Mike Zimmer isn’t who we thought he is, or at least who was portrayed as the quick-tempered, expletive-laced defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals in the short clip from HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” That video clip permeated the Skol-slanted socialverse shortly after Zimmer was hired as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
Zimmer is some of that, but he’s a whole lot more. Boil it down, however, and he appears to be everything these Vikings needed. He can be hard on a player at times, as can his offensive coordinator Norv Turner, but to think of Zimmer as only a fire-breathing throwback would be selling him far short of the potential he has, and is creating in his team.
The common thinking in NFL coaching fire-then-hire scenarios is that the pendulum swings hard from one side to another. Owners often change course from head honchos labeled as “players’ coaches” to the next guy being thought of as a “dictator.” Sometimes, there is truth to that. Leslie Frazier was labeled as a players’ coach. Zimmer is far from a dictator.
Yes, Zimmer is very much in control of his team and has the defensive credentials that command respect from players and assistants. But from every angle of the organization, his supporting cast says he is only concerned about coaching and stays away from meddling in marketing, media and other aspects of the franchise. He admittedly still loves the teaching aspect of the job and it shows every day in practice. Training camp was just the first time for the public to witness that first-hand.
He has even taken his top cornerbacks aside on occasion for one-on-one instruction while the rest of the full team continues to work together going against each other.
Sure, he still has held some information closer to the vest than needed, like his plans on when to name the starting quarterback for the season, but there is a method for that. Why let the second-string quarterback know he isn’t the starter too far in advance? Keep the carrot in front and let the race play out.
He is also willing to audible in his practice regimens. He backed off an installation when the defenders were making too many mistakes, and he is learning how to handle all the different personalities. Early in the offseason, Zimmer was boisterous in the corrections with soft-spoken Xavier Rhodes and appears to have changed tactics there some.
He also held off on creating a practice schedule last week because he wanted to see what needed the most work coming out of the first preseason game.
But most of the time there is a refreshing bit of honestly from Zimmer. He calls the shots mostly like he sees them. If a player is trying to do too much or too little, he lets them know and doesn’t try to cover it up. And it doesn’t matter if the offender is an undrafted rookie, a first-round pick or a prized free agent.
He is the same way in his self-analysis, and not once has he presented himself as a know-it-all that is above reproach. Zimmer is the one that let the media know he was being put through somewhat of a coaching clinic by general manager Rick Spielman, who wanted to be sure his first-time head coach was prepared for different game situations before the preseason opener.
And after that initial outing, Zimmer even second-guessed a couple decisions he made in the game. There was nothing glaringly wrong, but he admitted a couple of things he might have done differently.
“There were really two situations that happened in the (preseason opener),” he said. “When we kicked the field goal on fourth-and-1, we’ve been practicing a situation out here that I should have done in the ballgame. … And then the one time the official on our sideline called a fumble and an official in the back called an incomplete pass and I had three timeouts left and we were winning 10-0. There was three minutes left; I probably should have challenged.”
How refreshing, even if the fourth-and-1 call might have remained the same in a regular-season game. Blair Walsh missed the 53-yard field goal attempt, but that wasn’t the point. Zimmer likely would have made the same decision in the regular season, but he wanted to practice a fourth-and-short situation in case the scenario presented itself in a game they were losing and needed seven points instead of three, or to milk the clock with a lead instead of ending the drive.
“It was the first situation and something that if we’re going to practice these things, we might as well try them and now is the best time to try them,” he said. “Then when it happens in the regular season and the game is on the line and we need to make that decision, then we’ve at least practiced it in live competition.
Players have responded and Zimmer is starting to find his leaders on the team. Matt Cassel is taking charge in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage, at one point screaming at a receiver he thought had lined up wrong. Brian Robison has been open to hearing different approaches in techniques as the game situations warrant. Chad Greenway and Rhodes have jogged over to consult with Zimmer after different situations in practice.
“There hasn’t been any complaining, whether that is buying in or not. In training camp there is usually some complaining,” Zimmer said. “I like this team, they are good guys and they work real hard. As long as we play together as a team, we play real hard, we do the things that we are trying to coach them to do, then we have a chance to be a good football team.”
So far, so good there.
The players are buying into that line of thinking, too. Adrian Peterson was the most vocally disappointed with the firing of Leslie Frazier, but it’s clear that Peterson now sees the potential with all the changes. Zimmer may be Peterson’s best and last chance to get the Super Bowl ring that vociferously drives him. He sees the possibilities in the schemes and talent that have changed in the last eight months.
If Zimmer was a dictator, he wouldn’t have hired another vocal, veteran coach like Turner to run the offense without much input from the head coach. But Zimmer is not that man. He is confident in his abilities on defense and not afraid to give a qualified coach mostly free run on the other side of the ball and play to his strengths.
Turner and Zimmer consult to make each of their units better and more prepared, and Zimmer also leans on the seasoned pros he grew up learning from, including Bill Parcells.
It’s too early to tell for certain how it will all come together, especially without a proven perennial power at quarterback, but at this early stage the possibilities are positively intriguing.
It all leads to this conclusion: This is Zimmer’s team and Zimmer’s time, and he might have been the team’s best offseason acquisition.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Sunday slant: Zimmer looks like the right guy
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