MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Mike Priefer's first time running the show came in unwelcomed circumstances, with head coach Mike Zimmer at home recovering from emergency eye surgery.
The Minnesota Vikings were up to the task of playing on without their beloved boss, another sudden blow to a team that has endured so many setbacks.
If Zimmer's absence created a strange scene, the outcome for Minnesota was awfully familiar. Stung by a critical special teams turnover, hurt on defense by a couple of long gains and unable to overcome a depleted offensive line or costly penalties while they had the ball, the Vikings lost 17-15 to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night.
''They fought to the bitter end, and I know coach Zimmer would've been very, very proud of them,'' Priefer said.
Zimmer was diagnosed with a detached retina, missing a game for the first time in his 23-year NFL coaching career. He visited the players at the hotel earlier in the day and delivered an emotional address during which he expressed his disappointment in not being able to join them at the stadium.
''We love that man. He puts his heart and soul in this team, and we give it right back to him. I think this team handled it very well,'' defensive end Brian Robison said. ''I think we put everything we had on the line. At the end of the day, we've got to find a way to get it done, and we just didn't.''
Each time the television cameras captured Priefer on the sideline, peering out at the field with the official headset on, the sight was jarring. Not because Priefer didn't look the part, a fit former Navy helicopter pilot with a take-charge personality, but because Zimmer's steely gaze has become such a fixture in just three years with the Vikings (6-6) while a defensive-driven team has taken on some of his defiant attitude and mirrored his ability to overcome adversity.
What also showed up on this prime-time stage was the keen sense of preparation and sound game-day process that Zimmer has helped create in Minnesota.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur (Cleveland, 2011-12) and offensive line coach Tony Sparano (Miami, 2008-11) each have prior experience as an NFL head coach, but they remained in their roles to minimize the disruption.
Zimmer is the play-caller for the defense, considered one of the savviest in the league, but defensive coordinator George Edwards in his first time on full duty contributed to one of the best performances of the season for the group on that side of the ball. The potent Cowboys (11-1) were limited to season lows in points, first downs and yards, all well under their averages.
Late in the fourth quarter, Priefer successfully challenged a spot on a first-down slide by Dak Prescott that saved the Vikings a timeout and kept the Cowboys in a third-and-1 situation. The next snap was fumbled, and the 3-yard loss forced the Cowboys to punt. Priefer credited the assistant coaches in the box above the field for watching the replay and encouraging him to throw the red flag.
The way the game flowed, Priefer didn't face any more critical decisions than that, but his most fateful choice was a personnel move with standout punt returner Marcus Sherels missing because of a rib injury.
Adam Thielen took the first one, was replaced by Cordarrelle Patterson and then returned to the role. Thielen's fumble at the 8-yard line early in the fourth quarter set up a touchdown for the Cowboys. Patterson was out for the last one and had to recover his own fumble. Priefer blamed himself for not preparing either of them well enough for the job this week.
If Zimmer isn't ready for the next game at Jacksonville, Priefer probably will stay in place.
''I hope I'm not needed in that capacity,'' he said. ''Looks to me I've got my work cut out for me on special teams.''
Priefer, who is in his sixth season with Minnesota, has presided over some of the best special teams units in the NFL since joining the Vikings. A coach for 23 years who has been in the NFL for 15 seasons, Priefer interviewed with Chicago in 2013 for the head coach position that was filled then by Marc Trestman.
One year later, former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe posted a scathing essay on Deadspin.com accusing Priefer of making anti-gay comments toward Kluwe while he was still on the team as a way of goading him for his gay rights advocacy. Priefer was eventually suspended for the first three games of the 2014 season and sent to workplace sensitivity training.
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