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Vikings find out the hard way that nothing fails like success

The Minnesota Vikings’ plane skidding off the taxiway in Appleton, Wis. last week, stranding the team’s players and coaches for three hours was the metaphor-of-the-year in the NFL this season — an apt symbol of a season that had been going so well before turning into a nightmare.

And just when they thought it couldn’t get worse, it seemed to against the Packers on Saturday when veteran safety Terence Newman defied the game plan of coach Mike Zimmer — whose resume indicates he knows a thing or two about defense — and decided he could cover Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson just because he wanted to.

The apparent insubordination blew up on Zimmer and the Vikings when Nelson caught seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the first half in a 38-25 Packers victory that eliminated the once 5-0 Vikings from playoff contention.

Zimmer smoothed over the mutiny aspect of the episode, taking responsibility for poor communication that was rectified after the first series. But it still left another stain on a disappointing season — leaving the perception that Zimmer doesn’t have complete control of his listing ship.

In Mike Zimmer's third season, the Vikings started 5-0 but have lost eight of their last 10 games to fall out of playoff contention. (Andy Clayton-King/AP)

“Honestly, I’m really not [concerned about that] because I know what happened and I know the locker room,” said Zimmer, 60, the Lockport product in his third season as head coach of the Vikings. “I understand the outside images and things like that, but I’m the one that really knows. I know the players involved. I am not even one percent concerned about it.”

Still, the Vikings difficult season is a cautionary tale for teams like the Bears trying to build a playoff contender from the ground up — it’s just as difficult to stay there once you get there.

In October, the Vikings looked like up-and-coming Super Bowl contenders, Zimmer was being touted for Coach of the Year honors and general manager Rick Spielman looked like a genius for acquiring quarterback Sam Bradford after Teddy Bridgewater suffered a season-ending knee injury during a preseason practice.

The Vikings were 5-0 and had allowed 12.6 points per game against a tough schedule that included impressive victories over the Packers (17-14), defending NFC champion Panthers (22-10), Giants (24-10) and Texans (31-13).  Coming off a strong finish in 2015 — when the Vikings won nine of their last 12 games and had the Seahawks beat in the playoffs before Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal in the final minute — it looked like Zimmer’s team was taking the next step toward greatness. The Vikings were ranked No. 1 in ESPN’s power rankings, ahead of the Cowboys and Patriots.

Since then, offensive line issues started a free fall that has ruined the once-promising season. The Vikings have lost eight of their last 10 games — including two excruciating sudden-death losses to the Lions. Only the Browns, Jaguars, 49ers and Rams have lost more games in the same span. The Vikings (7-8) can hope to only finish .500 when they face the Bears (3-12) in the season-finale Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium. 

The Vikings — now 20th in the power rankings — are the sixth team since the advent of the current 12-team playoff format in 1990 to start 5-0 or better and fail to make the playoffs — the second in two seasons after the Falcons started 5-0 and did not make the playoffs last season. The 2003 Vikings and 2009 Broncos started 6-0 and failed to make the postseason. The 1996 Redskins and 2012 Bears started 7-1 and did not make the playoffs.

Zimmer admitted he is second-guessing himself on how he has handled his team’s demise.

“Part of my problem is, I’m extremely honest,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes I say what I think and sometimes I’m emotional. So maybe there are things I said that I shouldn’t have said. But in the long run, I have to be m. That’s who I am and that’s who I want this football team to be.”

This has been a difficult season for Zimmer, who signed a contract extension prior to training camp. He still has blurry vision in one eye after undergoing emergency eye surgery on Nov. 30. “I’ve had to make adjustments watching tape because I haven’t been able to look up,” he said. “So I’ve had to kind of maneuver the screens to where I can do things.”

Now he has to figure out how this season got away from him. Zimmer said he will spend part the offseason evaluating what went wrong. Once possible culprit: his team might have struggled to handle success after becoming a contender. His wouldn’t be the first team to fall into that trap.

“Building it is tough,” Zimmer said. “But then once you get to that spot — like for us this year — everybody’s gunning for you; maybe the expectation level goes way up. Maybe human nature sets in a little bit with your team, or your coaches.

“I’m not saying us in particular, because I think about the New Englands of the world — [but] you get the right guys, the right leaders, and you get some breaks, then you can maintain it.

“I’m disappointed because I thought we had a really good football team coming in and … we hit this rough spot and we haven’t been able to pull out of it. That’s one of the things I have to figure out in the offseason is where I failed them or where we did wrong with this team, or things that I need to [do to] make sure that doesn’t happen again.”