Zulgad: Vikings coach has team right where he wants them

The Vikings were coming off their first NFC North title in six seasons in 2016, when then-third year coach Mike Zimmer decided to play an interesting card as training camp opened.

Zimmer did not talk about bracing for the expectations that would be placed on a team that had just won a division title and only lost its first-round playoff game because its kicker could not make a 27-yard field goal with 22 seconds remaining. Rather, he put the focus on those who doubted his team.

Zimmer informed his players that the public did not believe the Vikings were the team to beat in the division and that some pundits had picked Minnesota to finish third. It remains a mystery which prognosticators were doing this, especially since many were excited about the Vikings’ chances, but Zimmer was set on convincing his players this was the case.

That bit of fiction ended up doing him no good in rallying his team. The Vikings started that season 5-0 but won only three of their next 11 games. They ended up finishing third in the North and out of the playoffs. (Evidently, the naysayers were right.)

So why do we bring this up?

Because in many ways Zimmer already has the 2019 Vikings right where he wants them. When training camp opens in a month, he is going to have no problem selling his guys on the fact that this time around there are real non-believers and not fictitious ones.

Look at Zimmer’s track record in his five seasons as coach and you find a guy who has far more success when expectations have been tempered. The Vikings went 7-9 and finished third in Zimmer’s first season and followed that up by winning the division. They dropped to 8-8 in 2016 and followed that by going 13-3 and making it to the NFC title game the next season.

The decision to sign Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed $84 million, three-year contract in March 2018, meant expectations for the Vikings were enormous entering last season. Cousins would be the quarterback the team needed, and with one of the NFL’s best defenses this was a Super Bowl or bust season.

The Vikings looked that good on paper.

Zimmer had to hate it. He had no hope of selling his players on the fact that people didn’t believe because there was too much evidence to the contrary.

So what happened? The Vikings finished 8-7-1 — given the expectations it’s one of the most disappointing years in franchise history — and missed the playoffs by losing in the regular-season finale at home to a Bears team that had nothing for which to play. The offense had so many problems that Zimmer first became angry when John DeFilippo didn’t call for enough running plays and then fired his offensive coordinator with three games left in DeFilippo’s first season on the Vikings’ staff.

Watching two days of the Vikings’ recent minicamp practices, there were flaws on display. Cousins and the first-team offense were clearly still learning Gary Kubiak’s scheme, and Cousins even admitted he wasn’t as familiar with the system as many of us assumed. There was one point where Cousins showed obvious frustration at miscues by the offense, and it was no match when Kubiak’s (still learning) offense went against Zimmer’s (experienced) defense.

This is exactly what Zimmer wants and we don’t just mean the fact his defense was winning the majority of the battles. There are legitimate questions about these Vikings — another failure could cost a lot of people their jobs, including general manager Rick Spielman and Zimmer — and there’s no guarantee of success this time around. Cousins and the offense has to do far more than it did in 2018 in order for anyone to think the veteran QB is justifying his salary of $28 million per season.

Zimmer loves to emphasize toughness and being the underdog.

He also loves to be able to focus on his pride and joy: defense. The presence of veteran NFL offensive coordinator and head coach Kubiak as assistant head coach/offensive advisor — a return to what he had in veteran OC Pat Shurmur in 2017 —  and former NFL kicker Nate Kaeding as the Vikings’ kicking coach, means that Zimmer should have to worry a lot less about two positions that seem to drive him the most crazy. Those would be quarterback and kicker.

It’s easy to look through the Vikings’ schedule for this season and see potential problems. But now Zimmer’s primary focus can go back to defense and the Vikings are coming off a disappointing season.

In other words, this is the exact situation in which Zimmer does his best work.