After returning to Mankato to cover training camp for my fourth consecutive year, I have started to notice a few consistencies. No more notable, maybe, than the amount of fans who will drive in from all over to watch their Vikings practice under the hot sun of southern Minnesota.
More than 10,000 fans attended the annual evening practice Saturday night, making it clear that faith in the organization is at an all time high.
This comes as no surprise to many, I am sure. There has always been that pocket of the fan base that believes their team can be a Super Bowl contender, no matter what the four letter network is projecting. What seems to be different this year however, is the amount of faith fans have in head coach Mike Zimmer and the front office led by general manager Rick Spielman.
Entering his third year, Zimmer’s personality and work ethic resonated with the midwest fan base immediately and has created the strongest relationship with them since Bud Grant.
“I think he is the most beloved head coach since Bud [Grant] for sure,’ said Mark Zweig, a fan in attendance from Lakeville. “He’s direct with his expectations for his players and I really appreciate that.”
Ranking Zimmer’s skills as a coach would be difficult from the outside looking in, but you can’t argue with his ability to toe the line between being hard nosed and player friendly. He’s earned a reputation for developing players and making them successful, and that reputation has carried into the current Vikings roster. Players want to play for him and listen intently when he gives direction.
Mark Hermanson, a lifelong Vikings fan from Mankato, thinks that reputation serves Zimmer well when relating to his team. “People buy in because it works,” Hermanson said. “He has experience working with some of the more elite coaches in NFL history like Bill Parcels in Dallas. Spielman has honed the team and Zimmer can now shape a very young nucleus.”
After taking the helm, Zimmer produced a top ranked defense in his second year after inheriting a team that perpetually fell into line in the upper 20s in almost every statistical category.
There is that old adage about the chicken and the egg, and you can seemingly ask the same about the NFL. Can a coach make a good roster great or does a great roster make a good coach? Thankfully for the Vikings, they’ve found a way to solve for both components.
The momentum you feel behind Zimmer’s sail is partially due to the roster he was handed, but make no mistake, Zimmer’s fingerprints are all over this team. Linval Joseph, Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter are players acquired because they fit Zimmer’s defense so well. Other gems like Stefon Diggs, Harrison Smith, Teddy Bridgewater and Jerick McKinnon are Vikings due to crafty drafting.
That’s where Spielman comes in. The Vikings received plenty of notable recognition for their core of young talent, and Spielman deserves plenty of credit for assembling that talent in one place. There are some picks that are no-brainers, but it’s the late round steals of the draft that Spielman should get the tip of the hat for.
“They’ve got a group of players that should be here for a long time, which is great,” said John Rowan of Iowa.
Talented, yes, but the expectation to improve never dissipates. “Zimmer is old fashioned, no nonsense, no fluff. The players know it’s time to get to work,” Rowan added.
Zimmer hasn’t been hesitant to make decisions to help the team to become great, either. The Vikings currently have three assistant coaches with head coaching experience. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner took over the offense in Zimmer’s first season, but the Vikings added additional experience in Tony Sparano and Pat Shurmur this pas off-season. Those decisions speak loudly: It’s time to get better. It’s time to win.
That expectation to be great extends beyond the playing field and into the front office. Internally, COO Kevin Warren is the catalyst of success, and his thoughts on how championships are won in the details are insightful because rarely do we get an opportunity to see inside the organization.
Warren’s thoughtfulness in running the Vikings’ non-football staff mirrors the approach Spielman and Zimmer take when building the team. That sense of unity can be felt within the fan base, too.
“You can tell they’re onto something here,” Zweig added. “They have so much momentum, from the new stadium, to the contracts and draft picks they’re signing, there’s just so much positivity across the entire organization right now.”
That positivity fuels the belief that the Vikings can do no wrong in their personnel and coaching decisions, thus creating comparisons to some of the NFL’s elite teams. “There are similarities to New England,” Hermanson commented. “Just the trust you have in what Zimmer does and how they build this team, I’m not sure we’ve felt that before.”
As the Vikings break camp Tuesday and head for Cincinnati for two days of combined team practices, the fan base eagerly await the start of the regular season, with plenty of faith in those leading the charge on the NFC North.