EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –Mike Zimmer recorded his first division win in Week 17 of 2014, his first season as a head coach.
In Week 17 of his second year, the Vikings claimed the NFC North title.
"I'm proud of this football team," Zimmer said moments after the Vikings won their first division title since 2009. "We started out two years ago trying to build something special."
Today marks the two-year anniversary of Zimmer's hiring, and these 24 months have offered just a glimpse of what Zimmer has in mind for the Vikings.
In the days following the 2015 season's end, Vikings players have much to reflect on. Looking back over the year, there's one aspect all seem to agree on: Zimmer's impact on this team.
"You look at our defense, the type of defense we have, we're going to have a chance every year for the next 10 years," said running back Adrian Peterson.
In 2013, the Vikings defense ranked last in the NFL for points allowed (30) and second-to-last for yards allowed per game (397.6). When Zimmer took the reins in 2014, Minnesota's defense jumped to 11th for points allowed (21.4) and 14th for yards per game (344.7). This season proved even better, with the Vikings coming in fifth overall for points allowed (18.9) and 13th for yards per game (344.2). The Vikings also limited opponents to a 34 percent third-down completion rate, compared to 44 percent in 2013.
Despite the tough loss to Seattle in the playoffs, Peterson said the Wild Card game shows how dynamic Minnesota's defense really is under Zimmer's direction.
"The defense is, whew, those guys showed me something [on Sunday]. Not like we haven't seen it throughout the season, but those guys really stepped up to the plate," Peterson said. "They did an outstanding job of adjusting throughout the season, putting us in the best position, figuring things out throughout the season and allowing us to go out and play fast. So I take my hat off to them and I look forward to another season with them."
Although only his second year as a head coach, Zimmer has 37 years of coaching under his belt, 22 of those being in the NFL. He's a tough-love type of coach. He doesn't sugarcoat things. But he knows football, and his players have nothing but respect for him.
Vikings defensive end Brian Robison said Zimmer asked him to do things on the field that he hasn't in his career, but Robison trusted Zimmer. The nine-year veteran knows Zimmer always has the best interest for the team in mind.
"He's made us all smarter players," Robison said of Zimmer. "Understanding not only his defense but also understanding other offenses, the mindset of their protections, route combinations – all that type of stuff. He's just made us a smarter football team."
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who also joined the Vikings in 2014, experienced a similar process with Zimmer. Zimmer slid Munnerlyn to the nickel back position in 2015, a move the cornerback initially had a hard time swallowing. As his time in Minnesota progressed, however, Munnerlyn recognized the role he could play – and play well – when opponents had three receivers on the field. Munnerlyn appreciates that Zimmer doesn't beat around the bush.
"[Zimmer]'s an honest guy, and you can't do anything but respect him," Munnerlyn said. "You've got to respect it because he comes to you, 'I feel like your best position is nickel.' Are you going to take it or leave it?' "
While Zimmer is often all-business, his players never have reason to doubt his loyalty or investment in them. A smile from the head coach is as rare as seeing him out of his gray Vikings sweat suit – but that's not to say he's without sentiment.
Safety Harrison Smith, who said Zimmer has made him better "in pretty much every phase," said Zimmer's authentic relationship with his players makes a big difference.
"I think most guys here would say we love playing for him, and not just the defensive guys. His approach to how he goes about his business, how he takes care of us, how he gets after us, it's all genuine," Smith said. "He approaches the game in a way we love: tough, aggressive, and he's always got our back."
Peterson played his first full season under Zimmer in 2015. The running back spoke highly of his relationship with Zimmer and said a good coaching staff drives a team even more to succeed.
"He's meant a lot to me – his mentality and the whole approach," Peterson said. "Even though I'm hurt [that our season ended], I hurt for the coaches as well because they put in so much time and sacrifice […] to have [guys like Zimmer] around you and know their goal is to win a championship and accomplish the same things, you want to do your best for them."
Zimmer's reputation extends beyond the Vikings locker room, as well. Across the league, the coach is well-known and well-revered.
"Coach Zimmer, I've got a lot of respect for him, played against him a lot and had some good dogfights with him at the places he's been," Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. "He's been doing it for a long time. He's a tough coach. I've never played for him, but from what I know, I know he's a tough guy, and you see his imprint on this team."
As the quarterback game plans for various defenses, he said Zimmer's defenses – whether Minnesota, Cincinnati or under other coaches Zimmer mentored – are recognized and dangerous. Manning said he often refers to those schemes as the "Zimmer defense."
"If you've got your own defense, you're doing something good, right?" Manning said. "That's big."
Formerly serving as a defensive backs coach and a defensive coordinator, Zimmer has garnered praise from like-minded coaches who also specialize on that side of the ball, including Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll, and from offensive experts like Cardinals Head Coach Bruce Arians.
Carroll specifically emphasized Zimmer's base defense and nickel package that pressures and makes things difficult for opposing offenses.
"That's nothing new. He's been doing that for a long time," Carroll said.
According to Carroll, he and Zimmer share similar philosophies on the importance of the defense, special teams and running game and have each been successful with the respective formula.
"Everybody is so enamored with the throwing game and the quarterbacks," Carroll explained. "It doesn't mean you can't have great quarterback play, but there's a formula here that Mike [Zimmer] really stands for."
The admiration between Arians and Zimmer spans decades for the longtime assistants who have been two of the most successful first-time head coaches in recent years.
"I don't respect anybody in this business any more than I respect Zim'," said Arians prior to their teams' matchup in December.
When the Vikings hired Zimmer, he said he had a chip on his shoulder about being bypassed for previous head coaching jobs in the league – it became his personal vendetta to make the Vikings great. Now two years into his tenure at Minnesota, Zimmer is just getting started. He took over a team that won only five games in 2013 and this year led the Vikings to an 11-5 record, NFC North division title and a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2012.
"He is phenomenal," said Vikings wide receiver Mike Wallace after Minnesota won the NFC North division championship. "He has been preaching to us since day one the type of team that we have and the types of things that we can accomplish, and how much he believes in us. From day one he saw how much potential this team had and now we are starting to see the fruits of our labor. This is just the tip of the iceberg."
On Tuesday, Zimmer held a year-end press conference. While the tough loss to Seattle was not the end anyone on the team hoped for, especially Zimmer, it's served as fuel in already looking ahead and preparing for the 2016 season.
"We've got a ton of work to do," Zimmer said. "I've been looking at a lot of different things already. It'll be a big, important offseason for us as far as moving forward to where we want to get to. We've got so much work to do, and we've already started the process."