Zimmer: Vikings must get back to playing 'nasty'

He doesn’t know why exactly, but Mike Zimmer’s 2018 roster lacked a tenacity that it’s had in year's past.

It’s possible expectations might have been too high entering the season. The Minnesota Vikings were coming off an appearance in the NFC title game, and signed Kirk Cousins to fully-guaranteed $84 million contract. It might have been too much to overcome the death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano two days before training camp was to start.

Whatever the reason, the Vikings had trouble finishing games and beating good teams this year. They also had difficulty winning big games. They finished 1-6 against teams with a winning record. That lone win came against the Miami Dolphins, who were 7-6 when the two teams met at U.S. Bank Stadium. Miami coach Adam Gase was fired on Black Monday.

The Vikings’ eight wins came against teams with a combined 39-70-1 record. The seven losses were against teams that finished a combined 65-31.

The team appeared to lose its identity for the season before the year even started with Sparano’s sudden passing.

“Quite honestly this football team for the four years that I’ve been here had that nasty, we’re going to win regardless, no matter what the situation is mentality. I don’t really know that we had it this year,” Zimmer said. “I talked to a couple people during the season around the building and said to them it’s just kind of a different vibe with this football team and I can’t figure out why. We had a lot of the same guys back and good football players, I wasn’t different than I normally am. For some reason, we didn’t finish games like we did before. We’re going to get that mentality back, I can promise you that.”

They didn’t play with the chip on their shoulder that’s usually a signature of Zimmer teams.

The offensive line was hit hardest by Sparano’s death. They got off to a slow start and never fully recovered most of the season.

“I know the offensive line was devastated when that happened because they really loved the guy, as did everybody who worked with him,” Zimmer said.

Nick Easton’s season-ending neck injury didn’t help matters, but the Vikings finished the season ranked No. 30 of 32 teams in the NFL in rushing. They averaged 93.3 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry.

Zimmer hired John DeFilippo from the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to run the offense. But after struggling to run the ball most of the season and a dismal Week 14 game at Seattle, DeFilippo was fired. Kevin Stefanski took over, and the Vikings ran for 220 yards in a 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins. The Vikings also ran for 100 yards in a win at Detroit.

But with the season on the line against Chicago, the Vikings ran just 15 times for 63 yards. Kirk Cousins was also sacked four times, pressured on more than 55 percent of his drop backs and the offensive line allowed 23 pressures. That rose their season total to 227, the worst in the NFL.

The Vikings ran for at least 100 yards in just five of their 16 games. They were 5-0 in those games.

Stefanski is under contract until Jan. 5, but is also talking with other teams. Zimmer said he learned a lot from the path taken to hire DeFilippo, and what it could mean for the future of the Vikings offense.

“I learned a lot about the questions, the interview process, things that I probably should do a lot better than what I did. Hopefully I’ll do better this next time,” Zimmer said. “The biggest thing is we’ve got to score points. We didn’t score enough in the red zone, obviously I want to be able to run the football and play action pass because I think that’s the most effective way to affect a defense.”

Zimmer also responded Thursday to reports after Sunday’s loss that he might retire from coaching. He called the report “totally 100 percent fake news” and said, “I’m not a quitter.”

Zimmer got full support from team ownership in meetings following the loss on Monday, and several players in the locker room said Zimmer is the right guy to lead the Vikings. Zimmer said he was never concerned about it.

“Honestly it doesn’t mean that much. I never had any doubt that anybody was not supporting me or anything like that,” Zimmer said.

Identity has been a buzz word for the Vikings all season, and especially after being eliminated from the playoffs following Sunday’s loss to Chicago. It’s clear Zimmer and the coaching staff want to get back to playing physical up front, running the ball and building off that to help Cousins get the ball down field.

That starts with the offensive line improving, and changing the mentality at the line of scrimmage.

After missing the playoffs in 2016, the Vikings went 13-3 and got to the NFC title game. It remains to be seen what the Vikings can accomplish next year after this season’s disappointment. The Vikings missed the playoffs for the third time in five seasons under Zimmer.

Zimmer said it's about getting the nastiness back, and playing with a hunger that largely didn't exist this season.

“We’ve got good football players on this team, and we’ve got good coaches. We’ve got a great home field stadium. There’s a lot of things that we can build on. I told the team this one day, a year ago I felt like we had a big chip on our shoulder. This year, I don’t know that that chip was there,” Zimmer said. “We’re going to get it back.”