One thing most in Vikings media/fandom recall when former Vikings player Rhett Ellison left the team a couple of years ago. It wasn’t so much the loss of the depth fullback/tight end that we remember, but rather the parting shot by his father Riki, who said that the Minnesota Vikings under head coach Mike Zimmer had a “toxic leadership” problem on their hands.
That seemed to ring true as Zimmer approached the recently retired Chad Greenway after that season to get genuine feedback on how he can become a better/fully rounded head coach. Zimmer, especially then, was known to offend his players in the media, and while that is something that has continued since (he just said coaching the team’s corners is like coaching “kindergarteners” about a week ago), we haven’t heard anything more about toxic leadership or unhappy players.
Because of that, and multiple players on defense restructuring deals (or spurning other teams’ higher offers like Anthony Barr and the Jets), most look at the above as a bump in the road that the team has moved beyond.
According to Tyler Dunne, who recently launched a substrack site titled GoLongTD
That feeling of toxic leadership never left, and is relatively pervasive. First, who is Dunne?
He I covered the Packers at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Bills at the Buffalo News and wrote NFL features at Bleacher Report for the last four years. He just launched Go Long this week. GoLongTD Focuses on enterprising football coverage. Longform.
Note from Tyler (Who I talked to before/during writing this): Folks can subscribe for $7/month or $70/year if they like what they see in this initial free trial!
Dunne spoke with current and former Vikings players and employees for a two part series (thus far) on the good, bad, and ugly aspects of Zimmer’s tenure as Vikings head coach.
What I’m sure will be huge news, the second part shows that things aren’t great in Zimmerland (and haven’t been for awhile).
There’s a lot to cover here, but click over to read both parts to get the full story as while things are going to sound ROUGH, Zimmer has his defenders as well.
The first thing that Dunne points out is Zimmer’s reluctance to change, especially on offense. Of that, Dunne’s source tells him:
“There’s a reason Minnesota never injected RPOs into its scheme like every other smart team seemed to after Nick Foles (miraculously) upset Tom Brady in the Super Bowl — Zimmer purposely mucked those plays up and then chastised the offense for being too gimmicky.
It became a running joke with offensive players.
Cheat code in hand, Zimmer called plays to screw them over.”
This was around the time when “head coach of the future” John DeFilippo and Zimmer were locking horns over running the ball more.
“When the offense followed orders and stuck to a steady diet of runs and play-action and screens in practice, Zimmer asked them to run more dropback passes the next practice. They did. They felt Zimmer’s wrath. “What!?” one source remembers him shouting. “We’re a dropback f—— team now?”
Jump to 2018, Cousins’ first year with the team, and things started out well (with Cousins and Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen breaking records for the most 100-yard games to start a season). But, on the defensive side of the ball, the team was a shell of it’s 2017 self.
While the unit improved after a rough start, they were never the same historically great (third down) unit. Despite that, the Vikings fought their way to a win-and-in situation before their Week 17 game against the Chicago Bears (back ups). Dunne says:
“Out of that night’s 25-20 loss on national TV, the head coach issued a public mandate that the Vikings needed to run the ball more. Just like that, everyone knew the Vikings were going to run, promptly shut down the run, the offensive coordinator was fired and — in Week 17, against the Bears’ B team, at home, a playoff spot on the line — the Vikings produced 10 points and 164 yards.”
“Says one of the many ex-assistants to cycle through this staff: “That tells you everything you need to know about what the players think of Zim. Right there. That game.”
This is where things get VERY interesting, as Dunne spoke with some previous Vikings employees:
“Past co-workers describe the head coach as everything from “a very disgruntled, pissy old man” to “joyless” to “a big blamer” to “an equal-opportunity asshole” to “pissed about everything.” One source close to the team’s inner-workings believes his intensity worked initially with so many young players dying to prove themselves but, as time passed, it became white noise.”
“Everything is everyone else’s fault,” this source says. “Or the answer is always, ‘You have to work harder.’ Maybe it’s your scheme. Maybe it’s your stubbornness. Maybe it’s your inability to adjust. Maybe it’s your lack of communication. If you keep bringing Zimmer back and Spielman back and Cousins gets extended for $30 million a year, you’re going to lose the locker room because you’re losing some guys.”
“There are players, he adds, who have viewed Zimmer’s form of leadership as “his way or the highway,” saying Zimmer tries to make players out to be selfish when this locker room, in reality, has been unbelievably unselfish.”
“He’s a very demanding coach — which is fine — as long as you know how to love them up sometimes,” he says, “and tap them on the back and they trust you. Which a lot of guys don’t.”
When it comes to Zimmer’s relationship with Vikings general manager Rick Spielman?
“One former co-worker who saw the two interact regularly, says Zimmer “treats Rick terrible. Like shit. The way he talks to him, it’s incredible.””
I’ve been known to call Zimmer a glorified defensive coordinator because of his, cough, hands-off approach to the offense. Dunne’s source seemingly confirms that appearances are reality there, as well:
“Zim is really hard to work for. Zim likes the head coach paycheck but doesn’t like to do the job. He didn’t understand that he was also coach of the offense as well. I’m not sure he’ll ever get that.”
While Zimmer may take the blame with the media as any head coach would after a loss, the feeling internally seems to be that when things are bad, they’re everyone but Zims’ fault:
“At some point, are you going to take any of the blame?”
This all would make any Viking fan immediately think of Mackenzie Alexander, or Stefon Diggs, two players who spurned Zimmer and the Vikings either in free agency or on social media, to get the hell out of dodge.
Dunne surmises that most coaches would’ve bent over backwards to repair the relationship with Diggs, off or on the field. To find a way to listen and adapt. Dunne concludes on that note:
“It’s the exact opposite,” the one source recalls. “It’s ‘Do what you’re f—— told.’”
To be fair, Zimmer has ex-players who went on-record in Dunne’s part I of this series to defend him and his style. Former Vikings/Cowboys corner Terrance Newman, who played for both Zimmer and Zimmer’s mentor Bill Parcells, told Dunne:
“He might yell at you,” Newman says. “He might tell you you’re terrible. ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ But at the end of the day, you get in the game and not everything goes according to plan. So in the course of practice, he’s bad-mouthing you — Are you going to stop somebody today!? Now, you have to deal with him as well as doing your job. So you realize it elevates your game. You have to respond.
That style, to Newman, creates two outcomes:
“You either go into the tank or you rise to what he’s telling you.”
As Newmanfurther explains:
“[Zimmer/Bill Parcells] rip you. Berate you. Nudge you closer to your wit’s end. Nobody enjoys being castigated but that’s the point. It’s not a matter of enjoyment.”
And Dunne sums it up by saying:
The culture’s more boot camp than flat-brims. This coaching is designed to harden you to handle “all stressors” you could ever face in a game.
Friend of this website and the man Zimmer reached out to after the Ellison controversy, also spoke with Dunne about Zimmer. He said:
“Zimmer’s never going to be the guy who pats you on the back and tells you how great you are and, ‘It’s OK, you don’t need to work hard,’” Greenway says. “Zim is who he is and that’s not going to change. When you have a guy who’s consistent, that’s what you’re looking for. You don’t want a guy who’s up and down and all over the place. You want a guy where you know the message.”
Like Newman (and others like Brian Robison or George Iloka), they see a method to Zim’s approach
“And to hold the team accountable to that level? That’s how you achieve greatness.”
The one difference between the detractors and supporters of Zimmer? Age.
Partner of the site, Mike Tice, famously retired when he realized that the new era or NFL players didn’t “want to be coached anymore”. The NFL, as Bryant McKinnie told me on my podcast with Wobby ‘Three Deep’, the game has completely changed, even since McKinnie retired less than a decade ago.
With social media and sponsorships, each NFL player is essentially a brand in and of itself. So, while we’ve always had diva wide receivers in the NFL, things are different when you have guys like Antonio Brown and Stefon Diggs using social media to force a trade.
When you tie in the difference in how kids come up these days (for example, some of my first memories of playing sports is being berated, angrily, with every expletive in the book being used as a young hockey player in Minnesota), with participation trophies and, again, social media creating massive followings for high school sports stars (let alone college or professional ones)… It isn’t that surprising that the new generation of player might be reacting differently to Zimmer’s Parcellian ways.
It is worth mentioning that both Newman and Greenway blame Diggs, not Zimmer, for that situation (something Greenway has told me in person before, as well). But again, Newman and Greenway, despite recently retiring, come from a different generation.
So, the question becomes whether or not Zimmer is the answer moving forward. It is also worth mentioning that it is extremely rare for a NFL coach to win a Super Bowl after their first five years with a franchise. The only teams to do so have had a combo Hall of Fame coach AND quarterback (without exception), and I think it’s safe to say that that isn’t the case in Minnesota.
I think it’s important to report these things so we can all make a more educated decision on the current and future status of the franchise. Because it’s not just players that are cut from a different cloth these day, it’s coaches as well. The Vikings have a lot of talent on their roster, and if Zimmer is losing or has lost the locker-room?
I’ll let you finish that sentence…