Vikings' Mike Zimmer is fired up and has the 'itch' to prove people wrong

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EAGAN, Minn. -- It's April 15, the beginning of the Minnesota Vikings' offseason workout program, and Mike Zimmer is pissed off.

Entering TCO Performance Center for the first time after leaving defeated and drained last December, All-Pro safety Harrison Smith remembers the feeling of an in-season Monday.

But four months had passed since the Vikings' lackluster showing against the Chicago Bears in the 2018 finale knocked them out of playoff contention. Zimmer was extremely eager to get back to work and didn't waste any time addressing all they needed to correct.

"It was like he held onto it from the last game, and it was like waiting for our next meeting to start months later," Smith said. "That's just how he's wired.

"You get back and you're saying what's up to everybody and you're happy to be back, and then you jump in and it's like, 'OK, this is where we left off.' [It] just set the tone for the offseason."

The highs Zimmer experienced leading the Vikings to one game short of the Super Bowl in 2017 bottomed out when Minnesota crashed and burned in a season during which many anticipated it would get over the hump after signing quarterback Kirk Cousins and spending millions on the NFL's reigning No. 1 defense. Then there were the rumors about Zimmer's own future and the possibility that he was going to quit, which drove him nuts.

"It's always ... a year ago, I was the greatest coach ever and then last year I was the s----iest coach ever," said the 63-year-old Zimmer, who ranks fourth in Vikings history with 47 wins. "I get it. It's what have you done for me lately? But I always kind of try to look at the overall track record."

But none of that matters if the Vikings don't glue back together the pieces from a lost season and come out stronger in 2019. Zimmer knows that. He lives it.

And that is what's driving him to get it right or go down with the ship.

ZIMMER KEPT LANDING on a common theme when he mulled over where things went off the rails for the Vikings during an 8-7-1 season.

If Minnesota wants to be a playoff-caliber team, it needs to beat "the good teams."

That's one of the reasons the Vikings haven't been able to string together consecutive winning seasons since Zimmer arrived in 2014. Carrying over success from one year to the next has always met a roadblock, such as losing a starting quarterback two days before the end of the preseason (Teddy Bridgewater in 2016) or the lack of continuity among the Vikings' three phases.

"It seemed like last year our offense would be good, defense would be good, special teams would be good, but we wouldn't be good together," Zimmer said.

The Vikings' defense strung together its third consecutive top-four finish in 2018, which might not have happened had the unit not hit rock bottom four weeks into the season against the Rams. Jared Goff had a perfect passer rating, throwing for 465 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-31 victory. The 1-2-1 start forced Zimmer to pull back, evaluate and implement change before it got out of hand.

"He was on a mission to get things fixed," said his son and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer. "We didn't start the way we wanted to last year. A lot of it was our fault, trying to do too much and not letting the players do what they do best."

Added Smith: "He's willing to adapt and figure things out because he wants to get it right. It's never going to be able to stay right because everything's always evolving across the league ... He's an old-school guy, but he's also very capable of adapting because he knows that's how he's going to win."

The understanding of how to adapt, based on the experiences that provided humbling lessons, is something the Vikings can carry into this season.

"I think it was a good experience for us to have," linebacker Anthony Barr said. "After that game we honed in on a little more of what we needed, the kind of stuff we're trying to do this year. Not be so one-dimensional. We started mixing coverages and start playing a little more this, a little more that, instead of just always playing one thing."

Zimmer also overhauled his offensive staff after 2018. He brought in Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach/offensive advisor and tasked offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski with running his system.

He wanted to develop a scheme better suited to Cousins' strengths while also creating balance with the run game that was lacking last season. And even with salary-cap restrictions, the front office made it possible to keep the players Zimmer wanted, such as Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and tight end Kyle Rudolph.

"He is not going to fail," Barr said. "In my opinion, we're not going to fail. I can say every time we've had a barrier, we've always bounced back."

IN 25 YEARS AS AN NFL COACH, Zimmer has been to the Super Bowl once, winning a championship as the defensive backs coach of the Dallas Cowboys during the 1995 season.

"The year we won the Super Bowl in Dallas was one of the hardest years I've ever had coaching because we were supposed to win," Zimmer said. "We had ups and downs that year and I actually remember going in after the game and sitting down in a chair in the locker room saying, 'Whew, that was a long season.'

"I feel like people believe it's an easy road if you have a good team. It is not. Because the league wants parity, all these teams are good, any of the quarterbacks can beat anybody on a given day ..."

Zimmer felt the weight of the expectations on the Vikings last season, but none wore heavier than failing to meet the ones he had for himself and his team.

"I think the amount of pressure he puts on himself for every game is nothing compared to the outside pressure, because every game he goes into the game so nervous, so much pressure to call the defense, make the right time-out calls, whatever adjustment. The pressure he puts on himself is plenty," Adam Zimmer said. "All this outside noise pales in comparison."

That's why the hot-seat talk going into this season has no bearing on how Zimmer views his future in Minnesota.

"I mean, you hear that kind of stuff, our job is so focused on how do we win this particular game, how do we get this team better," Zimmer said. "There's a lot going on. I probably shouldn't say this, but [former Packers coach] Mike McCarthy didn't deserve to get fired. But he did and I think he's a good coach and they did a good job.

"Some of these guys that got hired this year, who knows if they can coach or not? I guess we'll start finding out. Stuff happens that is out of your control sometimes, but I'm not going to go into the season worried about being fired or not.

"I'm actually going into the season thinking that good things are going to happen and we're going to play good and they're going to want me here for a long time."

FOURTEEN YEARS HAVE PASSED since the Wilf family ownership group purchased the Vikings. By now, co-owner Mark Wilf expected his franchise would have won a Lombardi trophy.

"It frustrates me only every single day," Wilf said. "But we know it's tough. We've gotten close, but I think from ownership, our perspective is to be long term about it as best we can, and to build stability as best we can. The great franchises are not knee-jerk. We hire the best people.

"This year I feel like I guess I've got the itch because when people are saying things about you that you don't believe are true, you want to prove them wrong. I want to prove some people wrong." Mike Zimmer

"We think we have great people in the football organization particularly, but also on the business side. That's how you build a first-class organization. We just provide the resources the best we can to give them the ability to go out and compete."

A team option extended Zimmer's contract through 2020, which aligns with general manager Rick Spielman. That's the way it has been since they started working together six years ago.

Even without lame-duck status, a losing season in 2019 could cost Zimmer and Spielman their jobs.

Zimmer faces the pressure to get things right based on the decisions he's made that affect the long- and short-term health of the franchise. They are the type of decisions that could determine how long he's the head coach in Minnesota.

Two years ago at the NFL combine, Zimmer alluded to what could happen if the Vikings didn't make the right call at quarterback when they were deciding among the three on their roster -- Bridgewater, Case Keenum and Sam Bradford -- or going after one in free agency.

"If you go with the right one and he does like you anticipate, then everything is good," Zimmer said in February 2017, before the Vikings signed Cousins to a three-year, $84 million contract. "If you pick the wrong one, it's hard to win in this league without a quarterback. If you pick the wrong one, this whole thing can go downhill.

"It's important for myself and Rick [Spielman] and the organization to pick the right guy that is going to help us continue to move forward. If we don't do that, then I'll probably be fired."

Over the next 17 weeks, Zimmer will find out if he and others chose the right one.

Whatever the fate of the Vikings in 2019, at the center of it all will be a coach on a mission, going all in on decisions that might be the defining moments of his tenure with the Vikings.

"This year I feel like I guess I've got the itch, because when people are saying things about you that you don't believe are true, you want to prove them wrong," Zimmer said. "I want to prove some people wrong."