When Mike Zimmer came to Minnesota, he was expecting to do a little yelling.

The Minnesota Vikings of 2013 had been undisciplined, possessing the league’s 31st-ranked defense that collapsed down the stretch in four last-minute losses.

But when the new coach arrived in 2014, a surprise awaited him.

“I thought I was going to have to get after their [butt] the very first day I came in here,” said Zimmer, “and I was, like, shocked.”

Between recently-extended Everson Griffen at defensive end, rookie linebacker Anthony Barr, free agent acquisition Linval Joseph and rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Zimmer had a foundation of hard workers. That was good. Then he set about teaching them how to learn.

Wait, what?

“First, you learn how to compete,” Zimmer said back in 2015, “then you learn how to win, then you learn how to handle winning, and then you learn how to be a champion.”

Thus, the Four Learns were introduced.

As complicated as football can seem at the X’s and O’s level, Zimmer has a way of keeping it simple in the philosophical sense.

A reporter asked Jerick McKinnon on Friday how often Zimmer discusses the four levels with the team. He glanced to his left, where defensive tackle Shamar Stephen was sitting at his locker. Stephen answered the question for him.

“Every day,” he said, accentuating each word.

As complicated as football can seem at the Xs and Os level, Zimmer has a way of keeping it simple in the philosophical sense. If you create good habits and play as a team, you’ll win. Then once you win, you can’t let it change you.

“It’s important,” McKinnon told Zone Coverage about the four steps. “Ain’t nothing better than winning. The good thing about it is, we’re winning a lot this year, but we’re having a lot of fun. I think people watch us, and I think they see that. It’s just good to be in an atmosphere like that, where last year we had a lot of things go wrong, and you’ve really got to learn. Learn quick. I think this year we’ve done a good job of handling things, and I think it’s showed. We’re pulling out tight games.”

The current Vikings are approaching Stage 4: Learning how to be a champion. They are 10-2 with four games to go. They have won eight games in a row — Zimmer’s career best. And they have an excellent shot at clinching home field throughout the playoffs.

Minnesota is positioned where champions are usually positioned. Each of the past five Super Bowl winners have been 10-2 — give or take one game — at the three-quarters mark of the season. The 2015 Denver Broncos and the 2016 New England Patriots were exactly 10-2 at this stage.

Each of the past two Vikings teams had a realistic shot to get to this point but faltered.

In 2015, they reached the playoffs but struggled in big moments against top opponents as they went through the growing pains that come along with Stage 3: Handling winning.

A two-game winning streak was stopped in a tight road game with the eventual-champion Broncos. A five-game winning streak ended in a blowout at the hands of the rival Green Bay Packers. Lastly, a three-game winning streak heading into the playoffs was rendered irrelevant as the Vikings blew a nine-point fourth quarter lead against the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round, punctuated by Blair Walsh’s missed 27-yard field goal.

Where Vikings teams of the past might have faltered, this group has excelled.

Handling success is hard. The Vikings thought they’d conquered it in 2016 when a 5-0 start had their fans thinking about the Super Bowl until a 3-8 finish after the bye week deflated the organization.

“We couldn’t do anything right last year,” linebacker Anthony Barr told Zone Coverage. “At a certain point it seemed that no matter what we did or how good we were, something was going to go wrong, and I think people were kind of expecting things to go wrong at a certain point. Now we have a different kind of confidence about us, and it’s allowing us to play at a high level.”

Where Vikings teams of the past might have faltered, this group has excelled.

Zimmer was 10-14 on the road heading into this season, but a five-game road winning streak has that mark up to .500. It’s the first time a Vikings team has won five straight on the road since 1974, when they reached Super Bowl IX.

In crunch time, the Vikings have been able to come back and beat the Atlanta Falcons and stave off charges on the road by the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions.

During the previous three seasons, a sign hung in Winter Park’s film room that read “Tough Teams Win in the 4th Quarter.”

This year, the Vikings are taking it to heart.

“I think it comes from the players that we have here,” Zimmer said. “The makeup of the guys; we don’t have any guys that don’t work. They’re all good guys. I don’t have discipline problems.”

Neither McKinnon nor Barr nor Zimmer are willing to say that they’ve checked the box on Stage 3. Maybe once the regular season is done, McKinnon said. For now, though, the Vikings are locked into a series of one-week seasons. The next game is the biggest game. They understand how fast things can change if they get complacent.

“I think last year was such a good learning experience for us.”

“I think it’s human nature,” said Zimmer. “Some guys get full of themselves and go from there. Everybody is telling them how good they are and they listen, but it goes the other way, too. Everybody tells you how bad you are and you listen. It’s really human nature to back off of things.”

Handling success is one thing. Handling adversity is another. The Vikings encountered plenty of it in 2016 amidst their collapse. While handling winning will help Minnesota reach Stage 4 in the process, the adversity it faced a year ago may be the lesson required to accomplish Stage 4 and become a champion.

Maybe this year at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“I think last year was such a good learning experience for us,” said Barr, “as (crappy) as it was during the process while we were living it, it sucked, but looking back on it, I think it really helped us.”


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