A year ago, the Minnesota Vikings were celebrating their first NFC North division title since 2009 with a 20-13 victory at Lambeau Field over the Green Bay Packers. It was the cap to an 11-5 season for a team that appeared to be strapped to a rocket under the tutelage of head coach Mike Zimmer. Despite a tough postseason loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round, it appeared that the sky was the limit for a Vikings team that was going to be moving into a shiny new stadium. They had one of the NFL’s best defenses, a promising young quarterback, and a head coach that had the team going in the right direction.
Yes, that was only a year ago. It only seems like a decade.
Following the Vikings’ 38-25 loss at Lambeau that officially eliminated them from postseason contention on Saturday, this team suddenly has a lot more questions than they have answers.
The biggest story, and one that I still can’t quite wrap my head around almost twenty-four hours after the fact, is the apparent decision of the Vikings’ defensive backs to go into business for themselves and abandon Mike Zimmer’s edict that star cornerback Xavier Rhodes shadow Packers’ star receiver Jordy Nelson all over the field. The Vikings apparently went back to that plan in the second half, but the damage had already been done at that point.
Based on facts already in evidence, Zimmer knows a little something about how to defend an offense led by Aaron Rodgers. In seven matchups against a Mike Zimmer defense prior to Saturday (including his two games against the Cincinnati Bengals when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator there), Rodgers had completed less than 60% of his passes (58.6%) and had a composite quarterback rating of 86.5, which is far below his usual standard. Prior to yesterday, he had never thrown for 300 yards against a team that had Mike Zimmer on the sideline.
In the first half on Saturday, Rodgers completed 19-of-22 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. That’s a quarterback rating of 157.0. A “perfect” quarterback rating is 158.3, based on the current formula. In the second half, he went 9-of-16 for 79 yards and a touchdown before getting pulled midway through the fourth quarter. That’s a quarterback rating of 90.3. . .which is still good, but it’s an awfully far cry from 157.0.
Rhodes has had great success against top receivers this season, and you would think that he would relish the opportunity to go against a receiver of Nelson’s caliber regularly. Rhodes missed the first game against the Packers this season, and had the opportunity to take Nelson out of the game. Because of what the Vikings’ defensive backs did, that didn’t happen.
In the first half, Nelson caught seven passes for 145 yards and a pair of scores. After halftime, when the Vikings went back to doing what Zimmer wanted them to do? Two catches, nine yards, no scores.
It’s almost as though Mike Zimmer knows what the heck he’s doing and that he has a better idea of how to put together a defensive game plan than his players do. Imagine that.
With the way the Vikings’ season has imploded over the past couple of months, it’s understandable that there’s frustration. But what’s troubling about this is that, of all the units on the team, it’s the defensive backs (and more specifically, from the looks of it, the cornerbacks) that decided to pull this kind of stunt and the nature in which they apparently went about it.
In listening to Ben Goessling of ESPN talk with 1500 ESPN on yesterday’s post-game episode of their Purple Podcast, the decision to do this was made by the defensive backs during the week when the game plan for Saturday’s game was being installed and independent of the inputs of the coaching staff. From the sounds of it, this means that the defensive backs didn’t bother to go to Mike Zimmer and attempt to suggest any sort of alterations to the game plan that Zimmer and George Edwards were presenting for Saturday’s game. They simply listened to what Zimmer wanted them to do, agreed with it. . .and then decided that they were going to do something different. Do they feel as though they can’t present their inputs to Zimmer? I can’t say for sure one way or another, but in any case it shouldn’t matter.
I’m a 40-year old guy that hasn’t taken part in actual competitive sports since high school, and maybe I’m a bit “old school” when it comes to my outlook on this sort of thing. But I’m old enough to remember a time when the job of a coach was to put together a game plan for a particular opponent, and the job of the players was to go out and do what the coach asked. . .or, more accurately, told. . .them to do to the best of their ability. Freelancing or doing things outside of the plan? That got you a seat at the end of the bench and the opportunity to think about what you were doing. Maybe the coach would put you back out there, maybe he wouldn’t. I don’t know if sports has changed enough since then to where that’s no longer the case, but if it has that’s really a shame.
Again, it’s more troubling when you look at the cornerbacks that apparently hatched this idea and what Mike Zimmer has meant to them.
First, there’s Rhodes, who was drafted by the Vikings in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft and struggled to get on the field under Leslie Frazier for what was a historically awful Vikings’ defense. Zimmer made Rhodes a starter in 2014, and by the end of the season he was trusting Rhodes to line up against guys like Calvin Johnson and other top receivers that the Vikings were squaring off against. That ascent continued this year with Rhodes’ performances against players like Odell Beckham Jr. that resulted in a Pro Bowl berth for the first time in his career. Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray played a huge role in making Rhodes into what he is right now.
Then there’s Newman, who might be the most surprising because he’s been with Mike Zimmer for a long time. The two of them were together in Dallas, they were together in Cincinnati, and Zimmer brought him to Minnesota at this late stage of his career. Zimmer, from all accounts, regards Newman as a “coach on the field” type of player, and though Newman has played well for a 38-year old cornerback, he should have almost as much value as someone that’s seen just about everything and can help in developing younger players.
Last, there’s Munnerlyn, and if there’s anyone that should know that freelancing under Mike Zimmer is a bad idea, you’d think it would be him. Following his first year with the Vikings in 2014, Munnerlyn came out and plainly admitted that he didn’t always follow along with what the defense called for, and had a down year as a result. He apparently went back to listening to the game plan in 2015 and, lo and behold, he had a much better season.
While Newman and Munnerlyn remained relatively tight-lipped about the defensive game plan on Saturday, it was Rhodes that ultimately came out and said what exactly had happened.
“We felt as a team, as players, we came together and we felt like we’d never done that when we played against the Packers,” Rhodes told reporters. “Us as DBs felt like we could handle him. That’s how we felt as DBs that we could stay on our side and cover him. In the beginning, we’d always played against them and played our sides, so that’s what we as DBs went with.”
A more cynical man might point out that Rhodes is under contract to the Vikings for next season and is likely in line for a fairly lucrative extension, while Newman and Munnerlyn are not. Thankfully, I’m not that cynical.
I’ve seen a couple of stories from around the internet about this incident that think this might also be fallout for Mike Zimmer’s willingness to throw his players under the proverbial bus. Specifically, they cite Zimmer’s comments on defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Anthony Barr. Zimmer has, apparently, not been impressed with Floyd’s ability to recover from injury, as he had a clean-up done on his knee after Week 2 and hadn’t even practiced since then, eventually being placed on injured reserve a couple of weeks ago. This past week, Zimmer said that Barr had a tendency to “coast” and was having a down season as a result.
Zimmer might be right in his assessment of both of those players. Typically, a “clean-up” type of knee operation doesn’t carry a three-month recovery period, and after an outstanding 2015 season, Barr’s level of play has really fallen off. There’s been plenty of speculation about whether or not Barr has been playing with an injury or injuries all year, but since we’re at the final week of the season, that really doesn’t make any difference at this point. If the players have objections to exactly how he goes about doing that or addressing those issues, then that’s something that needs to be fleshed out. This is who Mike Zimmer is, and that likely isn’t going to change any time soon.
After a few years of the Leslie “We’re going to have to go back and look at the tape” Frazier era, Mike Zimmer has been regarded as a breath of fresh air. He’s been holding players accountable, he’s been frank with the media, and he hasn’t really seemed to care about stepping on the occasional feeling or two in order to get things done. He’s coached through some well-documented health issues this season, and up until this incident, we haven’t really heard anything but positives about Zimmer from the players on the Vikings’ roster.
As I mentioned earlier on, perhaps it’s just me and my way of looking at things, but if there’s a situation where either the coaches are in the wrong or the players are in the wrong, my tendency would be to side with the coach. When that coach has orchestrated the sort of turnaround that Zimmer had from when he got here in January of 2014 to when the Vikings won the NFC North in January of 2016, it’s even more reason to give him the benefit of the doubt, as far as I’m concerned. I certainly don’t feel that Mike Zimmer is the biggest problem that this team has. Not by a long shot.
My hope is that this is just a temporary blip on the radar. I’m guessing that Newman will find his way to retirement following this season, and that Munnerlyn will be wearing a different jersey in 2017. At that point, Zimmer is probably going to have to have a sit-down with Rhodes and any of his other defensive players that have issues with him and clear the air about a lot of things.
This incident helped to bring about the end of the Minnesota Vikings’ 2016 season. Hopefully, the Vikings will have some answers for the myriad of questions they suddenly have to answer going into the offseason.