This article, from Issue XXV of Gridiron magazine, originally appeared in 2016. For individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE
Rick Spielman reclines, trainers on a round table in his office at Winter Park. It is rare to see anyone this relaxed at work, let alone a general manager who, less than two weeks ago, raised eyebrows across the NFL with the Sam Bradford trade. In two days’ time, the Minnesota Vikings are due to open the incomparable US Bank Stadium against Green Bay, but Spielman has other things on his mind.
“I follow the Premier League pretty close,” he enthuses to Gridiron. “I find it fascinating. I watch it every Saturday and Sunday in my office here. Just as a stress relief. I always watch Rebecca Lowe and the Robbies [Earle and Mustoe] and the Men in Blazers. People round here think I’m freaking nuts but I’m like addicted to it, I don’t know why. My wife thinks I’m nuts.”
Many shared those sentiments after Spielman moved to save the Vikings’ season following Teddy Bridgewater’s luckless, debilitating knee injury. A first-round pick in 2017 and a conditional fourth-round selection (which could become a second) the following year were surrendered for the Eagles’ starting quarterback eight days before the opener in Tennessee.
“ It’s about attitude, about the passion. About being smart players, about making plays at the same time.”
That the Vikings won their Week 1 game 25-16 – they were 10-0 down at half-time and had journeyman Shaun Hill under centre – was down to some solid special teams play and Mike Zimmer’s defensive unit, which is fast becoming the envy of the NFL.
It is disciplined and physical, unselfish and fast, and almost unchanged from the 2015 edition, which showcased their ability to confuse and prey on opposition quarterbacks. Marcus Mariota and Aaron Rodgers were beaten black-and-blue in back-to-back weeks to start the season after being worked over by a relentless front four, the terror visible in their eyes. Cam Newton wore a similar look when he was sacked eight times as the Vikings became the first team to win in Carolina since November 2014.
Built on communication and trust, the initial pressure is applied from edge rushers Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter, or from the Herculean Linval Joseph through the middle. With linebacker Anthony Barr spotting and ready to blitz through an A-gap or from the edge, as the pocket collapses, there is nowhere to turn.
Griffen, who has four sacks this year, tells us: “We are a team defense. We are a very sound defense. We focus on the details of the defense. We bring pressure from any area on the field. From any position. We are aggressive. And we like to play good run defense; that’s what we’ve got to live by. He [Zimmer] brought in the right coaches to emphasise the main points of having a good defense. And that’s what we do on a daily basis. It’s about attitude, about the passion. About being smart players, about making plays at the same time.”
As Mariota, Rodgers, Newton, Eli Manning and Brock Osweiler have discovered this season, the Vikings possess instinctive playmakers on all three levels. Barr’s UCLA roommate Eric Kendricks, who became the first rookie to lead the Vikings in tackles last year, turned the game in Tennessee with a go-ahead 77-yard pick six. Like Barr, Kendricks is versatile, and comfortable against the run, blitzing or dropping into coverage.
In a relaxed locker room, the 24-year-old takes a thoughtful pause between a mouthful of ribs and uses two words to describe Zimmer’s scheme. “Organised chaos.”
“I’m a very smart football player. I knew what I was supposed to do but, at the same time, it was like, man, I want to go back to some of my old ways and play with this leverage, this technique.”
“We are very disciplined. But when it’s time for aggression you’ve got to be aggressive. It’s awesome.”
The feel-good factor Kendricks exudes is shared around a unit that is more than the sum of its parts. But even amid focus on the collective, there’s an undoubted leader and star.
Harrison Smith directs the secondary and is Zimmer’s eyes and ears on the field. Affectionately known as ‘Bonecrusher’, he hits hard, but fair. He has also flourished under the defensive dynamo, becoming the only safety with positive Pro Football Focus grades in coverage, run defense and pass rush in the past two seasons. “Everybody’s got to do their job,” he emphasises. “You can’t freestyle or do whatever you want. You’ve got to take care of your job, so the next guy can make the play. Or so that you can make the play. You’ve got to have a lot of trust in one another. Kind of like, you’ve got to be coachable. You’ve got to make adjustments. Be aggressive.”
Zimmer, who utilises the nickel package (a personnel group with additional defensive backs aimed to halt opposing passing attacks) between 60 and 70 percent of the time, has steadily accrued a commendable collection of cornerbacks. Terence Newman, at 38 the oldest defensive player in the NFL, is mentoring eventual successor Trae Waynes. Meanwhile, the rangy Xavier Rhodes has ironed out many of the creases in his game. Against the Giants, he so riled Odell Beckham Jr. that the star receiver posted career-low figures of 23 receiving yards on three catches.
This year’s second-round pick Mackenzie Alexander is a Zimmer favourite, despite his 5ft 11ins frame. He is expected to be the successor to the dogged Captain Munnerlyn, a popular figure in the locker room with teammates and media alike, and the self-confessed best nickel cornerback in the NFL. After joining in free agency in 2014, he freely admits he took time to adjust to the Zimmer way.
“I’m a very smart football player. I knew what I was supposed to do but, at the same time, it was like, man, I want to go back to some of my old ways and play with this leverage, this technique. Some things that were from my old system that I played with. But I knew it kind of hurt my team and I was hurting myself because I wasn’t playing within the scheme.
“So I had to learn how to play within the scheme and take that next step and trust my teammates and trust my coaches. You have to study. Be willing to buy into the system. Got to be able to listen. And be very coachable.”
“I wanted to play for him bad. I like a coach that doesn’t take no BS. It’s all real, all authentic. And he’s going to get the best out of each and everybody in this locker room.”
“I was looking at the guy that’s at Manchester United now… Jose Mourinho,” Spielman laughs in reply to a query about hiring Zimmer. His pronunciation of the Portuguese is perfect.
He was left with little choice but to replace Leslie Frazier after a dismal 2013. The Vikings conceded 480 points, the second-highest total in franchise history, as another year of Adrian Peterson’s prime was wasted. They threw away last-minute leads in five games and the Packers won the NFC North with eight wins. A change in mentality and personality was needed: A Special One, if you like.
Zimmer had been interviewed five times for head-coaching jobs, but no-one gave the former Dallas and Atlanta defensive coordinator his break. At Cincinnati, the Bengals finished in the top 10 in yards and points allowed for four of his five years as defensive coordinator. It seemed he was too blunt, too grizzled, to get his big chance. How wrong they were.
“He’s not going to sit there and do a PowerPoint presentation,” Spielman explains. “Or blow you away with all the gadgets and gizmos. He’s a football coach. And we wanted to hire a guy that didn’t have to be a CEO. We wanted a guy to run the team, run the locker room, run our football team and make us the best.
“The other thing that really jumped out about Coach Zimmer was that I talked to a lot of agents whose players had played for him at previous teams, and I could not get one negative recommendation on him. For as hard as he can be on the players, they all respected him and knew that they became better players when he coached them. So he has whatever that line is where he can push them but also knows how to give them tough love. He earns their respect.
“I think if players, regardless of what level, believe a coach is giving them an opportunity to win from a strategic standpoint on gameday and that player believes that this guy is going to make me a better football player, they are going to follow that lead. These guys are very smart, they’ve been around a long time and they can see through the BS. And there is no BS with Coach Zimmer.”
Players past and present echo those thoughts, none more so than Griffen. He is another who has flourished under the defensive guru, becoming one of the most feared pass rushers in the league. “I wanted to play for him bad. I like a coach that doesn’t take no BS. It’s all real, all authentic. And he’s going to get the best out of each and everybody in this locker room. I know that he can get the best out of me and all of my team-mates in here.”
“What I would say about Zim,” Kendricks adds, “is that he’s very consistent. You’re going to get the same everyday. You know what to expect out of him. You know what he wants. That’s the best thing you can ask for in a coach. You come into work and a lot of things change. But when your coach is the same, it keeps everyone on an even keel.”
Zimmer’s impact is extending beyond defense. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs puts part of his phenomenal start in the NFL down to the defensive backs guru. “I will always ask a question about a DB. ‘How will this work? What guys are looking for?’ He’s seen them all. He’s been around the game for a very long time. I try to get all the information I can from him. I love playing for him. You know what you’re going to get out of him each and every day and he’s going to hold you to a high standard. He’s going to expect nothing but you doing what you are supposed to at every chance, every opportunity.”
His absence is felt in other stops, too, as Cincinnati’s Domata Peko reveals: “I love Zimmer. He was the best coach I’ve ever had, man. We really miss him in Cincinnati. He was very respected. He taught me so much. I owe a lot to him. He was one of the main reasons I play the way I play.
“He just has this presence about him. He demands greatness. One of the things I really love about Zimmer is everyday that you step on the field he always asks me, ‘Hey Domata what are you going to do today? What are you going to get better at?’ He would ask me every day, and that’s what I take with me when I go to practice. I always try to get better, try to learn new things, try to improve myself.
“He’s a very demanding coach. When you’re in his meetings, no-one’s talking, everyone’s listening. And the cool part of it is he’ll coach every single player. Even if they’re an older guy or a younger guy, he’ll treat you the same.”
“I’m never going to bring in a player that I don’t think is going to be a fit for what he wants. But we also are very much on the same page on the type of player we want to bring in here as far as passion for the game, character on and off the field.”
“I read The Damned United. I couldn’t put that book down,” Spielman enthuses. Again, his pronunciation is faultless. He discusses the relationship between Clough and Peter Taylor, a dynamic duo who led Nottingham Forest to the lofty perch of English and European champions. While Spielman and Zimmer have not yet hit anything comparable to those lofty heights, their thriving relationship is intriguing.
“When I went through the interview process, Coach Zimmer had a lot of very similar philosophies that I had on how to build a team. It was ironic our backgrounds – and I didn’t know this – were almost identical. His dad was a high-school coach. My dad was a high-school coach. He played for his dad in high school, I played for my dad in high school. He went to a smaller school in Illinois called Illinois State. I went to a smaller school in Illinois called Southern Illinois. We were both quarterbacks who got moved to the defensive side of the ball. It was like sitting there talking about myself! It was ironic going through all this. It took me back a little bit. I was like, ‘I’m talking to me!’”
Zimmer has transformed the Vikings. In two years, the defense went from last in defensive scoring to fifth. Their scouting system – and a keen eye for a hungry free agent – has created a roster with tremendous depth. Early injuries to Sharrif Floyd and fellow first-round pick Rhodes were barely noticed thanks to the performances of Shamar Stephen, Tom Johnson and Waynes. The latter is far from the finished product, but his game-sealing interception against Green Bay bought him time.
“I think the general manager and head coach have to be on the same page,” says Spielman. “You have to respect each other’s roles. And you have to trust that you are doing your part of the job. I think he has full trust in our ability to bring in players. I handle all the administrative things. I have full trust and our ownership has full trust in him handling that locker room and our product on the field. Because ultimately he is responsible for that.
“I understand the type of players he’s looking for as far as the physical traits they need to play in the schemes that we are running offensively and defensively; I’m never going to bring in a player that I don’t think is going to be a fit for what he wants. But we also are very much on the same page on the type of player we want to bring in here as far as passion for the game, character on and off the field, so we have a lot of very, very similar philosophies.
“A lot of times, we may pass on a player that may be a good fit somewhere else, but we don’t feel he would be a good fit here. We are doing it with not only the football talent, but also the other traits that we are looking for in a player. The hardest thing to do is finding those guys – because we’ll pass up on players that will be thriving elsewhere but may not have thrived in this situation.”
“It was probably one of the most unreal feelings. You can’t believe you are seeing what you just saw.”
There is never a dull moment in Minnesota. Those four Super Bowl defeats in the seventies; the catalogue of cruel NFC Championship Games; even the Metrodome roof caved in. Last season ended with Blair Walsh’s chip-shot field goal sailing wide left with the Seahawks ready to surrender in frigid temperatures. It was not to be.
Nevertheless, the Vikings went into this season as a Super Bowl outsider. But then it happened. Franchise quarterback Bridgewater went down in practice after a non-contact knee injury. He suffered a dislocated knee and torn ACL. “It was probably one of the most unreal feelings,” Spielman explains. “You can’t believe you are seeing what you just saw. Over the last three years, we kept building this roster and being patient. And building it with our type of players through the draft, developing these guys.
“And Teddy was going into his third year and I truly believe, with that the quarterback spot, the third, fourth year is when they start to hit it. And he had shown every signs of that through the OTAs, through our offseason programmes, and the preseason. We were very excited where Teddy was heading this year. And all of a sudden, in a freak accident, it’s gone.
“After you get over the shock, you can’t just do nothing. It becomes, ‘Now what?’ And, ‘How do we make the best out of the worst situation?’ So that’s when we got together with the personnel staff and started going through all the scenarios. We’d come too far from building this thing to not do something – and we had blessing from the ownership to be as aggressive as we wanted. So we looked at which quarterbacks were available, all the while knowing we didn’t have an offseason to haggle. We had to do something within a 48-hour period and, therefore, knew there’d be a premium to pay. But I think with our current situation where we are at that we couldn’t just stay status quo.”
“Everybody had confidence in Shaun Hill that he could come out and do it. But he’s an older quarterback and what if he got hurt? So we went through a lot of different scenarios. Did a lot of phone calls, a lot of film study and eventually we came up with a trade with Philadelphia because they had a very difficult decision to make too. They had a very young franchise quarterback who was unknown. They’ve got a good football team and they’re giving up their starting quarterback a week before the season starts. So I understood what they were dealing with as well. Because you always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. So I think it was very tough decisions on both sides. And hopefully it will work out well for both sides.”
With the Vikings sitting at 5-0, Bradford is yet to turn the ball over in a purple shirt. He made his debut at the architecturally stunning US Bank Stadium in the 17-14 win against Green Bay. The cacophonous interior gave fans the opener the magnificent stadium deserved, following that up with victory in Carolina, a Monday Night Football triumph versus the New York Giants and another home win over Houston. The stadium took four years and $1.1billion to build, but it is a unique place to call home. And phenomenally loud, as both Rodgers, Manning and Osweiler discovered.
Their new home has come at the ideal time, amid the Vikings going from darkhorses to dominant powerhouse. “You don’t want your team to walk on the field and act like they can just win,” says Newman – who followed Zimmer to Minnesota from Cincinnati. “You’ve still got to work for it. And the fact that we’ve just beaten the Green Bay Packers, now teams are going to be gunning for us. And that makes it even tougher for us. Being the defending North champs, making the playoffs last year, all of that stacks against us because teams are going to be gunning for us.”
Yet the Vikings keep winning – even in the face of adversity. Future Hall-of-Famer Peterson is on injured reserve after tearing a meniscus in his right knee against Green Bay. He is alongside left tackle Matt Kalil, and both may never don the purple again. You sense, however, that they will work something out with their 31-year-old running back, who is due to earn an extortionate $18m next season. Minnesota’s golden child has an incentive to return; Super Bowl LII will be held at US Bank Stadium and no team has ever won the big dance in their backyard.
Spielman clearly feels the window is there, although he has other things on the mind as Gridiron exits his office. “Have they still got a statue of Clough and Taylor outside Derby County?” We confirm that they have and depart, contemplating what the future holds for this magnificent, new venue. For should the cards fall into place, Minnesota may one day make a monument of their very own double act.
This article, from Issue XXV of Gridiron magazine, originally appeared in 2016. For individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE