Mike Zimmer can’t remember what he did or thought or said the night of Oct. 18, when the hapless Atlanta Falcons sucker-punched his Vikings to a 1-5 start inside an eerily lifeless U.S. Bank Stadium.
The Vikings coach rubs his eyes, trying to think backward in a forward-thinking profession. It’s Friday, the end of a short week of long hours after a Monday night game in Chicago. He’s running on fumes and still has one practice, a team meeting and four media interviews before he can leave TCO Performance Center for the sleep he’ll need to be at his best when old friend Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys come calling on Sunday.
“Honestly, I haven’t done anything special the past month,” Zimmer told the Star Tribune in a Zoom call Friday morning. “I just went about each week, talking about the things we have to do, sticking with it, understanding.
“We were 1-5 and it looked bad to me, too. It was such a weird feeling in the stadium that day. It was dead quiet. We were dead. But I’m just telling you, I don’t think I did anything special.”
Others disagree as the Vikings have won three straight games, sweeping their NFC North foes with exactly the kind of old-school football Zimmer and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak envisioned.
“[Zimmer didn’t] just start blurting things out,” said running back Dalvin Cook, the MVP-caliber catalyst behind the Vikings’ unexpected resurgence. “His message was kind of brief. It was, ‘Stick together.’ I think that took us farther than he thinks.”
The question now is how much further can the Vikings go? They’re 4-5 with three straight home games against the Cowboys (2-7), Panthers (3-7) and Jaguars (1-8).
Could 1-5 be a setback that’s remembered as the setup for one of Zimmer’s finest moments in coaching?
What say you, Mike?
“I don’t know in the past how many teams have come back from 1-5 to get to the playoffs,” he said. “But I will say this. My coaches have coached their rear ends off, especially with these young guys. I really can’t say enough about the job they’ve done. It’s been a challenge to come up with things. Some of these players are really young.”
Well, Mike, if you do indeed reach the playoffs, you will join Paul Brown (1970 Bengals), Andy Reid (2015 Chiefs) and Frank Reich (2018 Colts) as the only head coaches to make the playoffs after starting 1-5. They finished first, second and third, respectively, in NFL Coach of the Year voting those years.
Going back to the future
Through his sleep-deprivation of Friday morning, Zimmer finally remembers something different he did the past month. Something unusual. Something born in the midst of a global pandemic and not having an offseason or a preseason to get to know his own team. Something a guy with 27 years of NFL coaching experience does when injuries, a COVID-19 opt-out and a bye-week trade force him to play seven defensive rookies against Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau Field.
“A couple weeks ago — I don’t remember which game — but one of the ones we had to play all these young guys, I went to Mary Redmond, my assistant,” Zimmer said. “I said, ‘Mary, we’re going to go back to old school this week. We’re going to go back to when I was in Dallas in 2003 or something like that. We’re going to pull something out of the archives and see if we can adapt it to today’s NFL football.’ ”
Zimmer had an idea for how to attack an offense. But to pull it off, he knew he needed to simplify things for the young players. He needed basic schemes from a less intricate era of NFL defensive game planning.
“So we did that,” Zimmer said. “And we won, obviously.”
Zimmer hasn’t grown soft at 64. But it does seem the old dog is getting some new lessons in how to roll with the punches of a pandemic and a roster filled with peach-fuzz-faced defenders.
This comes to mind when you hear him tell the story of rookie linebacker Troy Dye sprinting onto the field as an illegal 12th defender as Rodgers is snapping the ball on third-and-3 near midfield while trailing 28-14 late in the fourth quarter.
The rookie blunder cost the Vikings a sack and allowed Rodgers to make it a six-point game six plays later.
“It’s kind of a funny story,” Zimmer said. “I’m watching the play and there goes Troy. I’m like, ‘Where the heck is Troy going?’ He said he heard his personnel group and just started running. There’s been some of those moments this year that don’t typically happen.”
Zimmer is more understanding of this team’s shortcomings. But make no mistake. There’s still plenty of bark left in the team’s top dog.
“I’m very opinionated, obviously,” Zimmer said. “So I give my opinion on things.”
Just ask special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf. ESPN cameras caught Zimmer giving Maalouf a full-throated earful of heated opinion on the sideline after a kicking mistake allowed Chicago’s Cordarrelle Patterson to take the second-half kickoff 104 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
“I love his passion,” Maalouf said. “With him, there’s no gray. He wants to know what’s going on, and I’m OK with that. I’m going to tell him exactly what’s going on. I don’t back down from anybody. If he’s coming at me, I’m coming at him 100 percent to make sure he knows what the situation is.”
Special teams have been an aggravating weakness even during the winning streak.
“Mike’s also the first one to say, ‘OK, what do we need to do to get better? Do you need to use more veterans? Do you need more practice time?’ ” Maalouf said. “That’s the type of guy he is.”
Zimmer said the sideline dust-ups are nothing personal. His coaching mentor, Bill Parcells, taught him that the hard way decades ago in Dallas.
“Parcells actually punched one coach,” Zimmer said with a laugh.
No, it wasn’t as serious as Buddy Ryan throwing a right cross to the chin of Kevin Gilbride on the Oilers sideline back in 1993.
It was more of a jab to the chest.
“The coach wouldn’t stop yelling at the officials,” Zimmer said. “So, yeah, Bill got after me a little bit here and there.”
Parcells still calls Zimmer. Usually, it’s once a week. This week, it was twice. Nothing scares the Hall of Fame coach quite like a three-game winning streak followed by three straight games that everyone now assumes the Vikings will win.
“Parcells told me, ‘You know all these people are going to play hopscotch with you,’ ” Zimmer said. “He said, ‘They’re going to look at your schedule and they’re going to count three wins for you here.’ Human nature takes over. You have to keep your thumb on the players.”
Zimmer’s message to the team two days before playing the 2020 Cowboys was a lesson he learned when the 1994 Cowboys gave him his first NFL job.
By then, the Cowboys had won two Super Bowls that decade. They wouldn’t win their third of the decade until the following season.
“The young guys weren’t around when the 1989 team went 1-15,” Zimmer said. “They came in thinking things were easy in Dallas. But the veterans always brought up never forgetting what it felt like to be 1-15 and what it took to turn that around. For us, this year, it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, remember 1-5 and what that felt like.’ ”