MINNEAPOLIS — When the Minnesota Vikings were in the process of searching for a new coach last winter, general manager Rick Spielman asked veteran players what traits they most wanted to see in a new leader. A major one that led the team to Mike Zimmer — indeed, a major reason why many give Zimmer the “players’ coach” label even though he doesn’t meet many of its cliches — was this: Zimmer would let players know where they stood with him, often in rather blunt fashion.
“If you can get an idea of where you stand, it gives you a chance to know what you need to work on,” fullback Jerome Felton said after Zimmer was hired in January. “You can just focus on football, rather than wondering, ‘What’s going on? Why is this the situation happening?’ When everybody asks what you want from a coach, I always talk about being an authentic person.”
The Vikings heard where they stood with Zimmer on Sunday, all right. Well, maybe they got a better idea on Monday.
On Monday, Zimmer candidly and pointedly detailed what he likes about his team, and what causes him to lose sleep over it, after a 2-4 start. He made it clear he would not tolerate repeated mistakes or rash conduct, like the 15-yard penalty Adam Thielen received for talking to officials during the Vikings’ 42-10 loss to Green Bay in Week 5, and he laid out something of a manifesto for why he’s so demanding.
“I want them to understand that it’s not OK to lose,” Zimmer said. “That’s what I want them to understand. I want them to understand that it’s not OK to lose, that we have to change the mentality and the mindset of this. I can remember telling the defense the same thing in Cincinnati a long, long time ago that we have to develop this mindset that it’s not OK to lose, it’s not business as usual. I’m not very accepting of these kinds of things.”
It was an effective way to send a message to players, from a coach who’s already proved capable of getting his players’ attention through his public comments. It would have been even more effective, though, if Zimmer had said it on Sunday, instead of using part of his news conference on Monday to backtrack from the headline-grabbing remarks he made about increasing fines for players who are late to meetings.
Those comments, Zimmer said Monday, came after he “kind of flew off the handle a little bit yesterday,” and were motivated in part by a pair of practice squad players being late to a weightlifting session on Saturday. They caused at least a bit of puzzlement from veteran players — safety Harrison Smith said he hadn’t noticed players arriving late, while receiver Greg Jennings said the Vikings certainly weren’t the only team to have that issue. “If Coach feels like we have an undisciplined team, it’s not for me to express my opinion,” Jennings said.
Zimmer is right to set high standards for his team and hold players accountable for meeting those standards. He’s working with one of the league’s youngest rosters, and can point to all sorts of markers of sloppiness — 18 penalties the last two weeks, 13 dropped passes this season and a minus-5 turnover margin. But he’s learning, too, about the process of talking to an entire team, of managing a much larger media pulpit, and as he grows, he’ll develop a better appreciation for the power of remarks like Sunday’s — both to whip a team into form and to rankle veterans who might tire of them over time, particularly if they’re brought on by trivial things.
The coach delivered another manifesto of sorts on Monday, one that showed he’s becoming aware of just how many people are listening to what he says. “I’m always going to be pretty honest, I think,” Zimmer said. “That’s my creed as best I can be and I’ll continue always to try and be honest with you and maybe do a better job of trying not to let some things bother me as much. I am learning, trying to be a good head coach. I’m trying to do a better job every day, every single game. I’m not perfect just like the players aren’t. I’ll just keep trying to do better and trying to get my team to be better.”
As a young team is learning how to read its new coach, the coach is learning exactly what kinds of signs to give them. From what Zimmer said on Monday, it seemed he’d sent a message to himself, too.
” I know one of the hot topics is this fine thing, and that was probably ‘Zimmer being Zimmer,’” he said. “I kind of was not in the best frame of mind at that time. This team has not had an issue, a continual issue, of being late. Every time a guy has been late, when I’ve been anywhere, I’ve fined him so it has not been an issue. I had two practice squad guys miss lifting on Saturday so that was kind of sticking in my mind. I’m looking for everything that I can look at, everything that I can control and try to continue to get this team better each and every time.”