GREEN BAY, WIS. – The weekend began as farce, segued into dark comedy and culminated in crisis. The Vikings’ annual trip to Wisconsin eliminated them from playoff contention and for the first time exposed fissures in relationships between coach Mike Zimmer and key players.
After getting stuck on the team plane for hours on the runway in Appleton on Friday, the Vikings played on Saturday as if they had already pulled the emergency exit on the season and leaped into the void.
For the second time in six days, Mike Zimmer’s defense was filleted by a top quarterback in a meaningful game. The Packers and Aaron Rodgers beat the Vikings, 38-25 shortly after the Colts and Andrew Luck beat them 34-6.
For the first time, Rodgers dismantled a Vikings defense coached by Zimmer, and for the first time Zimmer found himself publicly at odds with players he values.
In previous games against the Packers, Vikings cornerbacks have played a side of the field rather than following Packers receiver Jordy Nelson. Zimmer said Saturday that he wanted cornerback Xavier Rhodes to follow Nelson.
That’s not what happened in the first half. On the Packers’ first possession, Rhodes, Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn all covered Nelson, who finished the first half with seven catches on seven targets for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
In the second half, Rhodes covered Nelson on both sides of the field. Nelson caught two more passes for nine more yards.
“Well, that’s what he was supposed to do all game,” Zimmer said. “Someone decided that they wouldn’t do that.”
When did Zimmer notice that the players weren’t following the plan? “In the first half when Terence Newman came over and said something to me like ‘I can cover this guy, let me have him,’ ” Zimmer said. “I said, ‘Do what you’re supposed to do.’ ”
Asked about Zimmer’s quotes, Rhodes said: “To be honest, I really don’t want to answer that. That’s something. … That’s … nah, never mind. I will not answer that question.”
Rhodes reconsidered, saying: “Matter of fact, forget it. We felt as a team and as players we came together, we felt like we never done that when we played against the Packers and, I mean, as a DB I felt like we can handle it. So we felt as DBs that we could stay on our side and cover him because in the beginning, we always played against him, we always played sides, we never followed …”
When did the players decide to create their own plan? “The decision was all through practice,” Rhodes said.
Did Zimmer say anything to him during the game? “Not to my memory,” Rhodes said.
Did the defensive backs broach the subject with Zimmer? “We just felt like we should play sides,” Rhodes said. “As the game went on our coaches demanded and told me I needed to follow him.”
Zimmer’s perceived strengths are taking a beating. In a crucial six-day stretch, his team gave up 72 points, lost two must-win games and displayed a lack of respect for his leadership.
His offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, walked out on him during the middle of the season. Zimmer brought Newman to Minnesota because of their previous relationship. Zimmer has delighted in coaching Rhodes, who made the Pro Bowl this season.
Not long ago you would have named Turner, Rhodes and Newman among Zimmer’s most important professional relationships. Now one is gone and two appear willing to defy him.
“I need to do a better job,” Zimmer said. “I haven’t done a good enough job this year. After the season, I’m going to sit down and evaluate everything, not just the players and not just the evaluations that we do on players, but everything — myself included.”
As the Vikings have lost eight of their past 10 games, Zimmer often has appeared angry or dismissive, and that was before Rhodes revealed the players’ defiance of his plans.
As it turns out, Zimmer’s weekend would have been much more enjoyable had he never gotten off the plane.