This Packers Week represents what Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf were pursuing two years ago when they joined General Manager Rick Spielman in traveling the country searching for Leslie Frazier’s successor.
“We liked the idea of building on our defense,” Zygi said. “We felt that gives you the chance to be consistently competitive. We understood that more clearly after a few years when we didn’t have it. We saw that you can have a good offense, but if you don’t have the defense, you’re not going to stay in games in our division.”
The NFC North has crowned 13 champions since it was formed in 2002. The Packers have won eight times, including the past four.
Green Bay, of course, has the best formula for winning. But an active streak of 24 seasons with a Hall of Fame quarterback isn’t so easy to duplicate. So one requires a Plan B if one wants to compete consistently with the Packers.
Enter Mike Zimmer, a well-rounded defensive strategist known for teaching old-school fundamentals while pushing the league’s evolution forward with new-school creativity. With his key defenders healthy again and Adrian Peterson somehow still in his prime, Zimmer is on his way to Green Bay for a pivotal showdown.
If this were the Old West, Zimmer and Packers coach Mike McCarthy would meet outside the saloon at high noon. Green Bay has the saloons, but high noon wasn’t good for TV ratings, so the NFC North title will be decided in prime time at Lambeau Field in the last regular-season game. Perfect.
As the defensive guy in today’s NFL, Zimmer gets the black hat. As the elite offensive play-caller who has reigned over the division with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers for most of the past decade, McCarthy gets the white hat.
The white hat looks vulnerable. But beware. Six weeks ago, the feeling was similar. The Vikings were rolling and the Packers were getting rolled. But the white hat rode home from TCF Bank Stadium with a 30-13 reminder of who’s still sheriff in these parts.
Zimmer is 0-3 against the Packers, but Rodgers has completed only 55.6 percent of his passes for an average of 210.5 yards in the past two meetings, including a 24-21 decision last year. Granted, Rodgers’ touchdown-to-interception ratio is 4-0, so Zimmer still has some heavy lifting ahead of him.
Picking a coach
Whether Zimmer scales Mount Cheesehead Sunday, next year or never is yet to be determined. But the Wilfs are confident they have the right structure to produce consistent opportunities for that to happen.
Spielman was promoted four seasons ago to general manager with final say on personnel. Two years ago, he led the extensive coaching search and presented his preferred candidate to the Wilfs. But the Wilfs didn’t have to be sold on Zimmer because they had participated in the process from the very beginning, which is uncharacteristic of most NFL owners.
“The first time I met with other teams before, they didn’t have the owners there,” Zimmer said. “It was good. I feel we had a good dialogue.”
Spielman led the interviews. Also present were George Paton, the assistant general manager; and Jonathan Wilf, Zygi’s son and an executive vice president.
“As we were interviewing seven to eight coaches and poring through maybe 20 to 30 biographies, it was a thorough effort intended to get the structure right,” Mark said. “We did not want to go through what we went through before. The common denominator for the successful teams was a strong general manager. We wanted a coach who fit the structure so that we’re competitive year in and year out like some of the great franchises.”
Trying to turnaround
Zimmer inherited a team that lost 13 games in 2011, won 10 games in 2012 and lost 10 games in 2013. It also ranked last in scoring defense (30.0 points allowed per game) in 2013 and next-to-last in 2011 (28.1).
Meanwhile, the Packers were winning three NFC North titles, even doing so at 8-7-1 when Rodgers missed seven games in 2013.
Zimmer was 57 and fed up with interviewing for head coaching jobs only to be overlooked. He almost backed out of his second interview with the Vikings, and might have if he hadn’t hit it off with Spielman and gotten a good sense of the Wilf’s desire to win after nine years with only one playoff victory.
“The more I was around Zygi and Mark, the more I felt like they wanted to win really bad,” Zimmer said. “And No. 2, they were willing to do whatever they needed to do to help us win.”
The day after games, Spielman and Zimmer meet with the Wilfs either in person if they’re in town after a home game or via video conference. Zimmer said he likes that the Wilfs ask questions to stay informed but still allow him and Spielman to do what they feel is best.
“Those meetings are always better after a win,” Zimmer joked. “But they just ask questions about situations that happened in the game, injuries, about how we’re going to get going next week, are we going to get this guy involved more? Things like that.
“But it’s all really positive. It’s never anything negative whatsoever. It’s calm and understanding, and I explain things if I messed up and tell them what I should have done better.”
Packers stats down
Zimmer heads to Green Bay with a defense that ranks sixth in scoring (19.3), ninth against the pass (232.3), eighth in third downs (36.1 percent) and fourth in the red zone (46.2 percent). Meanwhile, the Packers’ offense has struggled more this season than at any other point in McCarthy’s 10 seasons as coach.
The Packers rank uncharacteristically low in scoring (13th), passing (26th), third-down offense (27th) and red-zone offense (16th). Rodgers has the worst passer rating (93.7) of his career as a starter.
But, as they showed six weeks ago, the Packers should never be underestimated after a poor performance. Of course, either way, Zimmer has clinched a playoff berth and has a chance to join Dennis Green as the only coaches in team history to win a division title within their first two seasons.
“After years in business, you have a sense on people,” Mark Wilf said. “Mike is very straightforward, very hard-nosed, very accountable. He works hard and he gets the most out of his players. That really showed through in the interviews. And his track record spoke for itself.
“With some great quarterbacks in our division, a defensive-minded coach fit. Mike was what this team needs, this building needs. We love the way he’s handled this team.”