Good defenses usually don’t last more than five years in the NFL.
In a league in which offense has been steadily growing for years, only a few franchises have put together defensive units as consistently excellent as the Minnesota Vikings under Mike Zimmer.
The Seattle Seahawks finished in the top seven in points against six years in a row from 2011-2016 and No. 1 each season between 2012-2015. And from 2007-2012, Mike Tomlin’s Pittsburgh Steelers put together a run of five top-six defenses in six seasons. Aside from those two spectacular runs, Zimmer’s high rankings in points allowed of 11th, fifth, sixth, first and ninth over his first five seasons in Minnesota are nearly unmatched.
If it wasn’t clear before this week that the defense’s unique bond was behind the success, it became especially obvious on Thursday when four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr explained his decision to stick with the Vikings rather than leave in free agency.
“The culture we have developed over the last five years, it’s been awesome,” Barr said. “The bond I’ve made with my friends, my teammates and my coaches are unbreakable. It just felt right. This is where my heart was, this is where it’s always been, this is where it always will be. We have a beautiful home stadium, beautiful training facility. It’s hard to beat coming to work here every day with such a great group of guys. Looking forward to getting back to work and win a Super Bowl.”
Barr nearly walked away from the defense that Zimmer largely built, starting with the ninth overall selection in 2014. Barr had agreed to accept a contract with the New York Jets, but changed his mind Tuesday morning and elected to sign a five-year deal in Minnesota.
Barr reportedly took a lower salary to return. He isn’t the only one. Last year fellow linebacker Eric Kendricks and pass rusher Danielle Hunter signed extensions when they could have waited until this offseason and looked to earn more on the open market. Their decisions are unusual in today’s professional sports landscape in which players like Kirk Cousins, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have recently battled their organizations for the highest dollar amounts possible.
“I feel so good, I am elated, top of the world,” Barr said. “Money is cool but it comes and goes. It is not going to make me happy. I have money and I am happy with that. I was happy without money. The people you surround yourself with, the environment that you are in, it plays a big part. I am a big family guy. I love my family. And these are my extended family so I want to keep going with these guys.”
The Vikings’ every-down linebacker also said his relationship with Zimmer played a central role in his desire to come back to the Twin Cities.
“Coach Zim, that is my guy,” Barr said. “I’d go to war for him any day. You all see him as a football coach but he is so much more than that. He treats us like his children. He demands a lot and I wouldn’t want it any other way so I owe him a lot and a big reason why I returned is because of Coach.”
Over the past year, Zimmer has openly campaigned for Barr to return, routinely preaching to the media that Barr brings value that goes far beyond traditional statistics. On Thursday the Vikings’ head coach reiterated that sentiment.
“With Anthony, I can walk up to him and we speak the same language,” Zimmer said. “I can say, ‘Hey, when they’re in this formation, or this personnel group,’ and half the time he’ll answer me before I even get it out. That’s just the way he is. He’s a great football player, outstanding ability, and great leader in the locker room, really, everything about him. The way he practices, the way he prepares, the way he goes about his business each and every day, so I’m just really excited to have him.”
It remains unclear whether part of Barr’s agreement was a tweak in role. Last season he stated several times that he feels more comfortable as a pass rusher and it appeared the Jets were ready to make him one full time.
“I think the coaches have always done a great job playing to my strengths, and I think they’ll continue to do that,” Barr said. “Whatever I’m asked to do, I’ll try to do to the best of my ability. I’ll try to make the players around me better. I think I’ve been able to do that to a certain extent since I’ve been here. I think that’s how you measure the leaders. Can you make everybody else better and can you get everybody on the same page doing the same thing. To do that with 11 guys on defense for 70 plays a game is not easy, but it’s a role I’ve accepted and it’s a role I enjoy and a role I’m looking forward to continuing.”
Whether Barr chases quarterbacks more often or sticks with the job that earned him a long-term deal, his return gives the Vikings nearly the entire group that led Minnesota to the No. 1 defense in 2017. Defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, who left last season for Seattle last year, also re-signed with the Vikings this week.
“It’s really a great day for me to get these two guys back, they’ll always be Vikings and they’ll always be ‘Zim guys,'” Zimmer said.