Spielman: Zimmer has Vikings ‘heading in right direction’

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman (left) said of hiring head coach Mike Zimmer: "It's everything I hoped for and envisioned when we went through the process."

Bruce Kluckhohn/Crystal LoGiudice

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — In the moments that followed one of the more memorable plays of the Minnesota Vikings’ season, coach Mike Zimmer stewed.

Minnesota was celebrating an overtime victory against the New York Jets in Week 14 on an 87-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to Jarius Wright. Meanwhile, Zimmer wasn’t celebrating.

The Vikings’ first-year coach never expected to be in overtime, at home, against a 2-10 Jets team. Zimmer was pleased to see his team persevere and win, but he wasn’t happy with how his team performed.

"I’ve never seen him as upset after that game than any of the other games where we lost close ones," Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said. "That just tells you where his expectations are and where his expectations are for our team. He’s going to do everything in his power to make sure our players and team meet those expectations. It wasn’t a win and ‘Oh, great job guys.’ It was a win and a ‘But.’ And after the win, came the rest of the story."

Zimmer wasn’t satisfied with an overtime victory against a bad team. He wasn’t satisfied with a 7-9 finish in his first season as a head coach. Zimmer, Spielman and the Vikings have their sights set on bigger prizes.

Exactly one year ago Thursday, Zimmer was hired by Minnesota to be its next head coach. Zimmer’s first opportunity to lead a team came with the challenge of changing the Vikings’ direction. Minnesota had one playoff appearance in four seasons.

"One of the things that I wanted to try and do when I came here was to try and change the culture as much as I possibly could," Zimmer said in his season-ending press conference. "In a lot of ways it’s moving in that direction as far as developing the mindset. It’s developing the mental toughness, all the things really that I said in the first press conference I ever had.

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"I don’t believe we’re there yet, I believe there’s still a lot of preaching, a lot of sweat, and pushing that I have to make sure I continue to do, but I do feel like the players for the most part feel the program is going in the right direction."

Spielman, the executive who finally gave Zimmer his long-awaited chance to be a head coach, agreed.

"I feel very confident, though not satisfied, that we are heading in the right direction," Spielman said. "The optimism heading into this offseason is totally different, and the expectation level with these guys."

Plenty of changes occurred along the way. Zimmer brought his proven defensive system to Minnesota. Spielman and his staff went about trying to find players to fit Zimmer’s vision.

The Vikings had seven new starters on defense. They re-signed defensive end Everson Griffen to be a full-time starter. They signed nose tackle Linval Joseph, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley in free agency. With Zimmer guiding the way, Minnesota used the ninth-overall pick in the draft on linebacker Anthony Barr.

Purely looking at numbers, the Vikings’ offense took a step back from 2013. But it was without running back Adrian Peterson for all but one game and also saw the development of Bridgewater as the franchise quarterback, while showing improvement toward the end of the season.

The defense, one of the league’s worst the previous season, saw a dramatic transformation with Zimmer, all from changes made in one off season.

"The one thing that you did notice during the season was our team came so far from where we were at — even though we were having success during the preseason and even that opening ballgame — the way our guys were playing at the end of the season, there was a night-and-day difference just from the technique and all the nuances that these coaches are teaching," Spielman said. "I think that foundation and that building block that’s in place after one year should carry over into the next year as well."

Zimmer instituted changes from the moment he started, such as a new weightlifting and nutrition programs. He developed game-management on the fly, learning from instances like the fourth-and-20 in Buffalo when Minnesota’s defense allowed a big first down in an eventual last-second loss, or the confusion at the end of a close loss at Detroit.

"Honestly, I never felt overwhelmed, from the day I walked in," Zimmer said, crediting Spielman, ownership, the front office as well as assistant coaches like Norv Turner. "Are there some things that I would do differently? Sure. Did I make some mistakes? Sure. But I felt like each and every day I came into work that I gave this team the fans and the organization the very best that I could give them. And I believe in my heard that I’ll be even better next year with everything that I do just because I’ve been through all these different things."

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During the season, Zimmer dealt with the fallout from losing Peterson to off-field issues to losing quarterback Matt Cassel to a season-ending injury and having Bridgewater thrust into the starting role earlier than expected. The Vikings had their share of injuries along the way, as well.

In showing his dissatisfaction with the performance against the Jets, Zimmer was setting an example. Zimmer didn’t discount the fact Minnesota had won. But he made sure everyone knew he expected more from his team.

With Zimmer in charge, the Vikings are expecting more, as well.

"It’s everything I hoped for and envisioned when we went through the process," Spielman said of selecting Zimmer. "I think the biggest thing is he probably, out of any new coach, had to deal with more adversity than anyone. How he handled that adversity, to me, he should be highly recognized for it. Because it was never, no matter what hit us, injuries or what else, there was never an excuse. ‘All right, it’s our job as coaches to figure it out.’ And we got positive results out of that."

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