenway
THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME
1. The Vikings defensive front rose to the occasion against the NFL's best offensive line. After hearing Zimmer declare this week that the Cowboys had the best offensive line he's seen in a long time, the guys up front brought their A game against the Cowboys. Sure, they let quarterback Dak Prescott wiggle free a few times. And yeah, Ezekiel Elliott popped a few big runs, including that late 30-yarder. But the Vikings, in a losing effort, reminded everyone that they still have one of the NFL's best defensive lines. Danielle Hunter had two sacks and fellow defensive end Brian Robison gave the Vikings three points by stripping Prescott in the fourth quarter. Nose tackle Linval Joseph was immovable in the A gaps. And middle linebacker Eric Kendricks' poofy hair spotted on nearly every play. Whenever Zimmer can watch this game tape, he will surely be proud.
2. Special teams, specifically punter Jeff Locke, really let the Vikings down last night. Ironically, the most troublesome area in Priefer's first game as an NFL head coach was the area he typically oversees. Locke, who punted well enough in Detroit to convince me to argue in this space a week ago that he should be considered for the Pro Bowl, inexplicably shanked a trio of punts, including a 33-yarder in the fourth quarter that helped put the Cowboys in position to for the kick that made it 17-9. Then, of course, there were the issues handling punts with regular returner Marcus Sherels still sidelined. Sure-handed Adam Thielen lost the fumble that turned the game and Cordarrelle Patterson looked like Miguel Sano trying to shag a fly ball when he muffed a late punt. Thankfully, Audie Cole was able to pounce on it, ensuring that Bradford could still try to lead a comeback.
3. Should the Vikings fail to make the playoffs, blame their late-game execution. If the collapse becomes complete in the next few weeks, we will remember 2016 for the killer injuries to Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson and several hundred offensive tackles. No doubt those injuries will likely keep them from being a Super Bowl team, but they should not be an excuse for this team potentially not making the playoffs. In each of their past four losses, including two against the Lions and one against the Redskins, the Vikings had a chance to win or tie in the final two minutes and couldn't get it done, whether it was the predictably punchless offense or a surprisingly soft showing by the defense. This talented group, the ones who are still left standing, should still be better than a .500 team. But the Vikings are only 2-4 in one-score games after going 4-2 in them in 2015.
TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY
1. There is no press conference today, so I can't ask Zimmer anything. But if there was, I think it would be rude of me to not ask how he's feeling.
2. BTW, have the doctors said whether you can coach in Jacksonville?
ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK
1. I know it has gotten ugly around here, but the Vikings have some fight left and paths to the playoffs. So, yes, I'm telling you there's a chance.