Green Bay, Wis. – Football fans around the nation who are just getting to know Mike Zimmer should understand that his face wasn’t turned red by the Wisconsin cold. He always looks that way.
They should know that he didn’t vehemently clear his nostrils on national television for effect. He does that pretty much everywhere there isn’t carpeting.
Most of all they should know that the fast, quarterback-confusing defense he ran Sunday night isn’t a gimmick. He’s been coaching that for decades.
For those who know Zimmer, the Vikings’ 20-13 victory over the Packers wasn’t a revelation. It was a reminder.
Zimmer has been admired as a defensive coach for years. What he proved Sunday was that he is more than just that. At the end of his second regular season as a head coach, at the age of 59, Zimmer’s defense throttled the Packers and star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and his coached-up team won the Vikings’ first division title since 2009.
Even while wearing gloves, Zimmer left fingerprints all over this game, and this season. Missing stout nose tackle Linval Joseph, his defense gave up 38 rushing yards and a field goal on the Packers’ first drive of the game, then didn’t surrender another score until the fourth quarter.
The Vikings defense scored as many touchdowns as the Packers offense.
The Vikings entered the game with nebulous motivation. If they won, they would face the Seattle Seahawks, perhaps the hottest team in football, in the first round of the playoffs. If they lost, they would play a rematch against the struggling Packers at Lambeau.
Zimmer left no doubt about his intentions. He called for a fake punt on fourth-and-3 from the Vikings 38 in the first quarter, and Adam Thielen ran for 41 yards. This was a coach intent on winning a championship against the Vikings’ primary rival, not throwing down salt on a theoretically preferable playoff path. “We didn’t come here to finish second,” Zimmer said.
There are five head coaching vacancies in the NFL, and probably a few more on the way. Zimmer was on the market so long he almost gave up before interviewing with the Vikings, and now in his second year, he is deserving of at least a few honorable mention Coach of the Year votes.
He took over a bad team with a passive defense. He accepted the challenge of catching the Packers, who had dominated the division with a Hall of Fame quarterback.
If Zimmer were vindictive, he could send a recording of this game to all the teams that hired someone instead of him, all the teams that are already looking for a replacement.
“We started out two years ago trying to do something special,” he said. “I told the guys last night it’s no surprise we have gotten to where we are.”
It was late Sunday night. Zimmer stood on a podium deep inside Lambeau, his sweatshirt soaked because of the Gatorade bath administered at the end of the game by Chad Greenway. He wore an NFC North championship cap and tried to keep from grinning too much.
When he earned his first victory as a head coach, in the 2014 season opener at St. Louis, his players dumped Gatorade on him. Asked Sunday how he felt, Zimmer said: “Sticky. I told them we wouldn’t do that again until we won a championship.”
Zimmer called his players “special.” That might be true, but most of them are the same as or similar to the players who won five games two years ago and seven last season. Zimmer is the primary difference, Zimmer and the coaches and players he brought in.
The game ended with Rodgers launching a pass toward the end zone. A handful of exhausted Vikings defenders knocked it down, bringing the rest of the team cascading onto the field, and Gatorade onto the back of Zimmer’s neck.
Zimmer will probably reward himself with a glass of red wine and a night on his office couch.