By Jon Kraczynski
AP Sports Writer
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — With a big, white patch over his right eye and instructions from his doctor not to yell too loudly for fear of further damaging the surgically repaired retina, Mike Zimmer returned to the sideline for the Minnesota Vikings to lead them to a much-needed victory over Jacksonville.
Whether Zimmer’s decision to come back after missing the previous game against Dallas was in the best interest of his long-term health or not, the grizzled coach sent an unmistakable message to the players he asks to play through pain for him.
“I’m not missing any more games the rest of my life,” Zimmer vowed after a 25-16 victory over the Jaguars stunted a freefall of six losses in the previous seven games.
The Vikings (7-6) entered December figuring they needed to win the final four games of the season to keep their playoff hopes alive, a startling position after being the last undefeated team in the league during a 5-0 start.
They’ve suffered a litany of injuries this season, including to their head coach, who has had four eye surgeries to address a problem that has bothered him for months.
After emergency surgery caused him to miss a loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 1, doctors cleared Zimmer to fly with the team to Jacksonville.
The former Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator initially was not sure if he would coach from the sideline or a box above the field to protect him, but Zimmer ended up on the field with his players, which is where he wanted to be all along.
The sight of their leader gutting through a serious eye issue to stay in the fight emboldened the Vikings.
“He’s a warrior,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said on Monday. “If you’re injured, if you’ve got some little aches and pains, you just look at coach Zim like, ‘Wow, this guy’s got one eye and he’s out here coaching.’
“That lets you know how committed he is to this team and the dedication he has for this game. It’s just unbelievable to have a coach like that.”
The Vikings host Indianapolis on Sunday and finish the season with a game at surging Green Bay on Christmas Eve and home against Chicago.
For Zimmer, it’s about holding himself to the same standard he holds his players. He asks them to push their bodies to the absolute limit, to recover quickly from injuries and he has made his displeasure known when some players have been slow to heal.
That much was evident on Monday when the Vikings placed defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd on injured reserve with a knee injury that has kept him out all season.
Floyd has been bothered by injuries for the past three years and when Zimmer was asked to assess the former first-round draft pick on Monday, he bit his tongue.
“I don’t want to assess him to the media,” Zimmer said. “I’ll assess him to (Vikings GM Rick Spielman) when we sit down and talk.”
Zimmer said that he has talked about the importance of toughness “since the day I first walked in the building here.”
He has posted signs around the team’s headquarters underscoring that theme and challenged his players to live up to it.
“If you’re going to preach it, you need to walk the walk, too,” Zimmer said on Monday.
That kind of attitude plays well in the testosterone-filled NFL locker room, and the players rallied around him even as he admitted to being much harder on them in practice during their recent slide.
How much jeopardy is he putting himself in by continuing to work?
Only Zimmer really knows. He has said he is following his doctor’s orders and understands how serious his situation is. But he has also made it clear to his players that it won’t stop him from being by their side the rest of the way.
“Coach Zim’s going to give it all he’s got,” running back Jerick McKinnon said. “Everybody knows that. We’re a reflection of him. Everybody’s laying it on the line. It’s all about fighting together, working and doing whatever it takes to come out with a win.”