Mike Zimmer stood in a corner of the Winter Park fieldhouse 11½ months ago, thanked the Vikings for a head coaching opportunity he thought might never come, and vowed that his teams would make Minnesota proud by playing "tough, resilient, physical football."
On Tuesday, after a tumultuous but productive first season in which he lost his star running back and found a promising prospect at quarterback, Zimmer was back in that same corner and was asked to sum up everything he had accomplished since the Vikings introduced him as their new coach back in January.
"There was some good things that happened during the course of the year, but not enough good things," Zimmer said. "We didn't finish where we needed to finish. Nothing in the NFL is guaranteed. Nothing in the NFL stays the same. Anything we did last year whether good or bad. Next year will be a different season. … Things happen so quickly."
When Zimmer took the job, he had a star running back in Adrian Peterson, an offensive line with talent and experience, and a giant question at quarterback. Now, rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is one of the few things he can count on in offense, with Peterson in limbo and the annual roster churn looming.
Defensively, after an active offseason and the installation of eight new starters, the Vikings rose from 31st in the NFL in total defense in 2013 to 14th.
"It's not anywhere close to where I want to be," Zimmer said. "Did we make some strides in some areas? Yeah, I think so. But it's not really what I'm looking for."
He said he expects roster turnover, though he does think the Vikings "have a good, young nucleus of talent here."
The coaching staff begins player evaluations next week, and then Zimmer will meet with General Manager Rick Spielman and the front office to start sketching up a plan for free agency and the NFL draft.
"Myself, Rick, scouts, the coaches are committed to turning every rock possible to keep working on acquisition of talent, whether it's in the Canadian Football League, or college, free agency," Zimmer said. "We're going to work diligently on trying to improve this football team the very best we can."
While the Vikings didn't show the toughness and resiliency late in games that Zimmer in January said that he hoped he would see — four of their final five losses were by three points or fewer — he feels like he is changing the culture at Winter Park.
It started last spring, when he altered not only how the players practiced, but how they lifted weights, dieted and traveled.
"It's moving in that direction as far as developing the mind-set; it's developing the mental toughness, all the things, really, that I said in the first press conference I ever had," Zimmer said. "I don't believe we're there yet. I believe there's still a lot of preaching, a lot of sweat and pushing that I have to make sure I continue to do."
After his meetings, he will get a chance to escape to warmer weather and relax. He plans to spend some time drinking red wine and riding his tractor, though presumably not simultaneously.
But when he takes a few moments to deeply reflect on his whirlwind 2014 and how he steered the Vikings through adversity to a 7-9 finish, he will feel good about how his first season in Minnesota played out.
"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 into work that I gave this team, the fans and the organization the very best that I could give them," Zimmer said. "And 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 these different things."