The first harbinger that the Vikings’ trip to Green Bay might not go well came Friday afternoon, when their plane slid off the runway at Appleton International Airport.
And then things went downhill from there. After a 5–0 start, the Vikings’ 38–25 Christmas Eve loss to the Packers ended the Vikings’ chance of making the playoffs in a season where the Vikings traded a first-round draft choice to get quarterback Sam Bradford.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jim Souhan reports on a surprising story that came out after the game:
After getting stuck on the team plane for hours on the runway in Appleton on Friday, the Vikings played on Saturday as if they had already pulled the emergency exit on the season and leaped into the void.
For the second time in six days, Mike Zimmer’s defense was filleted by a top quarterback in a meaningful game. The Packers and Aaron Rodgers beat the Vikings, 38-25 shortly after the Colts and Andrew Luck beat them 34-6.
For the first time, Rodgers dismantled a Vikings defense coached by Zimmer, and for the first time Zimmer found himself publicly at odds with players he values.
In previous games against the Packers, Vikings cornerbacks have played a side of the field rather than following Packers receiver Jordy Nelson. Zimmer said Saturday that he wanted cornerback Xavier Rhodes to follow Nelson.
That’s not what happened in the first half. On the Packers’ first possession, Rhodes, Terence Newman and Captain Munnerlyn all covered Nelson, who finished the first half with seven catches on seven targets for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
In the second half, Rhodes covered Nelson on both sides of the field. Nelson caught two more passes for nine more yards.
“Well, that’s what he was supposed to do all game,” Zimmer said. “Someone decided that they wouldn’t do that.”
When did Zimmer notice that the players weren’t following the plan? “In the first half when Terence Newman came over and said something to me like ‘I can cover this guy, let me have him,’ ” Zimmer said. “I said, ‘Do what you’re supposed to do.’ ”
Asked about Zimmer’s quotes, Rhodes said: “To be honest, I really don’t want to answer that. That’s something. … That’s … nah, never mind. I will not answer that question.”
Rhodes reconsidered, saying: “Matter of fact, forget it. We felt as a team and as players we came together, we felt like we never done that when we played against the Packers and, I mean, as a DB I felt like we can handle it. So we felt as DBs that we could stay on our side and cover him because in the beginning, we always played against him, we always played sides, we never followed …”
When did the players decide to create their own plan? “The decision was all through practice,” Rhodes said.
Did Zimmer say anything to him during the game? “Not to my memory,” Rhodes said.
Did the defensive backs broach the subject with Zimmer? “We just felt like we should play sides,” Rhodes said. “As the game went on our coaches demanded and told me I needed to follow him.”
Zimmer’s perceived strengths are taking a beating. In a crucial six-day stretch, his team gave up 72 points, lost two must-win games and displayed a lack of respect for his leadership.
The St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Brian Murphy adds:
The Vikings’ postseason mission, redemption for that bitter arctic loss to Seattle, officially died at 3:13 p.m. Central Standard Time Saturday at Lambeau Field, their epitaph a sad but inevitable 38-25 loss to the surging Packers.
The Vikings face one more must-win Week 17 at home against woeful Chicago to avoid a losing record after opening the season with five consecutive wins.
Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson delivered last rites with a pitch-and-catch tutorial. But the Vikings came bearing ample gifts of turnovers, penalties and porous defensive backs who hatched their own coverage scheme against coach Mike Zimmer’s edict to Xavier Rhodes that the Pro Bowl cornerback shadow Nelson, one of the NFL’s most dynamic receivers
Exploiting gaping holes in Minnesota’s secondary, Nelson accumulated seven receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns. At halftime. He caught only two more passes for 9 yards in the second half after Rhodes retreated his original assignment.
“That’s what they were supposed to do the whole game,” Zimmer fumed. “Someone decided that they weren’t going to do that.”
Rhodes stammered when asked about his freestyling.
“Um, to be honest, I really don’t want to answer that,” he said.
Rhodes explained the Vikings never shadowed Nelson in the past, so the defensive backs decided during the week they would revert to their customary positions on either side of the field.
“We felt as a team, as players, we came together,” he said. “We felt like we could handle him on that side of the field. That’s what felt right.”
Sure, why not. Toss a supersized helping of insubordination onto the Vikings’ funeral pyre.
Fifty-one weeks ago, on this very field, the Vikings celebrated a division title by downing Green Bay 20-13, the crowning achievement thus far in Zimmer’s ragged three-year reign.
They were one butchered 27-yard field goal last January from advancing to the divisional playoffs. After starting 5-0, the confident Vikings seemed more than capable of overcoming the loss of franchise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and superstar running back Adrian Peterson to injury.
But that imperfect perfection covered up structural deficiencies on offense and defense, not to mention razor-thin depth that was unable to underpin an injury-ravaged offensive line that was the root cause of so much misery.
At this point, pounding on T.J. Clemmings another week is akin to abuse that warrants a restraining order. Left to block six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews with a minute remaining in the first half, the resulting strip sack of Sam Bradford at midfield was predictable if not negligent.
Zimmer and offensive line coach Tony Sparano own this calcified breach for insisting they could boost an overmatched pass protector who has no business playing left tackle. And general manager Rick Spielman for buying what Clemmings was selling in college and spending a fourth-round pick on a player whose confidence has been shredded.
Ben Goessling explains more:
The bedrock of the Minnesota Vikings‘ defense — indeed, the identity of their program under Mike Zimmer — has been a scheme which is often ironclad when players trust it.
Zimmer has preached for three seasons to his players about the interconnectedness of a defense, building a theater-style meeting room so he could address position groups together and issuing impromptu quizzes to defensive backs about the three-technique tackle’s job on a particular play. Sayings such as, “Do your job so someone else can do theirs” have bordered on dogma, and Vikings players professed almost total devotion to a set of ideas that had built one of the league’s top units.
That is what made what happened at Lambeau Field on Sunday so striking.
Zimmer said after the Vikings’ 38-25 loss to the Green Bay Packers that the Vikings had planned for Xavier Rhodes to shadow Jordy Nelson — as he had done with top receivers for much of the season — but that “someone decided they wouldn’t do that.” The coach added that veteran cornerback Terence Newman told him in the first half, “I can cover [Nelson]; let me have him,” to which Zimmer replied, “Do what you’re supposed to do.”
Nelson caught seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, hauling in a 15-yard pass from Rodgers while matched up on Newman during the Packers’ first series. On the second series, when Nelson caught three passes for 45 yards, the Packers had him in the slot, where Rhodes never shadows receivers. Nelson was also in the slot on a 48-yard catch, before Rhodes moved to the left side of the Vikings’ defense to shadow him for the first time with 2:42 left in the first quarter.
Think again about what happened here. Zimmer — who coached Deion Sanders and Darren Woodson in Dallas — volunteered the fact that Rhodes was supposed to cover Nelson, until players decided on their own plan. Newman — who was a rookie when Zimmer became the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, who followed the coach to Cincinnati and Minnesota, who lobbied for Zimmer as a head coach and once said the coach could be enshrined in Canton based on what he had done to make teams better — apparently was part of a group that decided not to listen to him in this instance.
Evidently, so was Rhodes, whose development into a Pro Bowl corner has largely been on Zimmer’s watch, and who said after the game the Vikings’ defensive backs settled on the plan not during the game, but in practice last week. …
Players whom Zimmer has developed, who would be seen as some of the coach’s star pupils, suddenly decided not to follow a game plan — and apparently not to tell Zimmer, defensive coordinator George Edwards nor defensive backs coach Jerry Gray about it. Did they lose faith in the scheme after a 34-6 loss to the Colts last Sunday? Did they think their ideas wouldn’t be heard if they approached coaches with them?
Those questions remain open, and Zimmer’s ability to discipline players next Sunday against the Chicago Bears would be hampered somewhat by the lack of other options in his secondary. But Saturday’s developments, at the end of a season that began with Super Bowl aspirations and will end with a meaningless Week 17 game, suggest there’s more at play in the Vikings’ demise than just injuries and some bad luck.
A team that started 5-0 now needs a victory just to avoid a losing record. A defense that bullied MVP quarterbacks at the beginning of the season has now been picked apart for 72 points in the last two games. And a group that has long seemed to thrive on its harmony, seemed, on Saturday at least, to be in discord.
It looks like it’ll be an interesting offseason in the Twin Cities. The Vikings’ first season in their billion-dollar indoor football palace started off well, but has collapsed like a Viking ship with a hole under the waterline. Zimmer, a highly respected defensive coach, may be coaching his last game as head coach against Da Bears under the truism that it’s easier to fire the coach than the players. Players have varying relationships with coaches (see Favre, Brett, and Holmgren, Mike), but to see open revolt is not normal.
The Packers, meanwhile, now look like the football reincarnation of Team Streak, the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers and their epic winning streaks followed by losing streaks and vice versa. The Packers reversed their four-game losing streak by winning five in a row, and winning in Detroit Sunday, where the last time the Packers played this happened …
… will clinch the NFC North title. They could also earn a wild card spot or even miss the playoffs if they lose depending on what other teams do. (At least I think that’s the case based on what I read.)