MANKATO, Minn. — Mike Zimmer has a vision for where the Vikings will be one day.
It's a picture in his mind and it will require a journey, a long process for the first-year head coach to transform a team coming off a five-win season. A lot will be predicated on Teddy Bridgewater, the latest Vikings quarterback first-round pick, being a lot better than the 2011 pick at that position and in that round, Christian Ponder.
For that task, the 58-year-old Zimmer has one of the more respected offensive minds in the NFL, Norv Turner. Zimmer, whose Bengals defenses ranked in the top seven in four of the last five seasons, is hands-on rebuilding that side of the ball.
But he isn't losing sight of the now. That's not the way the Peoria native learned this game growing up in the Lockport High program his father Bill coached for 34 years. So, Zimmer has a message programmed to pop up on his cellphone every morning. They are words to coach by:
How can we win with this team?
"This is not the team I want it to look like eventually," Zimmer said Wednesday, sitting in a golf cart before a walk-through at Minnesota State University-Mankato. "But how can we win with the team we have? That is the thing I learned most from my father.
"One year he'd run the wishbone and the next year he'd have a quarterback and run the run-and-shoot. That is why he was successful."
Bill Zimmer, 83, and a member of the IHSA Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, is rehabilitating from a recent fall in Naples, Fla., where he retired. He's improving. Some days are better than others, but he says you can count on him making it to Minnesota soon to check in on his son and grandson, Adam, who oversees the Vikings' linebackers.
"You've got to have discipline," Bill said, beaming about the opportunity his son has, one they both thought might never come after interviews with five other clubs for a head coaching job. "You have to transfer the desire to win. He will do great in that sense. He is a head coach who is not afraid to be a teacher."
The family dynamic probably made life as a player even more challenging for Zimmer.
"I could never call my dad 'Dad' on the football field," he said. "I called him coach. He was pretty hard on me."
Zimmer, who turned down the Nebraska job in 2004 with a goal of becoming an NFL head coach, is well known for his intensity and salty delivery captured by HBO's "Hard Knocks." Players have always responded and he has a reputation for great success with second-chance castoffs.
Panthers tight ends coach Pete Hoener has known the family as long as anyone in the NFL. Hoener was a coach at Illinois State in 1977 when Zimmer was a student assistant. A thumb injury forced Zimmer to switch from quarterback to linebacker, and a subsequent neck injury ended his playing days. Previously, Hoener had recruited Lockport as an assistant at Missouri.
"When you think of the real high school coaches that you admire, his dad was that guy," Hoener said. "So Mike was raised in that atmosphere. I loved his dad and I see a lot of the same traits in Mike."
Four decades later, Zimmer doesn't know any other way. He's a straight shooter who delivers the message unvarnished to his players, the front office and media. It's his background that really attracted Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. Like Zimmer, Spielman grew up playing football for his father, Sonny, in a Midwestern town. Spielman switched from offense to defense, and he attended Southern Illinois.
"He's different on the field," Spielman said. "When he is walking around the office, he is one of the nicest human beings you will be around. Coaching is his element, it is his wheelhouse. He's not going to be one of those guys that puts up flashy power points. For where our team is and what we needed, there is no question Mike was the right guy."
Spielman started talking about the predraft process and how Zimmer went to the white board to show how players' strengths could be utilized, transferring scouting reports to X's and O's on the fly. He's not rigid when it comes to scheme and that has made the union of the GM and coach strong from the start.
Zimmer's work is cut out for him on defense. The Vikings allowed 30 points per game last season, the only team to surrender more than the Bears (29.8). Strong-side linebacker Anthony Barr was drafted ninth overall and must help make up for the loss of Jared Allen. It's the first time in nine seasons a new system has been installed.
"He kind of makes you uncomfortable," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Makes you want to work, makes you want to learn, makes you want to get into the book and really get to the bottom of this defense and learn it."
The Vikings have nine players 30 or older and five are projected to start. In comparison, the Bears have 18 in the 30-and-up club with nine set to start.
"It's good to have a coach like Zimmer," running back Adrian Peterson said. "It's not often you find NFL coaches who are right there in your face. For the age of our team especially, it's good."
Safety Chris Crocker, who played for Zimmer in seven seasons with the Bengals and Falcons, was signed Aug. 4 after a slew of injuries opposite Harrison Smith.
"You play hard for him and you play well, there is another side to him," Crocker said. "You just don't see it. There is a human element to it, but when we are between these white lines there is only one way to get it done. He has a picture in his mind and he wants to see that picture on the field."
Along with that picture there is the daily reminder instilled by his father: How can we win with this team?
Vikings quick look
Record: 5-10-1 in 2013, fourth in the NFC North.
Key additions: DT Linval Joseph, LB Anthony Barr, QB Teddy Bridgewater, CB Captain Munnerlyn, DE Corey Wootton.
Key losses: DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams, RB Toby Gerhart, LB Erin Henderson, TE John Carlson.
Camp star: The Vikings have traditionally had a sledgehammer-type back behind Adrian Peterson but went a different direction with third-round pick Jerick McKinnon, a former quarterback at Georgia Southern. He has shown good hands out of the backfield and the 5-foot-9, 208-pounder has quickly picked up pass protection assignments. Given coordinator Norv Turner's creative uses with backs (think Darren Sproles with the Chargers), McKinnon will be interesting to track.
On the hot seat: The Vikings want to keep things as is on the offensive line, but 30-year-old left guard Charlie Johnson will need to play well to fend off rookie fifth-round pick David Yankey, who could be the heir apparent. Johnson has started 47 of 48 games over the last three seasons and the Vikings feel their line will be a strength, especially if left tackle Matt Kalil improves after knee issues plagued him in 2013.
Camp sightings: Peterson spent his off days working out at camp in Mankato, Minn. In the new offense he could top his career-high of 43 receptions. First-round pick Anthony Barr has been everything coach Mike Zimmer was expecting. The Vikings are shifting the strong-side linebacker around and he has been playing with his hand in the dirt in certain pass-rushing situations when right end Everson Griffen kicks inside. Two starting jobs remain up for grabs. Jasper Brinkley, back after one season with the Cardinals, is battling Audie Cole at middle linebacker. It's a two-down job as Barr and Chad Greenway will play in nickel. At safety, Chris Crocker was signed Aug. 4. He was with the first team Wednesday because injuries have sidelined Robert Blanton, Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo most of camp. Former Bear Corey Wootton is playing left end with the second team.
Regular season vs. Bears: Nov. 16, at Soldier Field, noon, Fox-32. Dec. 27, at TCF Bank Stadium, noon, Fox-32.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun