Mike Zimmer climbs the steps to his office, opens the door, takes a deep breath and says something that makes it seem silly that you’ve asked to talk to him about the difficulty of staying focused during one of the more tumultuous opening months for a first-year coach in NFL history.
“It was five years ago today,” Zimmer said Wednesday. “Five years ago today is when my wife [Vikki] died. So, for me, today obviously is a hard day. But when I think about all the things I’m thinking about with her, I know I still have to go out there and focus on doing what I have to do, football-wise.”
Five years ago, Zimmer was the one who found Vikki when he got home from his job as Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator. She was 50 and hadn’t been sick. Three days later, Bengals players gave Zimmer a game ball after he helped them beat the rival Baltimore Ravens.
“I can’t even begin to imagine what it took to do that,” Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said. “Incredible.”
Zimmer’s NFL regular-season head coaching debut seems like a long, long time ago. But it has been only 35 days since he beat the Rams 34-6 in St. Louis with every piece of his team in place, except for special teams coach Mike Priefer, who was serving his two-game suspension for making an anti-gay remark.
“The weird thing about it is the OTAs, training camp and everything else was so smooth,” Zimmer said. “Everything was kind of like how I envisioned it would be. And then the St. Louis game was pretty much the same way. And then, I don’t know, whatever the word is, it kind of hit the fan.”
‘Can you believe …?’
Since then, Zimmer and the Vikings have been hit repeatedly with bad news. It began, of course, when Adrian Peterson, the best player and the foundation upon which the team was built, was indicted on felony child abuse charges in Texas and removed from the team on Sept. 12.
“That was pretty much a blindside,” Zimmer said. “I thought it was a done issue.”
The hits kept coming. Zimmer lost his starting quarterback, right guard and tight end in one game. He agreed to release receiver Jerome Simpson when news of more legal trouble surfaced days before Simpson was set to return from a three-game suspension. He started three different quarterbacks in 12 days. He got blown out 42-10 in Lambeau Field on national television and, oh yeah, he also picked up his phone to discover that defensive tackle Tom Johnson had been arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and trespassing last weekend.
“This tape is what keeps me grounded,” said Zimmer, nodding to a big screen on his office wall. “I look at the tape and start studying about whoever we’re playing. When I do that, I can’t worry about it. I have to get over whatever situation has come up.”
There isn’t much free time for an NFL coach. And that’s probably a good thing, Zimmer said, because it’s in those moments when the mind is distracted.
“It’s when you’re sitting around with the coaches in the meetings and you say, ‘Can you believe all the crap that’s going on?’ ” Zimmer said. “I’ve had a lot of friends in the coaching business and some coaches here say things like that. Sometimes, it’s comical, some of the things.”
Comical as in ludicrous, not humorous, Zimmer said.
Purple bed & breakfast
When he was an assistant, Zimmer spent fall Friday afternoons hunting whatever was in season. As a head coach with an overflowing plate, even that brief respite is out of the question.
“My dad has been sick,” Zimmer said. “He’s getting better, but I find myself on a Friday afternoon saying, ‘Shoot, I haven’t talked to my dad in 10 days.’ Sometimes, my daughter makes me go to the grocery store because we have no food. I wish I had more time.”
Zimmer nods to the other side of the room at what looks like a wooden dresser, but has no drawers.
“It’s a pullout bed,” he said. “Pretty nice one. Slept there every night last week.”
Zimmer’s greatest escape amid the firestorm of injuries and off-the-field issues is watching film in his office late into the night.
This is where Zimmer retreated after the 41-28 win over the Falcons on Sept. 21. With rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater suffering a sprained ankle and the Packers game just four days away, Zimmer said he slept “maybe a couple hours.”
As it turned out, Christian Ponder started and played poorly. When the Packers led 28-0 at halftime, Ponder had a 13.4 passer rating and two interceptions that led to 14 points.
But it was the defense that bothered Zimmer more than the performance of a third-string quarterback.
“There is the old adage that some days you may not throw and catch as well, but you can always play good defense,” Zimmer said. “That’s kind of what has irked me so much this past week. I know the Packers are a good offensive team. I know they got great offensive weapons and a great quarterback. But we did not play anywhere near what I consider good defensive football.”
Having a player’s back
Zimmer has joked that he already has enough material to write a book about his head coaching career. What he went through during the first six days of the Peterson saga could fill quite a chunk of the book.
Peterson was deactivated the day he was indicted, which was the Friday before the Patriots game. He was reinstated the Monday after the game during a contentious news conference in which angry reporters screamed pointed questions at General Manager Rick Spielman. Two days later, after some strong-arming from team sponsors and direction from the league, the Vikings held another news conference in which Peterson was placed on a special exempt list until his case is resolved.
Two games into his head coaching career, Zimmer had 10 satellite TV trucks parked outside his team’s headquarters. At one point during a news conference, Zimmer pleaded, “How ’bout those Patriots?”
“Yeah,” said Zimmer, “it’s pretty odd when you’re asking people to ask you about getting your butt kicked.”
A day after Peterson went on the exempt list, Zimmer was leaving the field for his Thursday post-practice talk with the beat writers. In what has become an all-too-familiar ritual, he was stopped by Bob Hagan, the team’s executive director of public relations, and informed about a new report. This time, it was Simpson’s latest run-in with the law.
“Honestly, I don’t remember if that’s when I found out about Jerome,” Zimmer said this week. “There have been so many days like that.”
Like everything that has happened the past month, Zimmer said he’s hoping the Simpson incident served as a teaching tool for the rest of the team.
“I want to stick with the players,” Zimmer said. “And I’ve told the players this. If they’ll fight for me and they’re good guys and they make a mistake, I want to stick with them. I want to fight for them. And I want to show that I have their back.
“But if a guy continually messes up or I don’t feel like he’s really a good person, then I really don’t have a lot of sympathy for him.”
A dad’s toughness
Behind the walls of Winter Park this week, Zimmer has been described as the opposite of the combustible and almost cartoonish character that he became known for during his foul-mouthed rants on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series. Many close to the situation insist that Zimmer has maintained his composure while searching for alternative ways to win, which is something he admires most about the Patriots’ mentality the past 15 seasons.
“My dad was tough,” Zimmer said. “He was my coach in high school for a long time. Sometimes, I wonder if I really am tough. Like when my wife passed away in Cincinnati.
“I had gone in there preaching toughness to the defense the entire time since I got there. I didn’t ever want them to think that the first sign of something happening that I would be weak. So, really, part of what I did was me just continually trying to instill what I had to instill in them.”
He said he also learned how not to behave when he was Atlanta defensive coordinator in 2007. When things went bad, Falcons coach Bobby Petrino quit during the season.
“I’m trying to instill the toughness that I want these guys to have,” Zimmer said. “I don’t want them to see me saying, ‘Woe is me’ over the stuff that has happened. I’ve seen a coach quit on his team.
“Regardless of how bad it gets, I’ll never use anything as an excuse. I can’t let our football team see that the guy who supposedly is leading them is going to flinch the first time I get a punch thrown at me.”