There’s been plenty of focus on the Minnesota Vikings’ rookies this past season—particularly first-rounders Anthony Barr and Teddy Bridgewater, who both played well. Another Vikings rookie didn’t seem like one since he has been in the league for more than 20 years, but Mike Zimmer finished his first season as a head coach, and he felt he did alright.
“Well, honestly I never felt overwhelmed from the day I walked in,” Zimmer told the Star Tribune. “I was really lucky to walk into a place like this that has such a great support group. The people upstairs helped me in so many different ways. And then I was fortunate enough to have really good people that I could lean on like Norv Turner, who has been through this for quite a bit of time. Are there some things that I would do differently? Sure. Did I make some mistakes? Sure. But I felt like each and every day I came to work that I gave this team and the fans and the organization the very best I could give them.”
There is usually a grace period with a new coach. During the first season the coach gets to know his organization, personnel, staff and players, while observers take a look at the coach and begin to understand his likes, dislikes, tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. We have learned that Zimmer has all those things, but in year one he gets a pass.
He also gets a pass on the 2014 season for dealing with plenty of situations that weren’t of his making. We know them by heart—Jerome Simpson, Adrian Peterson and numerous injuries to key people. One look at the opening day roster compared to those starters walking off the field in the finale against the Bears, and you can see that plenty of change occurred this season.
Although he did occasionally mention them, Zimmer never used those situations as an excuse, nor would he have been granted that. As we all know, all teams go through personnel issues and it’s the well-coached ones with depth that can withstand them. And that is what we expect from a head coach, constructing a deep, well-coached team. But we also know that a rookie head coach experiences a learning curve, so we give Zimmer a pass.
“I believe in my heart that I’ll be even better next year with everything that I do just because I’ve been through all of these different things,” Zimmer said. “Were there things that surprised me? Sure. During games were there things that happened that the referee had to explain something to me? Yeah, but I don’t think that’s unique with any coach, let alone a first-year guy. The feedback that I got from the players was very positive. Now they might be just telling me stuff, but it was very positive from the ones I talked to.”
But the pass is not a lifetime E-ZPass for Zimmer. Here or anywhere in the NFL, things can and do change quickly, and grace periods have a definite termination date. Just ask former Chicago Bears head Marc Trestman, the offensive guru brought in to figure out quarterback Jay Cutler and get the Bears to the next level. They regressed to the lower level after two years under Trestman and he is gone. If there was a grace period for him in Chicago, it ended quickly and with a thud. Zimmer has been around long enough to know how the NFL works.
What Zimmer did is worth noting: he took a bottom-of-the-league defense and turned them into a very competitive one that kept the team in games while its rookie quarterback figured things out. The defense rose to within the top 10 for a good part of the season and the pass defense reached the rank of fourth best (finishing 7th). His defensive acumen had to be part of the reason why Zimmer was hired in the first place, and Zimmer did not disappoint in that regard.
But his first and perhaps best move was hiring Norv Turner, a successful offensive coordinator with head coaching experience who Zimmer could give the offense to while he focused on the defense. If Zimmer had instead chosen the role of solely team manager and head decision-maker as a coach, and not gotten as heavily involved in the daily education and development of the defense, the defense might not have improved so much so soon.
Zimmer had a hand in a decent first draft—if you simply look at the first round (Barr and Bridgewater). He did grab a starting running back with the third pick in Jerick McKinnon, but as to the remaining seven picks, the jury is still out on some (Shamar Stephen and Antone Exum, Jr.), the jury hasn’t heard enough evidence from others (Brandon Watts, Scott Crichton and David Yankey), they are gone (Kendall James) or may soon be (seventh rounder Jabari Price, who was arrested after the final game under the suspicion of DWI).
Getting three regular starters out of ten picks is fine, but precious little out of the rest is not, particularly on a team that saw eight new starters on defense this season. Zimmer is not fully responsible for personnel, but he has some say in the players he wants, so his marks are just okay in draft.
As to the main free agents and other personnel brought in, Zimmer and the Vikings were hit (Charles Johnson and Tom Johnson) and miss (Kurt Coleman, Derek Cox and Ben Tate). Players such as Jasper Brinkley and Linval Joseph had solid (but not exemplary) performances while Mike Harris and Corey Wootten were just okay and Captain Munnerlyn was eventually disappointing.
Some of these players will improve in a second season under Zimmer’s tutelage—it remains to be seen who does and who doesn’t get that opportunity.
As a field general, Zimmer showed leadership, fire, and emotion and definitely more than a pulse when he felt his team has been wronged. His game management skills were okay, but he needs to improve his clock management skills, like most of us would when taking on a new duty. Zimmer doesn’t think he did everything right, but he’s not throwing himself under the bus, either.
“Any time when you look at things realistically, I don’t feel like I’m one of those guys that’s going to say, ‘Hey, I did everything right or wrong,’ or even if I did, I’m not going to say it,” Zimmer said in response to a question about his game management. “In retrospect, you can always say [that] because it didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to turn out, you would have done it differently. The times when I made those decisions, most of the times, I felt like I was making the right ones.”
In the final analysis, Zimmer and his staff will be judged on his win-loss record, which in his first year was 7-9, a game-and-a-half improvement over his predecessor. If you are an optimist, that is only one game below.500, but then it is also one game away from being 6-10, which, with that double-digit in the loss column, looks a lot worse than 7-9.
If you say that the Vikings under Zimmer were very close to a winning record had they gotten a decent call in the Saints game or hadn’t imploded in the final seconds of the Bills game, than you must also acknowledge that the Bucs and Jets overtime games could have easily gone the other way—and the record could have been 5-11. Zimmer knew this--thus his weekly frustration with not getting wins, the mark by which he is ultimately judged.
The record is fine (I won my annual bet with my cousin, anyway), but what’s more important to me is improvement, and I saw it. I saw enough from Zimmer in talent assessment and as a leader, and I like how he handles the team and the direction he is headed. I give him a pass as a first year head coach, and I don’t feel guilty about doing so.
But since this is the NFL where changes happen quickly, the expectations are higher in year two. Zimmer gets another year to bring in the players he wants, teach them the way he wants them to play and work for the results he and everyone else desires. He needs to improve on 7-9 or suddenly the bouquets he is now receiving could become verbal firebombs. And perhaps the best sign is that Zimmer understands that:
“There were some good things that happened throughout the course of the year but not enough good things,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t finish where we needed to finish, and nothing in the NFL is guaranteed, nothing in the NFL stays the same. Anything that we did last year, whether it be good or bad, next year will be a different season and there will be different players, different teams that we’re playing against, different players on those teams, and so things happen so quickly.
“The most important thing for us is that right now that they get away from here for a little bit, they replenish their bodies, they refresh, and get back together as a football team and continue to try to preach the messages like I have up here on these signs, upstairs, that we get back to work and accomplish some of the goals that we want to get done.”
Joe Oberle is a senior writer at VikingsJournal.com, covers the NFL for The Sports Post and is managing editor of Minnesota Golfer magazine. He is an author and longtime Minnesota-based writer.