Minnesota Vikings: Rick Spielman

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Media conference calls with the head coach and one player from the opposing team are a Wednesday fixture across the NFL. They usually begin with the voice of a PR person on the phone, informing beat writers that the coach or player is ready to talk. But on Wednesday afternoon, the first voice from Chicago bellowed, "Put me on the phone with the media!"

And with that, Jared Allen had returned to talk to Vikings beat writers, assessing his departure from Minnesota, his first season with the Bears, and his team's disappointing start with his usual brand of candor, hum0r and defiance toward anyone who thinks the 32-year-old has lost a step as a pass rusher. Allen's numbers have dropped precipitously in his first season of a four-year, $32 million deal with the Bears. Slowed by a bout with pneumonia that caused him to lose 15 pounds and drop to a weight he said he hasn't been at "since high school," Allen has just 1.5 sacks this season for a Bears defense that has allowed more passing touchdowns than any in the league and a team that's 3-6.

[+] EnlargeJared Allen
AP Photo/Evan PinkusJared Allen has just 1.5 sacks this season after signing a free-agent deal with the Bears.
"If I'm on the field, I expect to play at a high level. I expect to get to the quarterback," Allen said. "I've been playing probably some of the best run defense I've played in my career this year, but it just needs to translate to getting to the quarterback. We're 3-6. It's been up and down. I'll give myself a 6 [on a scale of 1 to 10]."

The Bears, of course, are expecting more -- and paying Allen for more -- than that. He's still looking for his first career victory at Soldier Field, and if the Bears start slow on Sunday after a 55-14 loss to the Packers last Sunday night, Allen joked he expects "total anarchy" from the fans.

The Vikings, on the other hand, expect to see a player eager to be at his best.

"Any time you play against a team that didn't sign you back, for whatever reason that you're not with them, I'm sure it's extra motivation to really go out there, give it your best and put something great on tape," said defensive end Brian Robison, who played with Allen for all six of his seasons in Minnesota. "I'm sure we're going to get his best shot, as we are the whole Chicago Bears team."

Allen never seemed like a good fit in new coach Mike Zimmer's system, and the Vikings decided to give Everson Griffen a new deal rather than pursue a new contract for Allen once he hit free agency in March. Allen said again on Wednesday that he assumed 2013 would be his final season in Minnesota, and he added he held no hard feelings toward the Vikings.

"I think [general manager] Rick [Spielman] and I, and [assistant GM] Rob [Brzezinski] were always honest with each other, in what direction we wanted to take," Allen said. "When I didn't get a deal done before my last season [in Minnes0ta], I knew I was going to test free agency. We didn't know who the coach was going to be, or the quarterback, so there were a lot of unknowns [before 2014]. I believe the Lord takes me where he's going to take me. I prayed hard and long about where I was going to end up, and these were the doors that opened. Did I know 100 percent last year? No. But I always knew it was a possibility, and the conversations were always honest. I've got no ill will toward anybody."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Concluding our Q&A with Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer (here's part 1 and part 2):

What has your working relationship been like with [general manager] Rick [Spielman] and the Wilfs?

Zimmer: Really good. Really good. I don't talk to Mark and Zygi all that much -- every Monday after the game we talk, after the game, I see them and stuff like that, and sometimes before the game, but that's really about it. But they've been, with everything, anything I've asked for, they've been accommodating. Rick has been really good. We'll sit down and talk; we'll watch film together, we'll watch the game tape after the game together. It's actually been pretty easy. That part has been easy.

[+] EnlargeCordarrelle Patterson
AP Photo/Jim MoneCordarrelle Patterson has had problems playing at a consistently high level.
Was that a big adjustment for you -- being more involved in the higher-level stuff with management?

Zimmer: Not too much, because in Dallas, Jerry Jones was pretty involved. And then in Cincinnati, I met with Mike Brown every Monday. He was involved in all the draft meetings and everything. He was at practice every single day. It really wasn't that much different.

At least watching from the outside, it seems like your working relationship with Rick is pretty good -- it seemed like you were kind of able to say, 'Here's what I need to be successful,' and he was able to go get it. Is that how it's worked?

Zimmer: Yeah, and he's said, when he goes on the road now and looks at these college guys and stuff, even now, in watching how we play and the things we do, I think he's getting a better idea of what we need. Everything happened so fast before the draft -- getting here in January and all that, and trying to evaluate. Now, [Scott] Studwell and George Paton and Rick, when they're watching the tape and seeing how we play, the things we do and the techniques we're teaching, I think they have a good idea of that. It's never going to be 100 percent agreement on everything, but from watching the defensive players for so long, I have a good idea -- now, I'm wrong a lot, too, and we all are -- but I think the core characteristics that we're looking for in guys are easier to spot when you've been watching the tape.

In terms of getting all the pieces you need and guys that are perfect fits in your system, is it hard to expect that to happen in a year? Do you think it takes a couple cycles of player acquisition to get everything you need?

Zimmer: I don't ever look at it like that, because I think I'm a pretty good coach, and I can coach guys into doing it. Like, Josh Robinson, I think he's had a pretty good half so far. I think when guys learn the techniques we're trying to teach, they can improve. That's all I've ever tried to do, is improve players -- whoever they are, whoever we have at the time -- and then worry about the next year and figure out how we can get other guys in here. My job is to take each player and make them better every day.

You mentioned Cordarrelle [Patterson] a little bit [in your Tuesday news conference]. Is he still figuring out what you guys want from him, or is it a matter of being consistent in practice every day? What's the summary of where he's at right now?

Zimmer: It's not so much the consistency in practice, because I think he's doing a lot of good things in practice. It's maybe the consistency in the game a little bit more. That's really it -- it's being consistent, running the same route all the time, being at the same depth, running the same release, so that everybody is on the same page. That's really what it's about.

When he got here, of course, he hadn't played a lot of football. Is it something that just takes time for him to learn all the nuances of the game?

Zimmer: Yeah, and it's different for every player. Anthony Barr is coming here as a young guy that's learned a lot of things in a short amount of time, and some guys take a little bit longer. That's always how it's been. I've had some really great players that, in their third year, they start really coming on and figuring it out -- guys that have probably played more football than [Patterson] did. As long as they work, and they want to do the things the right way, and continue to do it good -- and I think he does. That's why it was good last week [against Tampa Bay] that he had some success. We've just got to keep trying to get him maintaining the consistency level.

You've mentioned you haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to Adrian Peterson's legal status. If he comes back, is it hard to put him back in the system when it's been this long?

Zimmer: I think it all depends on the guy a little bit. Each person is different. I've had a player tear his Achilles, and the first day back, he remembers everything and how to do it. And then you have other guys that will come back, and you have to re-teach their steps and technique -- everything. I think everything's different with every player.
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Next to quarterback, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman's biggest roster construction problem has historically been his inability to build a secondary. From 2007-10, Spielman used four picks in the third round or higher to select Marcus McCauley, Tyrell Johnson, Asher Allen and Chris Cook. For various reasons, none are with the team anymore. Last season, when the Vikings moved Josh Robinson to the slot, with disastrous consequences, it appeared Robinson might join the list of the Vikings' defensive back misses in the first three rounds.

A year later, however, Robinson is playing on the outside in nickel situations, where he's made marked improvement. 2013 first-rounder Xavier Rhodes is improving, albeit somewhat sporadically, at right cornerback, and free-agent pickup Captain Munnerlyn has made a pair of interceptions the last two weeks to offset some of the plays he'd given up earlier this season. Those three players, combined with ascending safety Harrison Smith, might finally have given the Vikings a secondary they can grow with for the future.

"I know Harrison has had a really good year. I'm very excited about how Harrison has played," Spielman said during his midseason news conference on Tuesday. "Xavier has really taken a step forward this year. Captain has made some big plays for us but has also gotten beat a few times. Josh has made some significant process. That secondary, that's Coach [Mike Zimmer]'s forte a little bit. That's all new to those guys. When you sit down there and you put on tape from Week 1 and then all the sudden seeing some of the things we're doing now, it's totally different, just from a technical standpoint, that those guys are starting to understand. They're starting to understand what he's asking them to do in the schemes."

The Vikings are still a ways from calling the secondary a strength of their defense, and they need to figure out if Robert Blanton can handle the safety job opposite Smith in the long run. But Zimmer's history of developing defensive backs, as well as the presence of former Redskins and Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray as the team's secondary coach, puts the Vikings on a good path for the future. After years of soft pass defenses that were unable to create turnovers, it's been a long time since the Vikings' secondary could be seen as something other than a liability.

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- When he became the Minnesota Vikings' head coach in January, Mike Zimmer got a message from one of his coaching mentors, Bill Parcells, with three points about the hardships of the job Zimmer was about to start. The second point on that list was this: "Four or five things happen in pro football every day that you wish wouldn't happen. If you can't handle those, you need to get another job."

If there's been an overriding theme of Zimmer's first half-season as the Vikings' head coach, that might be it. He saw Adrian Peterson get arrested before the second game of the season, lost Matt Cassel, Kyle Rudolph and Brandon Fusco in the third, was forced to sit Teddy Bridgewater in the fifth and had dealt with two other players in legal trouble by Week 6. He coached with kidney stones in Buffalo on Oct. 19, and saw the Vikings fall to 2-5 on a last-second touchdown. And yet, the team heads into its bye week at 4-5 after victories over a pair of last-place teams roused a flickering playoff hope.

The Vikings probably aren't ready to make a postseason push this year, but there are signs of progress, particularly with a defense that leads the league in sacks and is ranked ninth in pass defense after an offseason overhaul. On Monday, during his final news conference before the bye week, Zimmer said, "I do believe we're building what I envisioned this football team to look like."

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMike Zimmer is in his first season as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings after six seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals.
After that news conference, Zimmer sat down in his office with ESPN for a longer interview about his first half-season as the Vikings' head coach and what he expects to happen next. We'll post parts of that interview throughout the rest of this week. Here's the first section of our interview:

In the time you've been the head coach, I'm sure a lot of things probably didn't go the way you drew it up, but has the job itself been about what you expected? Has any part of it surprised you?

Mike Zimmer: Some of the scenarios surprised me a little bit -- the coach (special teams coordinator Mike Priefer) being suspended, and Adrian, and the quarterback getting hurt. You understand the injury part of things, but some of the other things surprise me. Honestly, dealing with the media has been more than I thought it would be. The coaching part has not been overwhelming or anything like that. The schedules were no fun to do, but I think we kind of smoothed those things out. I thought training camp went smooth. I guess, in more ways than one, I've felt pretty comfortable."

When those things come up that do surprise you, what do you draw on to manage them?

Zimmer: A lot of things in the past, but sometimes I'll talk to [offensive coordinator] Norv [Turner] about some of the situations, because he's been through them a lot. I talk to [general manager] Rick [Spielman], obviously. But I guess I just kind of do what I think I need to do. Sometimes it's pulling players in here and talking to them about performances. Sometimes it's getting after them. It's just coaching that point."

You've talked about creating a culture here, or setting expectations. What have you found is the most effective way to do that? Is it harder to do when you're managing a whole team and not just a defense?

Zimmer: Sometimes I get frustrated because I want us to do things better than what we're doing. I try to be consistent with everything I'm trying to do. I think some of it is, just the way I talk to the team, the things I preach to them every day or in the meetings. It hasn't been harder to do it with the team, as opposed to just the defense, but I know as coaches, we talked a lot about -- because I'll get frustrated sometimes, and they'll say, 'Hey, you're trying to create a new culture, you're trying to do all those things.' I said, 'I know, but I expect it to go faster.' And then I think back to Cincinnati -- it was different defensively, but it was kind of the same. We were trying to create a mindset and a toughness and a physicality, and playing smart, and playing a team concept. I guess, sometimes it just doesn't happen quite as fast as I want it to. I have to realize, it's not done in a week. It takes time. But that's the thing I like a little bit about where we're at. You've got guys like [Anthony] Barr and Teddy Bridgewater. Barr is a young guy that's a really good football player, and as a rookie, he doesn't say very much because he kind of understands his place. Teddy's a little bit the same way. But three years from now, when those guys are in their third year and they're really good football players and they're the leaders of this football team, if we keep bringing up the right kind of guys and teaching them exactly how we want it, that could be pretty exciting to see. Not that I want to wait three years, but I can see Teddy and Anthony Barr being the cornerstones of this franchise in three years.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Barr
AP Photo/Jim MoneLinebacker Anthony Barr (55) has the potential to be a cornerstone of the Vikings franchise.
What is it about that process of creating expectations that takes longer than it seems like it should? Is it just the nature of having 53 guys trying to get on the same page?

Zimmer: Honestly, I don't feel like I've had a problem with these guys following me. It's just doing things the way I want them done all the time. I think that's what makes good teams. I was listening to B-Rob [Brian Robison] the other day -- he was talking to somebody about how the defensive line is expected to know what the defensive backs are doing. That's kind of the culture I'm trying to get through. I think if everybody knows what everybody's doing, you all play better. I guess that's what it's really all about: getting everybody on the team on the same page.

You talked about "Zimmer being Zimmer" (on Oct. 13) after you talked about increasing fines for players being late (after a loss to Detroit). Did you learn something from that experience about how much further your words travel as a head coach, and how many more people are listening?

Zimmer: (Laughs) I don't know. I just keep being me. I just keep trying to be me. I don't want to portray anything that's phony or anything else. The one thing I do notice is that, because I'm doing so many press conferences, it's like, a lot more people listen to what I say than really I listen to what I say, if that makes sense. I try to be respectful, and there's always things you're going to hold back, but I'm pretty straight-on. That's just how I'm wired, I guess.
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Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has been out with a sports hernia since Week 3, hit another checkpoint in his rehab process on Tuesday when he took part in the Vikings' final practice before their bye week. Rudolph only participated in some individual drills on Tuesday, but it was his first team work during his rehab, and it got Rudolph a step closer to returning to game action.

Rudolph's goal has been to make his return for the Vikings' game in Chicago on Nov. 16, and he said on Tuesday he's still shooting to make that happen. If he's at risk of suffering a setback at any point before then, however, he won't push the timetable.

"It would be horrible if we caused a setback to try to get that one game," Rudolph said. "The direction that this team is headed right now, we’ve got to have our focus and our goal for the long term this season."

The tight end said he's been able to start running without pain in the last two weeks, and added he's able to "do everything pretty normally. I just can't really do it at a high level yet."

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has begun to develop some chemistry with tight end Chase Ford, but adding Rudolph back to the Vikings' offense would provide another reliable option for the rookie quarterback, which would be especially helpful at a time where Bridgewater and Cordarrelle Patterson are still trying to get on the same page.

"We've been, over the last couple weeks, pretty solidified with the guys that we're utilizing," general manager Rick Spielman said. "Hopefully Kyle Rudolph will be back pretty soon to add into the mix."

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman held his midseason news conference with Vikings beat writers on Tuesday morning; he quickly made it clear there would be no updates on Adrian Peterson's status, but Spielman did spend some time defending the player whom he selected with the Vikings' highest draft pick since 1985: Matt Kalil.

Kalil
The left tackle has been a frequent target of fans and reporters for his struggles in pass protection this season, and Pro Football Focus currently has Kalil ranked as the third-worst pass-blocking tackle in the league. But Spielman, as coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner did before him, defended Kalil while chiding those who use the site's rankings to assess Kalil.

"I know you guys beat the heck out of him in the press, and a lot of times, and I know you guys love Pro Football Focus and read that, but a couple of the sacks you guys are dinging him on are not always his fault because you guys don't know what the pass protection was, or where the slide was," Spielman said. "I know Matt was inconsistent early, but over the last two or three weeks, he really has gotten a lot better, and got back to being focused. I really think Matt's going to be a heck of a left tackle in this league."

The comments shouldn't be taken to suggest the Vikings think Kalil has played satisfactorily during the first half of the year -- Spielman admitted the left tackle has been inconsistent, and it doesn't take an expert to notice when the third-year tackle gets beat one-on-one -- but as we've discussed, the Vikings are a long, long way from giving up on Kalil. There are plenty of dollars and reputations invested in him, and Kalil showed during a Pro Bowl rookie season he has the talent to play the position. The Vikings have to make a decision after the season on Kalil's fifth-year option, which will be more telling than anything they say now, but Spielman's comments at least suggest the Vikings aren't contemplating a large-scale change at the moment.

"I think just in general, all these young guys, I think if you look at a lot of our higher draft picks, most of them were all juniors coming out [as Kalil was]," Spielman said. "There is a huge difference in my opinion [in] a four- or five-year senior coming out, and a three-year junior coming out. There is a lot of difference in maturity. Guys mature and guys click at different times. I think you have to be patient through that process."
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When Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer took the podium for his Monday news conference, there was a noticeable change behind him: The Vikings' news conference banner, which had gone without a sponsor since Radisson suspended its sponsorship of the team in September, had a new corporate logo on it.

Pepsi, which is the Vikings' official soft drink provider, stepped in to put its logo on the banner, which serves as a fairly public reminder of the relationship between a team and its corporate partners. The company has had a strong presence in the Twin Cities -- it purchased Minneapolis-based PepsiAmericas, its second-biggest bottler, in 2010. And while the Vikings are unable to sell Pepsi at their games during the next two seasons while playing at TCF Bank Stadium (where the University of Minnesota sells Coca-Cola products), the news conference banner is another avenue through which they can promote the company.

Most teams use a banner with a sponsor's logo as a backdrop for news conferences, guaranteeing the logo will get plenty of visibility through photographs and video. That can backfire, though, in situations like the one the Vikings encountered on Sept. 15, when Radisson's logo was splashed behind general manager Rick Spielman as he tried to explain the team's decision to keep Adrian Peterson active while he fought child abuse charges in Texas. Radisson suspended its sponsorship of the Vikings hours after the news conference, and the Vikings reversed their decision two days later amid mounting pressure from sponsors to take Peterson off the field.

As the running back's court case resumes on Wednesday, Zimmer and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will step to the podium to talk about preparations for Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the remnants of the sponsor fallout from the Peterson ordeal will be a little less obvious.

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MINNEAPOLIS -- That the Minnesota Vikings were looking to trade Percy Harvin was an open secret in March 2013, when general manager Rick Spielman sent the talented, yet troublesome receiver to Seattle for three draft picks. It seemed like a situation where Spielman would struggle to create leverage, given how apparent a Vikings-Harvin split seemed, but the Seahawks were willing to unload a first-, a third- and a seventh-round pick for reasons that Harvin made obvious during his dynamic performance in Seattle's Super Bowl win in February.

Harvin
Eight months later, with Harvin on the way to the New York Jets for the paltry sum of a mid-round draft pick, the reasons the Vikings wanted to part with him again seem as obvious as the reasons the Seahawks wanted him in the first place. Harvin leaves Seattle with a fresh set of reports swirling in his wake about how the receiver was a bad fit for Seattle's culture, to the point where the team's front office wanted him off the roster. Now, he goes to a 1-6 team that will owe him no guaranteed money after this season, and especially if the Jets have a new power structure in place next year, Harvin could again be looking for a team to gamble on his immense talent.

That Harvin seemingly couldn't function in the Seahawks' ecosystem -- seen as one of the most player-friendly in the league -- is as dumbfounding as the fact he clashed with a coach as genteel and likable as former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier. It's not as though Harvin's recent stops have seen him matched with coaches regarded as difficult to work with, and even though he seemed thrilled to join the Seahawks when the Vikings dealt him 19 months ago, his durability and behavioral issues surfaced as quickly there as they did in Minnesota.

The Vikings used the picks they received for Harvin on cornerback Xavier Rhodes (who looks like a mainstay in Mike Zimmer's defense), offensive lineman Travis Bond (who was released last year) and running back Jerick McKinnon (who could develop into a solid weapon for offensive coordinator Norv Turner). That remains an impressive haul for a radioactive player like Harvin, and even if Rhodes and McKinnon fail to capitalize on their potential, Spielman appears vindicated by his decision not to consider giving Harvin a lucrative multi-year contract.

Harvin is someone else's problem now, a step further removed from the Vikings and a step closer to an uncertain future in the league. He will return to Minnesota with the Jets on Dec. 7, and even if he makes a few splash plays against his former team (as he did last November in Seattle), it's doubtful the Vikings will miss him much. His abrupt exit from a championship team suggest the Vikings were right to turn him loose, and shrewd to sell as high on him as they did.
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Stepping to the podium for his Monday press conference after a testy back-and-forth between general manager Rick Spielman and more than 50 reporters, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer probably felt a bit unsure about the scene he was inheriting.

Zimmer would normally be answering questions about the Vikings' 30-7 loss to the New England Patriots -- a game in which quarterback Matt Cassel threw four interceptions and the Vikings had a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown -- but after Spielman spent 11 minutes explaining, and then defending, the Vikings' decision to reinstate running back Adrian Peterson following his indictment for injuring his son, the coach sounded like he was almost pining to be grilled about the game.

"How about those Patriots yesterday?" Zimmer said after the fifth Peterson-related question he fielded.

Zimmer said ownership made the final call to bring Peterson back, and his comments on the decision suggested his role in the process was minimal -- "I don’t know how much input I had, to be honest with you," he said. But the coach sounded adamant that he wasn't going to let the Peterson situation sour his first, and possibly only, opportunity to be a head coach.

"My dream is still to take this football team and this organization to where we want to go," Zimmer said. "I can’t let the so called, 'distractions' or the things like this that we are dealing with today affect my focus and my trying to get this football team better. I’ve worked an awful long time to try to get to this position where I have to opportunity to do the things that we have to opportunity to do. I’m going to keep trying to do my very best."

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Right guard Brandon Fusco, who was entering the final season of his rookie deal in 2014, had said several times he wasn't worried about the pace at which the Minnesota Vikings would get a new contract done for him. But after the deal came the day before the regular-season opener, in the form of a five-year, $25 million extension that included $6 million in guaranteed money, Fusco admitted it brought him a sense of relief.

"I can go out and play football now and not worry about that stuff," Fusco said. "My agents did a great job, and Rob Brzezinski and Rick Spielman made the process a lot easier for me. I’m just excited to be here for the next five years.”

The former sixth-round pick, who came to the Vikings from Division II Slippery Rock, said his first calls on Saturday were to his parents, informing them the deal was finished. His play last season -- in which he started 15 games before missing the season finale with a knee injury -- earned him the Vikings' largest performance bonus in March, bringing him an extra $237,060.74 on top of his $594,167 base salary.

Now, his rise on the field will be accompanied by a jump in tax brackets.

"That's one thing Brandon always does: he does his job. He gets his job done," coach Mike Zimmer said. "We're very excited to have him for the next five years."
MANKATO, Minn. -- Before his first preseason game as a head coach, Mike Zimmer spent an hour each day with Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, going over in-game scenarios and practicing how he'd approach them as a strategist. Now that Zimmer's had his first quiz, of sorts, on game strategy as a head coach -- the Vikings' first preseason game last Friday against Oakland -- he's got a sense of what he needs to correct.

As Zimmer saw it, there were two game situations where he could have done something different -- or at least handled the moment differently in a preseason game. "When we kicked the field goal on fourth-and-1 (that Blair Walsh missed from 53 yards), we’ve been practicing a situation out here that I should have done in the ball game," Zimmer said. "Even if it wasn’t the time, we could have practiced that. And then the one time the official on our sideline called a fumble and an official in the back called an incomplete pass and I had three timeouts left and we were winning 10 to nothing. There was three minutes left. I probably should have challenged."

The coach said the Vikings will practice the fourth-and-1 situation again on Thursday afternoon, saying he "just didn't think quick enough" to give the Vikings a chance to run it last week.

Zimmer said during his introductory news conference as the Vikings' coach he would use the preseason as a gauge of whether he could call defensive plays during a game -- like he did as a defensive coordinator -- and still be engaged in his new responsibilities as a head coach. He said he called some of the defensive plays on Friday night, but not all of them, and hasn't decided how he's going to handle the job in the regular season.

"When I was calling the plays in Cincinnati on defense, I was able to go over and talk to the defense and look at the pictures and do all that stuff," Zimmer said. "I didn’t do that this time."
MANKATO, Minn. -- Six days from now, the Minnesota Vikings will line up for their first preseason game against the Oakland Raiders, with a new coach, major scheme changes on both sides of the ball and possibly as many as seven new starters on defense. To call it anything more significant than a checkup on the Vikings' progress would be silly, and coach Mike Zimmer doesn't seem to be treating it as anything else.

Zimmer
"I told our players a little bit last night, 'We've got a game in six days now, but to me, this is about us, and us getting better,'" Zimmer said. "I don't want to go out and trick the Raiders. I want to go out and play solid, fundamental football. I'm sure we could run some blitzes they're not ready for, but that's really not what I want to do. I want to find out if we can cover, if we can line up and play the run, if we can block people in the running game and if we can get open on offense and throw the ball in the right places."

To this point in training camp, the Vikings have made progress in Zimmer's eyes, though it's been uneven in some areas. The Vikings' run-blocking has been solid, he said, but the team's pass protection needs work. The defense needs to be more precise in its alignments, but its blitz package has exceeded Zimmer's expectations. It would be presumptuous to think the Vikings would be close to a finished product at this point, though, and four preseason games will provide them opportunities to get closer to that point.

Zimmer wouldn't say how much he will play his starters on Aug. 8 at TCF Bank Stadium, but hinted the Vikings' top units would get more than a series. "It's not going to be, one-two-three and out," he said. And though his assistant coaches have started some preparation work for the Raiders, Zimmer will use his time to drill his own set of new responsibilities.

Friday's game will be his first at the helm of a NFL team, and Zimmer started working on Saturday through a set of game situations that general manager Rick Spielman put together for him to study. "Rick put together a tape; we sit down and talk about game-like situations, challenges, when to use timeouts, go for field goals, things like that," Zimmer said. "We've got four more days to go. We hit probably 15 scenarios today. We sit down for an hour each day." Then, he joked, "Rick's never wrong."

Offensive coordinator Norv Turner will handle the offensive play-calling, and Zimmer will use the preseason to determine whether he will call defensive plays or delegate the task to defensive coordinator George Edwards. Zimmer, of course, will have veto power on offensive play calls, and he's also working to make sure he can give Turner sound feedback there.

"Honestly, I trust Norv's judgment," Zimmer said. "I'll come in and talk to him about, 'How are we going to get this guy blocked this week? What do you think the best runs are?' We talked about a couple things last night. But the biggest input for me will be, 'Alright, it's this situation, Norv; we need to run the ball here. We've been running it down their throats. Let's not throw it three times. Let's get another run in there, give the ball to Adrian [Peterson] or whatever it is. Or things that I see on tape; they're having a hard time [with] no-backfield formations, or things like that."
MANKATO, Minn. -- Later this month, as the Minnesota Vikings are sorting through candidates for the final spots on their roster, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer will get to make his pitch.

He'll be a key player in those conversations with general manager Rick Spielman, head coach Mike Zimmer, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator George Edwards, since the last players on the roster will inevitably be asked to play special teams. If there's a tie to be broken, Priefer's input could tip it in one direction or another. He'll sometimes argue for keeping a player largely because of what he can do on a kick or punt unit, but Priefer knows he can only ask for so many spots.

"You've got to pick and choose your battles, too," Priefer said. "If I jump on the table for 15 guys, well, who's going to listen to me? But if there's three or four guys that I truly believe need to make our team to help on special teams, those are the guys I'll vouch for."

In the meantime, Priefer is working out a large group of players on special teams, checking to see where each one stands in Turner's or Edwards' minds and preparing different options in case a player he wants to keep isn't a contender to make the roster otherwise.

"I talk to the offensive coordinator, the defensive coordinator, the head coach and our personnel people all the time, especially early in camp," Priefer said. "If it's a position of need -- maybe it's linebacker, per se. Maybe I have a little bit of influence there, safety, corner, wide receiver. But in the end, it's going to be decided by Rick Spielman, Coach Zimmer. I think they do a great job of taking the information from everybody and making the best decision as they see fit."

Priefer has been working out players like Marcus Sherels, Kain Colter, Jarius Wright, Jerick McKinnon and Adam Thielen as backup return men, as the Vikings consider taking some kick return duties off Cordarrelle Patterson's plate. Priefer is also interested, he said, in putting more skill players at the back of his kickoff units when Patterson is on the field, in light of how many times teams tried to kick short and avoid the All-Pro return man last season.

And in the event long snapper Cullen Loeffler ever gets hurt, Priefer would need a new backup long snapper. That job belonged to Jared Allen, but with the defensive end now in Chicago, linebacker Audie Cole is a front-runner for the job. Linebacker Michael Mauti or defensive end Tyler Scott could also fill in as an emergency long snapper, Priefer said.
MANKATO, Minn. -- The process that led to Kyle Rudolph earning a new contract from the Minnesota Vikings, which culminated in a hug and words of congratulations from general manager Rick Spielman after Sunday's practice, seemed about as devoid of drama and tension as either side could have wanted.

Rudolph
Rudolph made it known at the end of last season he wanted to stay in Minnesota; the Vikings spoke highly of the big tight end and said they wanted the same thing. They hired an offensive coordinator with a history of featuring tight ends; Rudolph responded by taking a more serious look at his offseason nutrition program, dropping 15 pounds and sharpening his technique as a receiver. He said he hoped to get a contract done before the season; the Vikings met with his agents in the Twin Cities on July 15 to begin discussions on a deal.

There seemed to be little chance of the Vikings letting Rudolph get to free agency next spring, not when they had taken him in the second round of the 2011 draft, not when he was one of the only viable candidates for a contract extension before next season. But the toothy smile Rudolph flashed when talking about the contract on Monday let everyone know even an inevitable payoff was sweet.

"Being the organization that took a chance on me out of the draft, being hurt at the time and still drafting me when they did and now giving me this extension, it shows the faith that they have in me," Rudolph said. "Certain people have the opportunity to change your life, and I can't thank Rick and (assistant GM) Rob (Brzezinski) enough for that opportunity."

Now comes the hard part for Rudolph. He will have to play well enough to maximize the value of his contract, which pays him a $6.5 million signing bonus and effectively guarantees his $956,343 base salary in the final season of his rookie deal. The five-year, $36.5 million deal could be worth up to $40 million if Rudolph triggers incentives in the contract, and though another $12 million of the deal is currently guaranteed for injury only, that money will become fully guaranteed by the start of the 2016 league year, coming to Rudolph in separate chunks on the third day of the 2015 and 2016 league years.

But the tight end, as usual, seemed sensible about the contract on Monday. He said he didn't plan to buy himself anything special, adding his only plan was to fulfill a promise to his old strength coach and pay to remodel the weight room at his alma mater, Elder High School in Cincinnati.

As for the Vikings, Rudolph wants to make sure they get a good return on their investment.

"Essentially, if you look at this from a business side, I'm here for the next three years (anyway) because of the last year of my deal and opportunity to be franchised twice," he said. "So they felt like it was important to keep me here for a long time. It instills a responsibility to become one of the veteran leaders in the locker room. We have a lot of young guys on this team and it's weird for me to see that now, four years later I'm one of the veterans in the locker room who have to bring those guys along so we can win football games."
MANKATO, Minn. -- According to the summary the Minnesota Vikings released last week of an independent investigation into former punter Chris Kluwe's allegations, long snapper Cullen Loeffler was the only member of the team to corroborate Kluwe's claim that special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer made a homophobic remark during the 2012 season. But if Kluwe contends he was released in part because of his support for same-sex marriage, Loeffler said he never felt in danger of losing his job for telling investigators he remembered Priefer making the statement.

Loeffler
"I was never worried about my job, never worried about the Vikings' support," Loeffler said. "They’ve been very supportive throughout the process. Just wanted me to cooperate, which I did."

Loeffler, who told investigators that he and Kluwe both laughed off Priefer's comment about "putting all the gays on an island and nuking it," said again on Thursday he remembered thinking the remark was a joke. He said he hasn't talked to Kluwe since the former punter published his allegations in a Deadspin piece on Jan. 2, and said he was glad the investigation had come to a close.

According to the summary, Loeffler met with Vikings executive director of player development/legal Les Pico after Kluwe asked him to sign an affidavit confirming the remarks in May 2013. Kluwe told investigators that Loeffler was concerned he would be "blacklisted" from the NFL if he was associated with a controversy involving Priefer. The summary said Pico told Loeffler he felt a need to alert general manager Rick Spielman and vice president of legal affairs Kevin Warren about the situation, even though Kluwe wanted it to remain private and avoid any risk of jeopardizing Loeffler's job status.

Asked about his conversations with Pico on Thursday, Loeffler said, "At the time I wasn’t really sure what was going to come out of it. Really everything that I’ve said is in the report. If you want to address that question you can address it from the report."

Pico has declined comment since the summary was published, referring questions to his attorneys.

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