Mike Zimmer's unrelenting support of Adrian Peterson pays off

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Adrian Peterson's road back here, to Winter Park, took a bunch of twists and turns, and went through plenty of fits and starts over the last nine months.

Given that, it's a good thing the Minnesota Vikings had Mike Zimmer behind the wheel.

Messy as this all has been, that much was crystal clear as the face of the franchise returned to work on Tuesday. One veteran colleague, speaking for so many others, boiled it down to seven words in a text: "Zim did a great job with this."

So, how did it happen? That much is just as simple.

Zimmer never came off as a Vikings operative. Nor was he, in any way, just kissing Peterson's rear end to get his best player back in the building. As he saw it, it was never -- couldn't be -- about the Vikings vs. Peterson or the NFL vs. Peterson. It had to be about him and Peterson.

And in this otherwise complicated landscape, making it that way proved to be enough.

Even if Zimmer won't take credit for it, others saw it. And they know.

"I don't know, honestly. I don't know," Zimmer said, after Thursday's practice. "You'd have to ask him those things. I just know how I felt. And I felt like this is one of my guys and I'm gonna support him 100 percent all the way. That's all I tried to do."

See, take that apart, and it's not about what Zimmer did here. It's about who he is.

In a very big way, that explains why so many of his guys from Cincinnati, Atlanta and Dallas swore up and down that Zimmer would, one day, make it as a head coach. He finally got that shot here, and became the Vikings' most important weapon in a high-stakes situation involving perhaps the greatest talent the franchise has ever employed.

Sure, he's reluctant to take much credit now. He genuinely doesn't think he did that much. But he was himself, which to these players is plenty.

"Of course, he wouldn't think he did anything, because he doesn't know any other way," veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph said. "When you have a guy like that, who's gonna stick up for his players and support his players as much as he did in that situation, as another guy in the locker room who sees that, you can't help but wanna do everything to come out here and do everything you can. He'll be our head coach for a long time."

The first step to making sure Peterson would be here for a longer time came before Peterson's issues with his son and resulting legal problems bubbled to surface. Peterson got Zimmer's support in the fall, because he earned it in the spring and summer, when (relatively) no one was watching. The coach reciprocated because he believed in who the player was.

"There were some things I asked him to do when I first got here. He did everything I asked. And so, when somebody will do that for me, and do everything I ask them to do, then I'm gonna support them," Zimmer explained. "And he did. To me, through that, and I got to know how he worked, and the conversations we had when I first got here, I didn't have any doubt."

Peterson believes that others in the building did -- in particular, team lawyer Kevin Warren. According to those close to Peterson, the star tailback felt that Warren conspired with the league to have him put on the Commissioner's Exempt List, which was the beginning of the end of his 2014 season. When Warren was promoted from general counsel to COO, it deepened Peterson's distrust of the organization.

So those are the murky waters that Zimmer had to wade through.

And it was a challenge, right from the start.

"The tough part about it, we'd just won a game, we're moving on to the next week, trying to get ready for a game. And then all this stuff is going on," Zimmer said. "It happened late in the week, and so everything, it was very hectic."

But the coach was steady, with both his active players and with Peterson. Zimmer and Peterson kept talking. Then, they couldn't, while Peterson's status changed from exempt to suspended. Then, they started talking again.

So, while the feelings between Peterson and some others in the organization continued to fray, they became cemented with the guy who was most important to repairing everything -- the head coach.

"Obviously, we had some of those kinds of conversations (about Peterson's legal situation)," Zimmer said. "But it was more, 'How you doing? How's everything going?' I don't change much. I'm pretty much the same guy all the time. I mean, I don't think there's some special secret."

Which, if you ask people here, really was the secret all along.

Zimmer was resolute in not even entertaining a discussion on Peterson being traded. As the coach said Tuesday, Peterson's contract situation falls out of his purview. So really, this was just two guys maintaining their relationship, and developing trust -- which went so deep that many on the coaching staff didn't know Peterson was reporting Tuesday until hours before he did.

Seems like that's why when, last week, Zimmer got up at the podium and told everyone that Peterson would be playing in Minnesota or not playing, the message resonated with Peterson.

"It doesn't surprise me at all, because I feel like being in that situation, he would do the same thing for me," Rudolph said. "When you have a guy like that who's your head coach, as a player, you can't help but wanna come out here every day and have the same mentality as he does, to work and get better. There's no nonsense."

Of course, if you ask Zimmer again, he'll keep insisting he didn't do much.

He took Peterson's eight-year track record in Minnesota, added it to the eight months he had with him prior to the 2014 season, and treated No. 28 like he would No. 82, No. 5, or some guy whose number you'd have to look up.

"A lot of it was ... It was tough for Adrian. It was tough for the Vikings, as well. So trying to be fair to both sides was important," Zimmer said. "I always want to support my players, and still do the best thing for our football team."

We'll see where this all goes from here, but it's fair to say now, the coach has at least accomplished that much.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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