EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- As he stepped to the podium for his postgame news conference in Buffalo on Sunday, following a 17-16 last-minute loss in a game he coached while fighting off pain from kidney stones, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer looked as drained as he had all season. Zimmer talked about the progress he'd seen with the Vikings despite the loss, and it wasn't hard to sense he had realized turning the team around was going to be a longer project than just one season.
One of the enjoyable things about covering Zimmer is his Monday news conference, when he's taken some additional time to reflect on the game after watching film and generally has some insightful thoughts about the direction his team is going. On this particular Monday, Zimmer was keenly aware of the balance between coaching one of the league's youngest teams -- which has lost several veterans to injuries already this season -- and working in a business as fixated on current results as the NFL.
"I don't want to ever give the indication that we're thinking about the future or anything like that," Zimmer said. "I understand that we're a young football team, I guess is what I'm saying. And that we're going to have some learning experiences with some of these situations. We've got a young quarterback, we've got some young guys in the back end. And these things are all learning experiences for them."
The Vikings' inexperience showed up in several situations at the end of the game on Sunday, particularly on a couple plays with cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson, who failed to reroute Sammy Watkins and gave up an 18-yard completion on a slant on third-and-12. "It was poor technique. Poor technique," Zimmer said. Two plays later, Rhodes got beat on a jump ball at the 2-yard line by Chris Hogan.
"It was a double move, and when Xavier made the first move, he transferred his eyes back to the quarterback and he kind of got out of position -- just a little bit, not bad," Zimmer said. "But he recovered, because he does have outstanding recovery speed, he recovered, had the guy on the sideline, had him on his back, and the guy went up and made the catch. Other than, when you get in that position, make the play -- that's the thing I talk to the players about. Part of my job is to get them in the right position to be able to make the play. When they get in position, their job is to make the play. He's been in those positions a lot, and made an awful lot of plays. I think receivers in the NFL, and the quarterbacks, they're going to make some plays, too."
Then, Rhodes played too far inside on Watkins' game-winning touchdown, giving up the sideline instead of forcing Watkins toward the Vikings' inside safety help. "It's getting to understand splits, getting to understand help, getting to understand formations and where you're supposed to be. I anticipate he will never make that mistake again."
Zimmer seems to genuinely enjoy the process of helping players develop, and he's been through enough projects with young defenses to know things won't get fixed overnight. That doesn't make the developmental stage any easier, particularly when wins and losses will dictate his fate in his current job more than any he's ever held. On Monday, though, Zimmer ultimately sounded hopeful.
"My expectations weren't going into the year, 'We're going to be this record or that record,"' he said. "It was about how we perform each and every ballgame and then kind of add them up at the end. I still feel that exact same way. I don't know that you can say after seven games, 'we are what we are,' only because of the fact that there's been so much change of what's going on. I think the quarterback will continue to get better, I think the young secondary will continue to get better, I think when guys realize -- I think that the emphasis that we've placed on certain things we've continued to get better. And I think if they'll realize the importance of all these little things we're talking about, we'll continue to get better. My expectations really have not changed whatsoever."