The Vikings, coming off an 11-5 season and their first NFC North title since the Brett Favre era, will officially open training camp in Mankato on Friday morning with the highest expectations for the organization since those 2009 and 2010 seasons.
These Vikings have a talented, young defensive core. They appear to have a still-ascending quarterback in third-year pro Teddy Bridgewater. They have a shiny, new home in U.S. Bank Stadium. And, of course, they have a fiery head coach in Mike Zimmer who has quickly won over the title-starved fan base one win — and one expletive — at a time.
Last month, we cornered Zimmer so we could get his thoughts on Bridgewater, the new stadium and how close the Vikings are to finally grabbing the Lombardi Trophy. Sneak preview: He isn’t ready to crown them yet, but he likes where they are heading.
Q: You talked last season about how there are four stages to becoming a winner. Where do you think this team is at now heading into your third year?
A: Every team is different. We learned how to win last year. I think we handled winning good. Obviously, we were able to win the division. But every team is different. So when you [look at] this team, there could be a lot of variables. We’ve got some new guys that will probably be playing. But we’ve got a good nucleus of guys coming back that know how we have to play. Part of things I’ve done [during spring workouts was] to try to teach them about who we are and how we have to play.
Q: With so many players coming back, how much do you have to change, if at all, your approach or your message or even the routine to try to avoid complacency?
A: I don’t think we need to change too much. I think when you’re successful, you continue to do things the best that you can and you keep trying to improve them. The routine hasn’t changed too much. There are things we are doing a little differently than we did last year. Nothing major.
Q: You obviously wanted to win the minute you walked in here. But it seems like organizationally a lot has been building toward 2016 with this new stadium, you in your third year, a lot of young players. Do you feel that way as well?
A: I never thought about 2016 when I got here. I thought about 2014.
Q: You wanted to make sure you were here for 2016, right?
A: [laughs] Yeah. But as far as the new stadium, it’s a little bit of a Catch-22 because we had to make TCF Bank Stadium a home-field advantage, and I think we did that by playing good. We played better than most of the teams we played there. Now the players don’t know how to get from the parking lot to locker room at the new stadium. We really have to kind of do the same thing this year. Just because somebody says, ‘You have a new stadium so you have a home-field advantage.’ No. We have to make it that way by playing good and doing the things necessary to win. And hopefully the fans will help us do that.
Q: Will you be able to open up those giant glass doors at the stadium in December and January to get it cold like it was at TCF? Do you have any input in that?
A: I think I do, yes. I’ve thought about that, but I’m thinking about September first.
Q: You brought in a new offensive line coach in Tony Sparano and signed guard Alex Boone and offensive tackle Andre Smith in free agency. You’ve got center John Sullivan back. Is it fair to say that this is going to be one of the position groups you’ll really have your eye on in training camp to see how all of that gets sorted out?
A: I think there will be a lot of competition in training camp, and that’s really what we were trying to do — develop a certain demeanor through competition. And if a guy doesn’t perform good, then there’s a chance he is going to get beat out and not have a job. So that’s really all we’re trying to do. But yeah, I do think I’ll be [watching that closely]. I don’t want to evaluate things until we get into pads in training camp and then kind of go from there.
Q: If that group is better, as you hope it will be, and with the addition of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, do you think it’s setting the stage for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to really take a big step forward in his development?
A: Yeah, I do. I think we have some good weapons offensively, and I think if the offensive line plays better, we’ll have more time to throw the ball vertically down the field. But the one thing that everybody talks about, the most important thing for a quarterback is winning. There’s nothing more important than winning. I don’t know what his record is, but it’s pretty darn good. And to me, that’s more of a telltale than anything else. … He understands what we’re trying to do philosophically as an organization and as a team.
Q: The offense got away from shotgun formations during the 2015 season. Is the plan to get more of that back into the offense to cater to Bridgewater? And how much does that hinge on running back Adrian Peterson’s comfort level?
A: We’re trying to mix both in. We’re trying to get Teddy under center quite a bit, but we’re also trying to get Adrian in the shotgun, too, because I think there is a combination of both of those two things that we need to continue to work on and continue to develop.
Q: What do you think needs to happen for Adrian to find that comfort level? Because it’s not like he could go out and practice 11-on-11 tackling situations on his own during the offseason.
A: It’s really just his path and getting his shoulders squared to the line of scrimmage when he gets the ball. When he does that, he has cutback lanes. He has front-side runs and cuts. And that’s kind of really what the shotgun runs are for the most part. It’s all about being able to get his shoulders square like he does in the I-formation. It’s more about the steps that he takes and the path [to the line of scrimmage].
Q: What do you want to see from your defense that you haven’t seen from them consistently the past two seasons?
A: In order for us to really take the next step, we’re going to have to be a little better against the run. I do think, watching these guys, that we’ll pass-rush pretty good. But we have to get some more turnovers. And that’s a product of disrupting the quarterback and maybe being able to give some different looks that we haven’t shown too much of.
Q: How open is that competition next to safety Harrison Smith? Could someone like Antone Exum or Anthony Harris get involved in that competition?
A: I have no preconceived ideas at all. It might still be [Andrew] Sendejo. I don’t know.
Q: You guys have a lot of depth defensively. Is this one of the deepest groups you think you’ve had, especially with the additions you made in the secondary?
A: Well, if we have everybody healthy, I think we’re pretty deep, yeah. I think the linebackers with [Anthony] Barr and [Chad] Greenway and everyone else, we’re pretty deep there. I think we have some guys at corner; it’s just a question of how fast some of these young guys come along. And the defensive line seems like we’ve got some good depth as well.
Q: Fill in the blank. The Vikings will be Super Bowl contenders in 2016 if _______.
A: Hmmm. I think if we continue to progress, in the expectations I have for this team, I think we can. I like how this team works. I like how they study. I like how they compete. But at the end of the day it’s about playing good and not making silly mistakes and beating ourselves. It’s probably too early to say we’re Super Bowl contenders. We have to stay healthy. We have to get better offensively. We have to stop the run better defensively. There are a lot of things. But I do like the way that we’re progressing.