Mike Zimmer is a football coach without frills. He’s said many times that he’s driven by the teaching aspect of his job: the film sessions, the practice field, the sideline during games, etc. Believe it or not, the focus of his lessons isn’t always Xs and Os.
Since his arrival, Zimmer has periodically brought up the Four Learns of Football: Learning to compete, learning to win, learning to handle winning and learning to become a champion.
Previous teams have stalled somewhere between Step 3 and Step 4. Zimmer thought his 2015 division championship team had progressed to the final step, but they were ousted in a dramatic Wild Card game on a frigid day, 10-9. The 2017 group was one game from a championship, but they seemingly forgot Step 3 — how to handle winning. The Vikings fell flat against Philadelphia one week after their emotionally-taxing Minneapolis Miracle victory at U.S. Bank Stadium.
The path up the ladder isn’t always linear, however, and the 2020 Vikings are currently stuck between Steps 1 and 2. The competitive drive is clear, but the results haven’t come. Minnesota suffered one-point losses in Weeks 3 and 5 thanks to poor execution late in games, dropping the squad to 1-4, last in the NFC North. The Vikings’ latest defeat was the most damaging, a 27-26 loss at Seattle that Kirk Cousins called “gutwrenching.”
“Down to the very last guy, I just feel really good about our group,” Cousins said late Sunday night, grasping at any positive takeaways. “At the end of the day, what matters is wins and losses, and we have to have a better record than we do right now.”
It seems the Vikings have made progress on their Ladder of Learning since back-to-back losses in Weeks 1 and 2 of the season when they were embarrassed by the Green Bay Packers and Indianapolis Colts, respectively. The ensuing three games have manifested a higher level of desire that has impressed the team’s veterans — learning how to compete — but faulty execution on offense and big plays allowed on defense cost the Vikings a chance to beat the Titans late in the fourth quarter, and a 94-yard drive against Minnesota’s defense produced the final blow at Seattle last Sunday. Sandwiched in between, the Vikings held off the late-charging Texans for their lone win, but they nearly lost a 15-point fourth quarter lead.
Step 2 is still a work in progress: (Re)learning how to win.
“Honestly the message in the locker room is we can be a dang good football team,” receiver Adam Thielen said. “We saw it [Sunday]. We saw it the last couple weeks. We’ve just got to finish. One more play. Obviously you can go back and look at situations and wish you woulda, coulda, shoulda, but man, one more play, one more yard, one more stop, things like that. It’s just we’re so close, and that’s probably why it’s so disappointing. It’s so frustrating. It’s humbling.”
The defense has been a major culprit in the team’s late-game pitfalls because of its youth. They’ve started a rookie (or two) at cornerback each game this season (Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney), two rookies have seen time in the defensive line rotation (D.J. Wonnum and James Lynch), and a rookie linebacker is expected to help replace the injured Anthony Barr (Troy Dye). The Vikings inability to get pressure on Russell Wilson on the final drive in Sunday’s game, coupled with a pair of inexcusable misplays by the third-round pick Dantzler, contributed to the devastating finish.
“You know, we’re coming [along] really well,” Zimmer said. “I mean, we’re playing our butt off. It’s come into the fourth quarter a couple of times. Some of these young guys learning how to understand the difference between playing cautiously and playing aggressively and where you have to be on that.”
The last time Zimmer had a rebuilding defense was 2014 when the Vikings went 7-9. Five of their losses were by one possession thanks in part to late-game defensive collapses at Buffalo and Miami. Zimmer knows that only repetition will improve execution, and sometimes those lessons get taught the hard way.
“I think the more times you put them in these situations, unfortunately, you learn these kind of things,” Zimmer said. “So we’ll continue preaching to them and talking to them and understanding that … these young corners, they’re going to have to learn by being in these instances, being in these situations. They’ve got a lot of things on their plate, learning who the good receivers are and where their splits are and how the receivers run their routes, studying where the back is. I mean, all the different things that they have to learn.”