New Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer feels he can relate to players that weren't given much of a chance. He might be right.
Zimmer has been a defensive coach in the NFL for 20 years, and a defensive coordinator for 14 years, engendering the respect of many coaches and players for years. He has had interviews for head coaching positions in 2012 and 2013, but at age 57 he finally got his shot this month when the Vikings hired him as their ninth head coach.
Some of his defensive players with the Cincinnati Bengals can relate, passed over many times themselves for jobs they wanted in the NFL. Under Zimmer, however, they not only got their shot, but thrived.
Is that a magic touch that Zimmer possesses?
"Hopefully that's one of my strengths. I love players like that," Zimmer said. "I love players that have something to prove. I love taking guys that people have said can't play anymore or they're not smart enough to play or whatever the reason is, because a lot of people said that about me. So I kind of feel a special bond to those type of guys. And it makes me feel good when I can take players that haven't worked out in other places and turn them into good football players and good people."
The list of Zimmer revival projects is extensive. There is Adam Jones, who prefers to leave the "Pac Man" nickname in the past, along with the troubles that stuck to him earlier in his career like he does to receivers in recent years. There is Terence Newman, who nearly had his career flame out after being a first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys.
There are many more, but the poster child, if it's not Jones, might be linebacker Vontaze Burfict, whose character issues in college left a player that may have been worthy of a first- or second-round pick undrafted. Like many, Zimmer saw the talent. Fewer people gave Burfict a good chance of becoming relevant. Under Zimmer's guidance, Burfict has turned into a Pro Bowl player.
"I'm proud of hundreds of 'em, but Terence Newman was a guy they ran out of Dallas. He's played great for me for two years," Zimmer said. "Burfict, obviously everybody said he couldn't play and he made the Pro Bowl this year. Adam Jones was a guy that has really resurrected himself and become a better person and a better man and a much better football player. I'm not saying that any of them are easy, but that's just part of coaching."
In 2013, Burfict made the Pro Bowl, was named second-team All-Pro, led the NFL with 171 tackles and had three sacks, seven passes defensed and an interception. He may have earned himself a lucrative contract extension. Zimmer was instrumental in getting Burfict to that level.
"He's done such a great job taking guys that are young and developing them or taking guys that are adequate players and making them very good players," Vikings general manager Rick Spielman said of Zimmer. "He's got whatever that innate ability is and gets that out of players. I think that's why those players so much respect him because he brings out the best in everyone."
Zimmer calls himself a "fixer" when it comes to defensive ills. He also calls himself an "observer," preferring to withhold judgment on players – on the field and off – until he has a chance to see them in action.
He wants players to do things a certain way. When they don't, "it rubs me the wrong way." When they do, they get a chance with Zimmer.
And many of those players he has helped remain employed in the NFL see the value of Zimmer's direct approach.
"I think they know that all I'm trying to do is make them better," he said. "Have I had discussions with players that they didn't agree with and things? Sure. But in the end you've got to prove to them that you really care, that, listen, all we're trying to do is get better. Nothing's personal. It's just about making the team better."
Each of those players helped bring the Cincinnati Bengals to the third-ranked defense in the league with Zimmer coordinating it.
Now the head coach of the Vikings, Zimmer comes to Minnesota with a reputation for being blunt and being demanding of his players.
"I wasn't buddy-buddy with them. I didn't go out and have dinner with them," he said. "I told them the first day I walked in in Cincinnati that I don't need their cell phone numbers. I'm not going to go out to dinner. But if I need to find them, I'll find 'em. So that's kind of how I'm going to be here. But I think you develop relationships with people. You don't walk in and say ‘Hey, I'm your new coach, let's go, now we're buddy-buddy.' It doesn't work that way."
He also earns their respect by, as he said, trying to grab their hearts. One way to do that is to relate to those who feel underappreciated.
"I've got a chip on my shoulder," Zimmer said. "I want to make sure that 31 other teams know that I'm here and I'm ready to coach this football team."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Zimmer relates well to the underappreciated
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