Harrison Smith is now, officially, a big deal—the Vikings have added him to the schedule for the daily media session. We ask questions, coaches and players say as little as possible while still moving their lips.
At the end of the session on Monday, Smith was asked about improving the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive performance during the two-minute drill. “It starts with the mindset. Even if you are up at half in a game, don’t get complacent with that.”
When asked a follow up question about how that mindset differed when the team was playing without a lead, Smith gave us the kind of look you give a really dumb kid and said, “That is when you don’t have to think about that. You are scrapping and you are fighting and challenging everything. That mindset should already be there.”
I couldn’t shake the impression that the defense’s mindsets between playing with a lead and playing from behind seemed to capture the situation the Vikings find themselves in heading into the 2016.
Playing with a lead.
No season can be predicted based on a previous season’s success, but the Vikings are playing from a much more confident place having seized the NFC North away from the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field and coming within one botched field goal of having their first playoff win since 2009.
Head coach Mike Zimmer improved a 5-10-1 team in 2013 to a 7-9 team in 2014 despite being in a temporary stadium, losing Adrian Peterson for all but one game, and losing starting quarterback Matt Cassel in Week 3 to a broken foot. The Vikings improved even more in 2015 with an 11-5 record and a dominant defense ranked fifth in the league.
Throughout this two-year ascent, Zimmer has preached an underdog mentality to his team—no one out there respects the Vikings, no one thinks they can win, and so on. On a team level, Zimmer encouraged a scrappy, playing from behind mentality like Smith described.
But how will Zimmer will fight complacence now that the Vikings aren’t the underdogs he first encountered in 2014 and turn a good football team into a great one?
In the beginning was the Zim, and he was mad.
Despite the glowing endorsements he received from former bosses and players alike when it was announced that Zimmer won the Vikings head coach job, his transition, and his team’s, was not without issues. The Vikings offense that took the field on Week 4 with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm looked very different from Week 1—the rookie quarterback was thrown into action without the safety net of Peterson in the running game.
And then things got worse.
Here’s an excerpt from a previous article where I reference the team’s growing pains less than midway through the 2014 season.
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."
Zimmer could have lost the locker room like Brad Childress once did, but he didn’t. Instead, the players got more disciplined—and began to win. Minnesota ended the season at 7-9. It wasn’t stunningly brilliant, but both the team and fans saw progress and a foundation for success.
In 2015 the Vikings won 4 of 5 preseason games with enough dominance that the buzz surrounding the team heading into Week 1 at the San Francisco 49ers couldn’t be ignored. But, instead of being the team we had seen in preseason, Minnesota fell flat and lost 20-3. They were an improved team, but not prime-time ready.
Even after the Vikings began winning in 2015, they still struggled in big and prime time games, like the stage was too big. After the team lost sole-possession of the top of the NFC North in a loss to the Packers at TCF Bank Stadium, Captain Munnerlyn summed it up this way:
Every time we seem like it's a big-time game, excuse my language, but we piss down our leg every single time. We've definitely got to fix this if we want to take this team to the next level, to the playoffs, to the Super Bowl.
You've got to be able to win when the whole world is watching.
That became Zimmer’s new underdog motivation—telling his team “they say you can’t win big games.”
The big-game turning point came not with a win, but with a gritty Week 14 prime time performance at the Arizona Cardinals. A banged up Vikings team challenged a dominant Cardinals team down to the last seconds of the game. Not a win, but definitely not pissing down their legs.
The Vikings won the final three games of 2015, including prime time wins over the New York Giants at home and against the Packers at Lambeau to clinch the NFC North.
Now the reigning kings of the North, and what was a buzz in 2015 is definitely more of a hype roar in 2016. We’ve seen how Zimmer coaches underdogs, but I wanted to know how he would coach through success. And there was one person who would know—Terence Newman.
The voice of experience.
Cornerback Terence Newman has played for Zimmer more than any player on the Vikings roster. The 2016 season will be Newman’s 14th in the league, eighth with Zimmer. They have known one another since the Dallas Cowboys drafted Newman in 2003, Zimmer was his defensive coordinator. Newman played for Zimmer again from 2012-2013 with the Cincinnati Bengals. If any player has a clue about how Zimmer will keep the team motivated after a taste of success, it is Newman.
I caught up with Newman Monday afternoon, here’s our conversation.
SG: After the success that you guys had last season winning the NFC North there were a lot of expectations talked about. You have a lot of experience with Mike Zimmer, how does he keep his teams level and focused when there is so much hype surrounding them?
TN: We all just know, understand that you can't go from year to year and expect what happened in a previous year to carry over to this year. There are far too many talented teams out here who sometimes don't win very many games, they may go 4 and 12 or 8 and 8 and they've got all the talent in the world. We understand that we've got to work for everything we get. Just a few years ago there were guys that wouldn't even want to play on this team, now everybody wants to come here. So, it's one of those things where we know we've got to work and everybody out here had always worked for everything they've got, so I don't think it's going to be a situation.
SG: Last year the defense made a really big jump, up to the fifth in the NFL. What do you think we're going to see from you guys this year? Is it going to be more refinement or is it going to be another dominant performance like that, jumping up and surprising people?
TN: I don't really know, I can't predict like what's going to happen. I can tell you what we want to do. We want to build on what we did today, what we did yesterday, what we're going to do in two days. You know, we want to be more consistent, be one of those tough teams that offenses know that, 'hey, we play this team we're going to have to bring everything we've got.' Resilient and smart. You know, if you do all those things, you work hard, you study and you understand the concepts, the ins and the outs--like the defensive linemen understand what the safeties do, corners understand what the d-linemen do—then it just makes everybody better.
SG: Consistency and resilience seem to be a lot of Zimmer's watch-words. It's what he seems to drum into his players year in and year out.
TN: I guess I have been with him that long. [chuckles] I'm starting to sound like him.
SG: Could be, or maybe he's just that overbearing.
TN: Uh, [smiles, chuckle] he doesn't miss much. This is a well-prepared team, he leaves no stone unturned and we go over literally every different situation you can go over, and that's awesome because, obviously, there are going to be situations in games where, you know, it can make or break a game because of that. He doesn't leave any stone unturned.
SG: Is he still quizzing you guys during meetings?
TN: Oh, every day. It's accountability, you've gotta be accountable.
SG: Keeps you guys playing smart.
TN: It's more accountability if he asks questions because it's usually situations. You know, what to do, what's the situation really need if you have this happen. It's more accountability, understanding the situations and knowing what you're supposed to do in that situation, or what he's actually thinking in that situation. Which is even weirder because sometimes I want to get in that head, I mean he's a defensive guru.
SG: Think like Zim.
TN: Yeah, I want to think like him all day. That would actually be pretty cool if I could get in his head.
SG: Is "smart football" getting to be Vikings football?
TN: Yeah, I would imagine that's a word used throughout every team in the league to be honest with you. I've been on three teams and all three of them have used that. I think the team with the most resiliency, battle-hardened, football battle-hardened, and toughest, I think that's going to be the team that's hardest to beat. You have a smart team and you have another smart team and it's tough, you know, to see which team is going to win.
SG: Is Zimmer ever going to be satisfied with what he sees on the field, or is there always going to be something he sees to improve?
TN: [smiles] I think he would be satisfied holding a Lombardi Trophy. That's when I think he would be satisfied.
SG: He'd probably still look at the tape though.
TN: Oh, absolutely he would, but, I promise you, he'd look at the tape probably with a nice glass of Cabernet in his hand and not with a pen or pencil in his hand. [laughing]