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Mike Zimmer's title vision: Vikings coach ready to fight back

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WALTON, Ky. -- Mike Zimmer is steering a camouflage ATV down another tree-lined corridor when the conversation turns to the eye problems that started a few years ago.

Zimmer has had eight surgeries on his right eye since the retina detached back in 2016 -- and two surgeries on the left eye last year.

"No one knew that," Zimmer tells me, smirking from behind his custom sunglasses a few days before returning to Minnesota for his sixth season as the Vikings' head coach. "It's a cataract; it's not a big deal. But they went in first and they zapped the retina to make sure it stayed in place so I didn't have the same issue as I had with my other one. But I see 20/15 out of it now."

Vision in Zimmer's right eye varies; he estimates it at 20/50. The pupil is so big now after all the procedures that the sun can give him problems at times, leading to some night-game mishaps with transitional lenses. He got three new pairs of glasses made for this season, including a clear pair, partly in hopes of making it easier to read his play card.

Pausing to point out the purple cone flowers he'd planted on part of these 160 acres of farmland known as Zimmer Ridge Ranch, matching the leaves that bloom on the tree planted outside his bedroom window in memory of his late wife, Vikki, not far from his favorite fishing spot on the pond filled with bass down the hill, Zimmer continues: "My retina could still detach on my left eye. But the right eye, it's got so much stuff on it -- glue and all that stuff -- they said they'll be shocked if anything ever happens to that again. They got a buckle on it. You name it."

Zimmer says all this without a hint of agitation or concern, so different from the intense persona he has displayed on NFL sidelines for over 25 years, though it makes sense here, at his hideaway from all he has been through, in football and in life. It'd be enough to make some other 63-year-old want to just stay here, amidst the corn he planted to feed the deer, and the soybeans and native grasses and chestnut trees, a slice of paradise he sometimes watches in what's left of his peripheral vision via two motion-triggered cameras that send pictures to the computer in his office while he watches tape, instead of saying he has no doubt he can coach until he's 70 and changing his plane ticket to return for camp a couple days early.

"I think he's on a mission to get a championship," said Zimmer's son, Adam, the Vikings' linebackers coach, "and I don't think he feels like he can stop until he gets that."

After a 1-1 start to the season, Zimmer enters Sunday's home game against the Raiders five wins shy of surpassing Jerry Burns for third place among head coaches in Vikings history; the other two are Bud Grant and Dennis Green, whose names are conspicuous on the walls of U.S. Bank Stadium. The Vikings had the NFC's best record (40-23-1) from 2015 to 2018, despite starting four different quarterbacks in Week 1. Zimmer has spoken many times about what it'd mean to bring Minnesota its first championship (and Zimmer his second, having won one as an assistant with the 1995 Dallas Cowboys) and says he knows they still have a good team.

But the Super Bowl hype of a year ago is gone now, swept away with an uneven offense in quarterback Kirk Cousins' first season with the team, an uninspired Week 17 loss to the rival Bears that cost Minnesota a playoff spot and an 8-7-1 finish with which Zimmer admits he never really came to terms. They dominated the Falcons in all three phases to win this season's opener, then lost 21-16 last week against Green Bay -- a game in which Zimmer's defense gave up touchdowns on the Packers' first three possessions and Cousins had three turnovers, renewing cries from fans and the media about the same old problems.

With an expensive quarterback, a veteran roster and a salary cap stretched thin by years of retaining many of their homegrown standouts, it's hard to avoid the perception that this season may be make or break for a lot of people, including the head coach who waited so long for his shot.

"Good. Put it on our shoulders," Zimmer says later, sitting at the bar in the corner of his spacious living room. "It doesn't bother me. Does not bother me. My whole life I've been the underdog. I didn't get a head-coaching job until I was (57). ... I love being doubted. ... I love to prove people wrong. That's the No. 1 thing for me: prove people wrong.

"They say there's two kind of coaches: ones that have been fired and ones that are gonna get fired. So, hopefully I make it through without either one of those."

Battling adversity, over and over again

Mike and Vikki Zimmer met in the early-1980s at Weber State, where Zimmer held one of his first coaching jobs after playing quarterback and linebacker at Illinois State. They were married for 27 years and had three children: Adam and daughters Marki and Corri. It'll be 10 years this October since Vikki died of natural causes at age 50, while Zimmer was the defensive coordinator about 17 miles north of here with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Vikki was the one who always told Zimmer not to live his life as if he might get fired -- which he never has been, in over four decades in coaching -- and he bought up the first 40 acres of the property he'd always wanted about four years after she passed away. Four months later, Zimmer got the Vikings job, and different types of adversity have seemed to await at every turn.

-- 2014: In Zimmer's first season, star running back Adrian Peterson was indicted in Texas on a child injury charge and placed on the Commissioner's Exempt List, missing all but one game. The Vikings went 7-9.

-- 2015: Zimmer's father, Bill, a longtime high school coach, passed away during training camp. The Vikings made the playoffs, but Blair Walsh pulled a 27-yard field goal wide left with 22 seconds to go in a loss to Seattle.

-- 2016: Teddy Bridgewater, who Zimmer felt would be his quarterback for the rest of his coaching career, suffered a catastrophic knee injury two days before the preseason finale. The problems Zimmer had been noticing with his vision became much worse when his play card blew into his eye on a blustery Halloween night in Chicago, eventually forcing him to miss a critical December game against the Cowboys after the third surgery. Two days after that loss to the Bears, and with Minnesota leading the NFC North at 5-2, offensive coordinator Norv Turner stunned the team by resigning. The Vikings finished 8-8.

-- 2017: The QB for whom the Vikings traded a first-round pick to replace Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, suffered a knee injury in Week 1 and appeared in only one other game, plainly not himself. The Vikings rallied behind backup Case Keenum to reach the NFC Championship Game, scored an opening-drive touchdown on the road -- and then gave up 38 unanswered points to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles.

Signing Cousins to a three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed contract was supposed to give the Vikings their missing piece on a team that could finally win it all in 2018. A few days before training camp last year, Zimmer got a call from Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano saying he was being released from the hospital after a health scare, felt good and would be at the Monday meeting. Two days later, Zimmer got another call, from Vikings director of security Kim Klawiter, saying Sparano had died of what an autopsy revealed to be arteriosclerotic heart disease. He was 56.

"Just devastating" are the words Zimmer uses to describe the impact of Sparano's passing from a football perspective, since Sparano was his liaison to an offense that became disjointed before the firing of coordinator John DeFilippo with three weeks left in the season. It also hit Zimmer hard personally, given his close relationship with Sparano and wife Jeanette going back to their days together in Dallas. Practice was canceled and the team attended a memorial service. "But right before the season, it's hard to think about what's important in life," Zimmer said. "At that point in time, it's always, football is important. So we try to go on and do what we did.

"Things happen in life and if you don't fight through it, then you're going to suffer."

The night of that Week 17 loss to the Bears, media speculation began to mount about potential changes, including the possibility Zimmer could step down and/or try to return to Cincinnati after Marvin Lewis' exit. But by morning, owners Zygi and Mark Wilf had attended a team meeting in which they reiterated their belief in Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman, and Zimmer had made clear in a text message to me: "I'm not resigning or retiring. Period."

The Wilfs exercised the 2020 option on Zimmer's contract in February, buying time before either side has to worry about a longer-term extension. They quickly voiced their support for their leadership after the season "because we try to be long-term in our outlook to just say we know we have the right people in place and we're going to keep at this thing," Mark Wilf told me in March. "We're never satisfied. I know coach Zimmer and Rick Spielman feel the same way. We're always striving to be better. I think we made a lot of strides there."

After years of coaching and scheme changes, Zimmer promoted interim offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski -- a longtime Vikings assistant and a player favorite -- to the full-time job and hired former Texans and Broncos coach Gary Kubiak to help Stefanski implement a West Coast derivative system that plays to Cousins' strengths. The Vikings remodeled their interior offensive line, using a first-round draft pick on former N.C. State center Garrett Bradbury. They added another weapon in Round 2 with explosive tight end Irv Smith Jr. and worked out a contract extension with veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph.

They also kept together the core on Zimmer's defense, letting Sheldon Richardson leave in free agency but retaining Pro Bowl linebacker and signal-caller Anthony Barr, who backed out of a deal with the New York Jets -- just the latest player, Zimmer points out, to take less money and stay in Minnesota, choosing to keep playing for a demanding coach who admits he can be hard on those around him, especially players.

"It's a tough love type of thing, but he cares," Barr said. "He cares about us as players, as people, and he's like a father figure to a lot of us. You don't want to upset dad, right? So, it's kind of the way we go about our business. We try to do things the right way and he makes sure we do so."

'We're going to fight back'

Zimmer is trying to make sure he's doing some other things the right way, too, or at least better than he has in the past. He's always active in the offseason doing work around the property. (In 2017, the state's department of fish and wildlife resources honored Zimmer as its Landowner of the Year, calling his wildlife-friendly land management "a good example for other Kentuckians.") Now there's an elliptical and free weights in the basement, where Zimmer says he was "working out like crazy" during the break before camp.

"I get this physical every year and I told my doctor, once I turned 61, I just don't have the motivation that I had," Zimmer says, casting another line into the pond. "Then I went back for this year, she looked at the notes from a year ago and she says, 'You said the same thing last year.' So I said, I better get with it."

Zimmer knows he should probably keep working out during the season, but he gets into routines. He still doesn't eat much. He still drinks a lot of red wine.

"We worry about his nutrition and stuff a little bit and always having tobacco in his mouth," Adam Zimmer said, days before FOX TV cameras caught Zimmer pulling his stash out of a sunflower seeds bag during a preseason game last month. "My grandma's been on him on that forever."

The vision probably isn't going to get a lot better either. Zimmer has found some sport in it, saying it's a better challenge shooting clay pigeons on his range now that he's relearning how to fire his guns left-handed.

Adapting is also a necessity on the field. The Vikings' defense has ranked in the top 10 in fewest points allowed each of the past four years, carrying on the strong track record of his scheme from Dallas and Cincinnati. But there were some rocky moments on D last season -- most memorably in a nationally televised 38-31 loss in September to the Rams, who racked up 556 yards. More than in any other offseason since they came to Minnesota, Adam Zimmer said, coaches worked on new wrinkles and ways to combat the ways offenses are evolving. On one of Adam's offseason trips to the ranch, normally filled with cutting branches and having drinks on the back porch, Mike Zimmer pulled out his iPad to show off a new concept, which Adam dutifully took notes about on his phone. After last week's terrible start at Lambeau Field, the Vikings held Aaron Rodgers and company scoreless on their last 11 drives.

"He's a football guy," star safety Harrison Smith said. "In a sick way, he loves the grind of studying and watching film and learning things and tweaking things here and there."

That endless punch-counterpunch is part of why Zimmer dismisses the suggestion it might be getting harder to leave this place, where he can do whatever he wants and seems to have everything he needs.

"No, I need football. I need football. Yeah," Zimmer says. "Football is the players, the guys that you work with, the coaches. It always keeps you stimulated for trying to figure out another way to try to do something a little bit better. I was here for my first two weeks and I texted my daughter and said, you know, I've got lots of property here and it keeps me busy -- I wouldn't be bored. She said, 'You would be so bored if you don't have football.' "

There are times Zimmer shows a softer side. After a July event for the Mike Zimmer Foundation -- launched in 2016 to keep Vikki Zimmer's giving spirit alive through a variety of programs that benefit kids -- a video made the rounds on social media of Zimmer comforting a small girl frightened of the Vikings' mascot. For the first time at training camp, Adam Zimmer says, he has seen his father taking pictures with kids on the field after practice.

A bench under Vikki's tree is inscribed with the words: "Those we have held in our arms for a little while, we hold in our hearts forever."

What advice would she be giving him now?

"Just win, baby," Zimmer says with a chuckle, before turning more serious. "I don't know. She always thought I was too hard on the players, I think, but she just heard stories where I was mad at somebody. Probably enjoy it more than I do. It's hard to enjoy it during the season, because you're always thinking about the next week or the next team coming up and whatever."

There are some weeks Zimmer will drive straight back to his office after games -- even wins, if he feels the Vikings didn't play well and it's going to catch up with them. At times, Zimmer says, he's so consumed with how to defeat opponents' great players that other coaches have to remind him the Vikings have some great players, too. He thinks his team plays a little bit better when they have to go prove themselves, rather than being told how great they are.

That's certainly the dynamic at play in 2019. And so far, there's no major adversity, though the Vikings are used to bracing for something that could have them asking, why us?

"Maybe at the time you say that a little bit," Zimmer says. "But we're all fighters. We're going to get pushed in the corner, we're going to fight back. That's what our team does and that's the mentality that we have to have as a football team, is it doesn't really matter what happens, it's how you react to it."

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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