I'm going to say something that will probably enrage half the people reading this--I liked Leslie Frazier. Doesn't mean I think he was a good coach, because I think his history clearly shows he wasn't, just that he was a likable guy.
After the surly, almost haughtily disdainful attitude of Brad Childress the Minnesota Vikings hired Frazier, their former defensive coordinator, as head coach. Considering all the drama of the 2010 season that included, but was not limited to, Brett Favre's return to the Vikings, his Junk Gate scandal ("Hey, pretty lady, wanna see a picture?"), the Randy Moss experiment, Percy Harvin and the barbell chucking incident, Brad Childress being fired, the Metrodome roof collapse, and Tuesday night football, you can see why the bland calmness of Frazier may have appealed to team officials.
Perils of being nice
Known as a "players' coach" Frazier calmly navigated the ups and downs of his three-year tenure as the Vikings head coach. Such was Frazier's unflappable nature that the guy didn't flinch or react when mercurial receiver Percy Harvin yelled at him on the sidelines during the 2012 season. Even in the NFL where alpha males do what they want, that was considered a party foul.
But Frazier's personal zen didn't translate to wins. It seemed the group Green Day was right when they sang about how nice guys finish last.
Well-respected by players, he may have helped them find resilience in their personal lives, but on the football field it was a mess. Mistakes seemed to haunt the team and late-game collapses became the norm. The team didn't seem to know how to regroup during a game, or even a season, when things went wrong.
You don't mess with the Zim
During the Vikings' search for a new head coach, Mike Zimmer's name came up early in the process. A respected defensive coordinator who had first made his name in the NFL coaching defensive backs, Zimmer had a reputation for being a hard-ass, an in-your-face kind of coach with a vocabulary that was better suited to premium cable than to a noon kick off--almost the anti-Frazier. And yet, he too had a reputation as a players' coach.
Zimmer is blunt, telling his players the truth about their careers and their status with the team. He's a tough, foul-mouthed disciplinarian. Yet players love him.
Maybe what players love is that with Zimmer they don't have to guess where they stand. He tells them the truth. Not only that, but he also he treats everyone on the team, whether a star player or someone on the practice squad, to the same unflinching critique. Anyone can be subject to his ire or, more rarely, his praise.
Upon hearing that the Vikings hired Zimmer to be head coach, former linebacker Scott Fujita tweeted it was, "About damn time somebody did!" Cincinnati Bengals players who were losing Zimmer as their defensive coordinator tweeted how they would miss him, but wished Zimmer the best. Deion Sanders tweeted that Zimmer was "1 of the best coaches I've EVER had."
Tough love and growing pains
While many Vikings players expressed excitement about the Vikings hiring Zimmer, the 2014 season involved a serious change in team identity. While Frazier's regime had more of a Father Flanagan, Boy's Town vibe that involved nurturing troubled players like Chris Cook, Percy Harvin, or Erin Henderson, Zimmer had a much more tough love attitude with his team. Emphasis on tough.
By a Week 6 loss to the Detroit Lions, the regime-change growing pains were on full display. While the Vikings had won in Week 1 against the St. Louis Rams, the distraction of losing running back Adrian Peterson to a child abuse indictment, losing starting quarterback Matt Cassel in Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints, and forcing then-rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater into the starting role thirteen weeks earlier than planned had the team struggling to rediscover its identity.
The Vikings had won only two of their first six games in 2014, getting spanked by the New England Patriots (7-30) at home in Week 2 and by the Green Bay Packers (10-42) on the road in Week 5. By the time the team lost to the Lions in Week 6 (3-17), Zimmer's temper flared in a postgame press conference. "If we don't handle things better than we did today, it doesn't matter what we have ahead of us. I'm extremely disappointed about this loss. I can handle getting beat, but I can't handle getting our butts whipped like that." He went on to say, "I'm not going to let them slide. I'm going to keep pounding my head. Like I told them, the fines are going to start going to the max now. I'm tired of it."
Well, it seems there was a lackadaisical attitude among some of the players about showing up on time for meetings and treatments. Another coach might not have fined the players, but Zimmer was not that coach. Since being hired, Zimmer had preached discipline to his players. To Zimmer, it was imperative that discipline become a habit for the players. They needed to exhibit discipline in all aspects of the game--from staying on assignments on the field, to studying for upcoming games in meetings, and rehabbing their bodies. Losing to the Lions and managing only a late-game field goal was the end result of the lack of discipline Zimmer dealt with during the week.
Perhaps the most interesting line from that press conference was the one that suggested Zimmer didn't feel the players truly respected his authority. "I'm the boss. Their job is to please me--not the other way around. We're undisciplined. Trust me, we're going to get disciplined."
Let's get disciplined, disciplined...
It took time, but Mike Zimmer's Vikings have indeed become a much more disciplined team and, as they prepare to face their divisional foes the Packers in a showdown for the NFC North, it shows.
Take Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, for example. The Vikings signed him in 2014 to help their struggling secondary, but Munnerlyn had a disappointing season, even telling the media that he didn't know if the team would want him back in 2015. But the team did want him back and Munnerlyn has had a resurgent season. Zimmer said of Munnerlyn, "He's played much better in every aspect. Understanding what we want him to do, understanding his responsibility. ...He wanted to do everything (in 2014), so his foundation wasn't very good. Now his foundation is better."
Basically, Zimmer is crediting Munnerlyn's 2015 improvement with being more disciplined within the scheme--not free-lancing or trying to do too much.
One of the Vikings' mantras this season has been "next man up", a mentality that it doesn't matter where a player is on the roster, when they are thrown into the line up, they have to play like a starter. This is a clever double motivation. While the deep roster guys know that they have to prepare like a starter, the starters know that, if they should slack or play undisciplined football, there is a "next man" ready to replace them.
Up to now
All season long, Vikings fans have heard about how, although their team is talented, young, and hungry, they are still a year or two away from being a serious threat in the NFL. But now, heading into Week 17, the Vikings are guaranteed a playoff berth and are fighting for seeding in the playoffs.
Armed with a winning record heading into this week's rematch against the Packers, the Vikings aren't the favorites to win on Sunday night and have to field uncomfortable questions about their blowout loss (13-30) to the Packers at TCF Bank Stadium on November 22.
Despite the strides they have made under Zimmer's coaching, the 2015 Vikings are still subject to growing pains. Notably, how, apart from Kansas City, they have yet to beat playoff teams. While last Sunday night's win in prime time may have exorcized the demon of their Monday night regular season opener at the San Francisco 49ers, it did nothing to prove that a team that lost to the Denver Broncos, the Packers, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Arizona Cardinals can dethrone the Packers in the NFC North. What it did give them was a chance to do it.
And the Vikings just might surprise everyone, particularly, themselves.
Surprise, surprise, surprise
That's because Mike Zimmer's focus on discipline has created a team attitude of resilience. Sometimes they screw up, they fall apart. But now, one blown play or one blowout loss doesn't necessarily lead to another. They have found a way to come back from adversity and find success.
Zimmer has convinced his players that making one mistake doesn't require them to make another, that if they are disciplined and opportunistic, they have a chance to beat any team in the NFL. Granted they weren't wins, but the way the Vikings played the Broncos and the Cardinals, gave them a chance to win those games right up to the very end.
We don't need no motivation
When asked about motivation heading into this final regular season game with such high stakes, Zimmer said, "I don't know that this is a big motivational kind of week. It's more about preparation and doing things right and performing under pressure."
That's a bit of a change from the first time the Vikings played the Packers this season and Zimmer had "Beat Green Bay" t-shirts made for his players. Seems Zimmer, like his players, is willing to learn from what didn't work.
Then, what has worked for the surging Vikings?
Here's the Zimmer quote that has been in so many articles this week, "I think that we've learned the kind of mentality that we have to have these last four weeks. I think after we got beat by Seattle and maybe the Green Bay game, I think the mentality of our team has changed a little bit and for the better in my opinion."
He went on to say, "I keep talking to them about it. 'This is the type of mentality we have to have going forward.' And really the Arizona game, I think we had the right mentality. Going forward from that game on, we've played with the mentality that I like to play with."
Cagey, Zimmer wouldn't elaborate on what that mentality was, but I would hazard a guess that it is resilience.
What mentality is that, Coach?
Let's look at the Arizona game where Zimmer said he felt his team had the right mentality. The Vikings were trounced 38-7 by the Seahawks on December 6, then had to play the Cardinals on Thursday Night Football just four days later. The Vikings were tired, they were banged up, and they were missing three defensive stars. Instead of the blowout loss many Vikings fans feared, we saw a competitive game. Many of the team's stats throughout the game were almost even with Arizona's. Teddy Bridgewater, for example, was 25/36 for 335 yards and a touchdown, Carson Palmer was 25/35 for 310 yards and two touchdowns. With the score tied at 10 at the half, Arizona scored a touchdown in the third quarter to reclaim the lead. But in the fourth the Vikings scored 10 points to bring them within three points of Arizona. Ultimately, they lost after a strip sack prevented the Vikings' offense from tying the game.
There might not be moral victories in the NFL, but losing by three to a team many predict will be in the Super Bowl, beats getting blown out. And that was because, after losing to Seattle, the Vikings doubled-down on discipline and were resilient.
In that 2014 presser after the Vikings lost to the Lions, one of Zimmer's parting shots was, "Until we stop beating ourselves, we won't beat anybody."
More than a year later, the Vikings are finally embodying that resilient mindset. And they are playing for the division title. Coincidence?
In the words of my late grandfather, the hell you say.