Mike Zimmer’s Blunt Honesty is What Makes Him the Best Coach in the Twin Cities

Snap, I thought, was maybe a little high, but it’s a chip shot. He’s got to make it.
— Mike Zimmer postgame after Blair Walsh’s potential game-winning kick went wide left on Sunday

There is a segment of the Minnesota Vikings fanbase that is upset that Mike Zimmer would call out his kicker, Blair Walsh, for missing a 27-yard field goal with less than a minute remaining in Sunday’s playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. After all, it was a kicker’s nightmare, something difficult for all involved to fully comprehend given that all nine of the points Minnesota scored that day were on Walsh field goals.

Zimmer is right in what he said, however, and Walsh echoed his sentiment postgame. Even though he had just had an Ace Ventura moment, the kicker didn’t channel his inner Ray Finkle and complain that the laces of the football were pointed toward his foot as he swung through the ball. “It was so quick I have no idea what happened,” Walsh said after the game. “You have to look back at the film, but I can tell you this: it is my fault. I know Jeff (Locke) did his job and Kevin (McDermott) did his job, and I am the only one who didn’t do my job, so that is on me.”

Zimmer’s brutal honesty has created a culture of accountability in the Vikings locker room. Just as it’s hard to imagine another Love Boat or Whizzinator incident under his watch, the no-nonsense coach also isn’t going to mince words about why his team lost the game. Sure, Adrian Peterson should have secured the ball and not allowed Seattle to have a favorable possession late in the game. Sure, Captain Munnerlyn should have stayed in his lane and not allowed Russell Wilson to escape the pocket and make a pass to a wide-open Tyler Lockett. And yes, Locke should have held the laces out. But ultimately if Walsh makes his chip shot, Minnesota advances and none of that matters.

“I know people are giving me a hard time about saying he needed to make that kick,” said Zimmer on Tuesday at his final press conference, “but if it would’ve been Kyle Rudolph in the endzone, I would’ve said he needed to make that catch, or if it would’ve been Xavier Rhodes, you need to knock that ball down.”

Zimmer didn’t say anything to Walsh after the game, but he addressed Walsh in front of the team before his final press conference. He also acknowledged that Walsh had a good year and played well throughout the game, even if he didn’t come through in the end. His personality has also rubbed off on other players on the team. Peterson said after the game he told Walsh the team knows they wouldn’t have been in the game if he hadn’t made the previous three field goals. Chad Greenway said he was shocked he missed it. Locke said it was on him, McDermott, the longsnapper, and Walsh — together the unit failed.

“He’s got to keep his head up,” Everson Griffen said after the game. “You know, just have to keep his head up. It’s a field goal he should have made, he made three of them beforehand. It’s a field goal he should have made, but at the end of the day he missed it and he’ll learn from his mistakes, move on, and get better from it.”

Zimmer has found a balance between keeping players accountable and not blaming them alone for the outcome of a game. He preaches teamwork while understanding that individuals make game-changing plays. He knows the importance of preparation throughout the week, but understands that all that matters is the final score of the game on Sunday. His players’ comments reflect his ethos, suggesting that he has slowly but surely formed this team in his image.

“I expect our guys to perform all of the time, but I thought our team handled it remarkably well,” he said of the loss on Tuesday. “[Walsh] wasn’t on the field when we didn’t cover the guy when Wilson grabbed the ball and ran it and threw it down to the one-yard line. He wasn’t on the field when we fumbled. There was a lot of other situations throughout the course of the ballgame. One play does not win or lose. Unfortunately for kickers, it’s the finality of the situation. It happens and we had many, many opportunities to win the football game.”

This is why Zimmer can be blunt: he’s right. And he’s fair. It’s not just on Walsh, but he has to make the chip shot. Wilson made an incredibly athletic play, but Munnerlyn could have handled that situation better. Kam Chancellor went in for a textbook strip on Peterson, but his running back has to hang onto the ball. Also, nine points is not a commanding lead in a football game, no matter how cold it is outside.

It’s only natural for Vikings fans to ask where Walsh’s missed kick ranks on the team’s all-time blunders list. It brought to mind Gary Anderson’s missed kick in the 1998 NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons and Brett Favre’s throw across his body against the New Orleans Saints in the 2010 NFC Championship Game.

The obvious difference is Walsh’s kick came in the first round, rather than the game to get into the Super Bowl, although Seattle is the two-time defending NFC Champions. But in 1998 the Vikings were projected to be contenders in the NFC; this year a winning record before the opening of their new stadium would have been considered a successful season. And in 2010, Minnesota was a veteran-laden team with an aging quarterback; this year they are a young, up-and-coming squad with a 23-year-old playcaller.

Walsh’s kick was devastating in the moment, but not nearly as heartbreaking in the grand scheme of things. A reminder of where we were five years ago: The Vikings were in the Dome, the Twins were opening up Target Field, the Wild had just finished up their honeymoon, and the Wolves botched the NBA draft in almost an unthinkable way. Favre’s interception just added insult to injury.

“Imagine being a die-hard living in Minnesota or South Dakota after Sunday’s loss,” Bill Simmonswrote back in 2010, offering a view from the outside. “It’s three degrees outside, you have one year left with Joe Mauer, your basketball GM choked with Ricky Rubio, you have a .500 hockey team, and your football team is coming back nine months from now with the same bumbling coach and a 41-year-old QB … and that’s before we get to the fact that God might legitimately hate your team, or that it’s going to be 20 degrees or colder for the next two months, or that everyone around you is just as depressed as you are. How do you get out of bed? How do you function that Monday? So much for spiritual optimism.”

Fast-forward five years and now Mauer and Rubio are maligned for being injury-prone — although the Rubio pick worked out much better than it looked at the time — the Wild are a playoff team that can’t get past the Chicago Blackhawks.

Really, all of these teams face the same issue: Getting caught in Playoff Hell. The Wild are there now, having been stymied by the Blackhawks three straight years. The Wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but are mired in another losing season and haven’t made the postseason since 2004, when they were previously caught in Playoff Hell. And the Twins finished the season with a winning record for the first time since … 2010.

All four teams are in a better place than they were five years ago. They all have young players, including some with high-end talent. The question is where they all will be in 2020. A lot of it will come down to coaching.

Sam Mitchell is maligned by fans and media alike, was thrust into his position by the tragic death of Flip Saunders and is sitting on a very favorable job given the young talent on the Wolves roster. Mike Yeo is young and appears overwhelmed by the job at hand at times, allowing his emotions to get the best of him while coaching a team full of young players and established veterans who are in win-now mode. Paul Molitor might give Zimmer a run for his money, and if the Twins make the playoffs in his second season, there’s a case to be made there. But for right now, Zimmer has given people a reason to believe his team could win a championship by 2020. They are a year ahead of schedule, have a promising young quarterback, a core of young and talented players and were a chip shot away from dethroning a team that has gone to the Super Bowl in back-to-back years.

“I have such high expectations that I don’t think we exceeded expectations anywhere,” he said in his year-end press conference, encouraging words in a market where everyone expects the worst. An honest answer when he easily could have said the team was a year ahead of where everyone thought they would be this season.

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