With a new coach, a new billion dollar stadium, and a new influx of young talent - NFL football in Minnesota is on the rise
By Dugan Thomas
Veteran Matt Cassel and rookie Teddy Bridgewater are fighting for the job of leading the Vikings offense in the 2014 season.
Minnesota residents didn't want to do it. They never wanted to do it.
Since the Red McCombs era in the late 1990's, Vikings owners have tried diligently to replace the Metrodome with a new publicly funded stadium. The state legislature and it's residents were always able to fall back on the Vikings Metrodome lease that ran through the 2011 season. The state of Minnesota went all the way to the brink, but their bluff was finally called.
When 2012 rolled around they had no choice. Either approve a public/private partnership for a new stadium, or the NFL in Minnesota would be gone. That is the nature of the beast. The National Football League is the most popular professional sport in the United States and it's not even close. Los Angeles, San Antonio, Toronto, and London are all waiting in the wings, and would jump at any chance to have an NFL franchise. In 2013 NFL revenues went over $9 billion, and it's only going to continue to skyrocket.
On May 10, 2012, the Minnesota Legislature approved funding for a new multi-purpose fixed-roof stadium on the site of the Metrodome. A $975 million project, with the Vikings covering $477 million, the state $348 million, and the city of Minneapolis $150 million. With construction starting in December of 2013, and completion before the 2016 NFL season, the Vikings will be spending the next two years playing at the University of Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium.
They did the right thing, for all parties involved.
Not only will the NFL be guaranteed in Minnesota for the next 30 years, but the deal already netted the state the 2018 Super Bowl, with Final Fours, and major league soccer on the horizon. The state benefits from the additional revenue brought in for every Vikings home game, the Super Bowl, music concerts, conventions, and the ability to use the facility for University of Minnesota and high school sports.
This deal wasn't about Minnesota residents and the Vikings being cheap, it was about quality of life.
When the dust settled, the state needed the Vikings and the stadium to keep themselves at the forefront of an ever-changing global economy. The state's 18 Fortune 500 companies needed this deal to recruit the best and brightest young stars. And the Minnesota Vikings fans needed this deal, because they love this state and this franchise, and any other place than Minnesota just wouldn't be right at all.
The Mike Zimmer era has begun
The Wilf family bought the Vikings in 2005, and brought in their first coach for the 2006 season in Brad Childress. It was the team's talent that brought them to the 2009 NFC Championship game, that was easily apparent - Favre, Peterson, Harvin, Jared Allen, Antoine Winfield, the Williams wall. Not the coach that was mocked by it's fan base for five seasons, and just couldn't get any respect from his players or the fans.
The Wilf's had no choice but to fire Childress during a disastrous 2010 season, and hire the well liked and successful defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. A disciple of the Tony Dungy coaching tree, he won a Super Bowl as a defensive assistant with the Indianapolis Colts, and as a player with the 1985 Chicago Bears. The promise was there.
That promise was gone after a 3-13 first season, a quick playoff appearance in 2012, and a 5-10-1 record in 2013. He consistently had to make excuses for his player's mistakes, and couldn't defiantly tell the truth about what was wrong with his team. An NFL player is no different from your 5 year-old kid. If you don't teach and discipline them the right way, they're going to continue doing things their own way, for as long as they can get away with it.
It was too bad it took the Wilf family so long to figure it out, because that was exactly what Leslie Frazier failed to do. Teach and lead a group of young men in a defiant and confident manner.
Finally as the 2013 season went along, the writing was on the wall, and the emotionless Leslie Frazier while liked and respected by his players, just didn't have what it takes to be a head coach in the NFL.
With the ascension of Rick Spielman from Vikings V.P. of Player Personnel to the position of Vikings General Manager in 2012, Spielman was finally able to make his own hire. With the help of the Wilf's and a very thorough nationwide college and pro coaching search, they found their man in Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer.
As defensive coordinator for three different teams since the year 2000, Zimmer came to prominence with Bill Parcells and the Dallas Cowboys in 2003, with his defensive unit being the top-ranked overall defense in the league that year. He stayed with the Cowboys through 2006, then a failed one-year stint with the Bobby Petrino debacle in Atlanta, as Petrino left mid-season to head back to the college ranks.
In 2008 Zimmer was hired by the Cincinnati Bengals to work under Marvin Lewis as their new defensive coordinator, and in 2009 he earned NFL Assistant Coach of the Year honors from both Pro Football Weekly and CBSSports.com for having the 4th-ranked defense in the league. He's consistently led the Bengals defense year-after-year to top-ten rankings in both yards allowed and fewest points.
HBO's "Hard Knocks" reality show was the platform where Zimmer received his highest notoriety. His famous constant F-bombs and fiery tough personality not only won over the fans, but also his players, who respected his knowledge of the game and his eagerness to get the most out of every player.
A former three-sport star for Lockport Township High School in Illinois, Mike Zimmer played quarterback for his father Bill, who was also a standout athlete and coach, currently inducted in two hall-of-fames in the state of Illinois. Mike went on to Illinois State and played quarterback and linebacker, before a neck injury forced him to quit the game in 1976.
It was only natural for Mike to follow his father's footsteps into the coaching ranks, starting with stints at the University of Missouri, Weber State, and Washington State, before finally landing in the NFL.
Tragedy struck in 2009, when Zimmer's wife Vikki died unexpectedly at home from natural causes at age 50.
Mike Zimmer coached his defense in a game three days later. A 17-14 victory over Baltimore where Marvin Lewis presented Zimmer with the game ball in an emotional locker room scene. He broke down after a brief speech, showing Mike's love for both his wife and his team.
The Minnesota Vikings needed Mike Zimmer. A tough Midwestern guy who's been around the block. Been there done that. The story around the league is Mike Zimmer was too honest and direct on many former head coaching interviews in the past. He told those owners what he thought was wrong with their teams, and how he thought they needed to be fixed.
He didn't tell them what they wanted to hear - he was brutally honest.
It took until 2014 for a team to believe in Mike Zimmer. Only time will tell if the Minnesota Vikings and Mike Zimmer are a successful pair.
I can't see the future, nobody can.
From what I've seen so far of Mike Zimmer...he's the man, and the Minnesota Vikings are lucky to have him.
Quarterbacks/secondary will determine 2014 Vikings fate
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the Minnesota Vikings have a serious quarterback problem. They've had successful veteran quarterbacks in the past on yearly stints. Moon, Cunningham, Favre, Brad Johnson, Rich Gannon. Not since Fran Tarkenton in the mid 70's, have the Vikings had a true franchise quarterback. With every first-round swing in the draft, if you don't hit, it gets worse and worse.
Rick Spielman took one of the biggest swings with the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft. An astonishing draft night reach, that had fans, analysts, and pundits scratching their heads. Three years later the pick of Christian Ponder with his 38 TD's, 34 INT's, and an embarrassing 77.3 quarterback rating clearly show Spielman totally missed the ball on that one.
The biggest casualty of that mistake by Rick Spielman was the loss of Percy Harvin. When Christian Ponder showed he couldn't even complete a 5-yard swing pass on a consistent basis, and the Vikings continued to back him as the starter, Harvin wanted out.
Percy Harvin while having a checkered past, and a questionable personality, has no doubt been one of the most dynamic talents the NFL has seen since he came out of Florida in 2009. He was the #1 recruit by Rivals.com coming out of high school. He was the best player on a Florida team that won two national titles. And in 2009 he was Brett Favre's favorite target, as Harvin took home the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
He maneuvered his way to the Seattle Seahawks in a trade with Minnesota for picks and a new contract, but had to sit out most of the 2013 season with a nagging hip injury. All it took was one play on the second-half kickoff in Super Bowl XLVIII for Harvin to prove his worth. He turned a comfortable Seahawks halftime lead into a rout, with his explosive 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Dynamic players like Harvin, just plain don't grow on trees.
Rick Spielman and the Vikings were very lucky and very smart to gamble on Harvin's replacement in the 2013 NFL Draft, in Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. They traded back into the first round to get him, a bold move that has already shown to be paying dividends. In Patterson they saw a dynamic talent just like Harvin, who could be gone in a flash when he gets the ball in space.
I scouted Patterson extensively leading up to the draft last year, and I was absolutely drooling after watching his game tapes. At 6' 2" and 220 pounds, he was the most dynamic playmaking receiver coming out of college with his 4.42 speed and 37 inch vertical, but he was raw. A two-year JUCO player out of Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, he only needed one year with the Tennessee Volunteers to show he was ready for the NFL.
Special teams is where Patterson made his mark in his first year with the Vikings, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns, and earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors as a kick returner. Who knows what he could've done on offense if since fired offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave would've used him correctly last year. Unfortunately Patterson spent most of his time watching from the sidelines, and Musgrave's failed offense went out the door with Leslie Frazier.
Rick Spielman had no choice but to swing for the fences again this year with another draft night trade to move back into the first-round to grab Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd overall pick. Except this time it wasn't such a huge swing after all, considering Bridgewater had always been considered a top-ten talent leading up to the draft. The famous pro day workout that went wrong, sealed Bridgewater's slide down the draft board to the end of the first-round. It was all about the "gloves", or should I say, the lack there of.
New Vikings Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner was there to witness the Bridgewater gloveless pro day workout. He brought him back for a private workout a week later, and said "get your gloves on kid". A few hours of coaching him-up was all it took for Turner to be convinced Bridgewater was the right quarterback for the Vikings. What Turner saw was a good - not great arm, a quick release, a winner everywhere he's been, a competitor, a good kid. Teddy Bridgewater has an opportunity to learn from a great offensive mind in Turner, he has an opportunity to win the quarterback job this year, and the Vikings have an opportunity to finally develop a true franchise quarterback.
Rick Spielman needed to sign Matt Cassel back to be a veteran bridge quarterback for at least another year or two. Who knows how quickly Bridgewater will come along, and Cassel clearly showed enough last year to win games, something Christian Ponder has never consistently been able to do. In the Family Night scrimmage on Saturday night in Mankato, Cassel and Bridgewater received all the first and second-team reps, with Ponder getting absolutely no work in team drills. That's been the story all camp long, and with no other quarterbacks in camp, the Vikings look to be burying Ponder at third-string all season long.
The offense is stacked this year with talent, they just need the quarterback play to bring it all together. They have the best football player in the world in Adrian Peterson. Emerging young star Cordarrelle Patterson, and 2-time Pro Bowler Greg Jennings at wide receiver. 2012 Pro Bowl MVP Kyle Rudolph at tight end, and a steady and strong offensive line led by John Sullivan and Matt Kalil. With Norv Turner at the helm of this offense, there's no doubt they will score points, it's just a matter of putting it all together.
Zimmer is adding the pieces for this defensive puzzle
Some of the Vikings defensive pieces were already there, some were added in free agency, and the 2014 NFL Draft added a huge piece to this unit with a top-10 pick.
Outside rush linebacker Anthony Barr out of UCLA was targeted and selected with the 9th overall pick in this year's draft. A swap of picks with Cleveland had the Browns selecting cornerback Justin Gilbert at #8, and the Vikings picking up a fifth-round pick in the process. They entertained trading back again, but they didn't want to go too far - they wanted Anthony Barr.
NFC North quarterbacks have feasted on the Vikings secondary in the last three to four years. With a combination of untalented cornerbacks, and an aging pass rush, the Vikings brass knew they were in trouble. Barr instantly brings speed off the edge in the new hybrid scheme Zimmer is implementing. Sometimes it will be elements of the 4-3, sometimes it will be a 3-4. You can bet Barr will be on his feet coming off the edge in obvious passing downs. His explosiveness and chase coming from the backside are what made him a top-10 pick this year. Many have compared his athleticism and rush style to former Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor. The early camp results are in, and word on the street is Barr has looked as advertised.
The overhaul of this defense started way back in 2012 when Spielman started a run on defensive first-round picks with safety Harrison Smith. 2013 brought first-round talent Sharrif Floyd, and Xavier Rhodes, along with 2014's already mentioned Anthony Barr. They dipped into free agency in the off-season quickly signing 6'4" 325 pound nose-guard Linval Joseph, trying to shore-up a rush defense that hasn't been there since the legendary Williams wall.
They added more pieces to the secondary in feisty cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who'll give them the tough-nosed tackling cornerback they haven't had since the departure of Antoine Winfield. And just this week, they added former Bengals safety Chris Crocker, who has worked with Mike Zimmer for almost his whole career in Cincinnati. This secondary is young, and they need all the help they can get.
They also retained another big piece in defensive end Everson Griffen, a 6' 3" 273 pound physical specimen of muscle, who was able to hit free-agency and cash in this year to the tune of 5 years and $42.5 million. That allowed the departure of Jared Allen, who was making $17 million in the last year of his contract, with his age and declining production heading out the door with him.
Mike Zimmer might be a new head coach in the NFL, but the defensive side of the ball is where he made his living all his life. I think he'll do what it takes to keep adding pieces to the puzzle, in order to get the Vikings defense where it needs to be. I definitely don't think they will have a top-ten defense this year, the young secondary scares me. But I think Zimmer will get the front two squads to hold their own, and the secondary will have to do what they can against the likes of Rodgers, Stafford, and Cutler with the hopes of learning quickly in a very short period of time.