The Vikings have built up a recent rivalry with the Washington Redskins, their opponent Sunday at TCF Bank Stadium. The teams have met each of the last four years, with the Vikings winning three of those games.
But as the head coaches meet prior to the game, they won’t be mere casual acquaintances.
Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden are both first-time head coaches, but before being picked to run their respective franchises, the two were the defensive and offensive coordinator, respectively, of the Cincinnati Bengals. The spent three seasons working under head coach Marvin Lewis and the success they were able to achieve parlayed both of them into head coaching jobs of their own.
As luck would have it, their first seasons as head coaches will involve their first head-to-head meeting Sunday. It was clear during their Wednesday press conferences that the two remain friends and that their meeting will be somewhat bittersweet because one of them has to lose.
“I like Jay an awful lot,” Zimmer said. “We are friends. We worked together for (three) years. You know, really I don’t like playing against my friends.”
Zimmer knows that winning is the only goal for coaches and players, but it makes it a little more difficult when the coach on the opposite sideline is a friend. Asked to elaborate about hating to coach against a friend, Zimmer said it’s not business, it’s personal
“It’s nothing, it’s just the personal aspect,” he said. “You get a relationship with somebody and you know one of us is going to feel bad after the game and so you hate for the other guy to do that. I have a lot of respect for what Jay did in Cincinnati and what he is doing there in Washington.”
Their familiarity is going to present unique game plans for Sunday’s game. Zimmer spent years watching Gruden’s offense at work as the Bengals went from league also-rans to consistent playoff entrants. The same goes for Gruden. There isn’t much of Zimmer’s defense he hasn’t seen in practice or on game day.
Although the schemes remain the same, this time they’re meeting with completely different personnel. It’s that familiarity that is going to make Sunday’s game a storyline for the media to latch onto.
“It’s probably going to be overhyped a little bit on me knowing him and him knowing me,” Gruden said. “Hell, I don’t know when he’s going to call his blitzes and when he’s going to call his zones. We’ve been together for three years. Everyone thinks I know exactly what he’s going to do and they think he knows exactly what I’m going to do. Hell, I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. And I know he doesn’t know, so we’re still working. I’m sure he’s still working on a game plan to stop the things that we do.”
The mutual admiration society between Zimmer and Gruden will take a three-hour respite on Sunday, but until then, they’re both saying all the right things. Friendship trumps the one-game battle they will be leading their troops into.
Zimmer acknowledged that the coaching chess match that is going to go on Sunday is going to be based primarily on their own coaching strengths. Zimmer will oversee the defense for the Vikings. Gruden will oversee the offense for the Redskins. Their coordinators will handle the rest.
As it pertains to the head-to-head coaching matchup, the preparation process is going to be done in shorthand because both of them are aware of the tendencies of their counterpart much more than most coaches – even those who are longtime division rivals.
“Jay knows pretty much everything that we do, he has seen this for (three) years,” Zimmer said. “But you know we used to go against him every day. He does a tremendous job offensively and they have got very, very good talent. Their team is very well-coached, playing great on defense. Jay obviously does a great job. He has always done a great job with the quarterbacks, he has done a great job with the offense, I think the receivers love playing for him and he has got a good running game.”
Both of them know the mindset of the other. They’ve spent years watching their own game film of each other in action. Gruden has paid attention to what Zimmer was able to accomplish with a mix of talent that was presented to him. Once he learned the strengths and weaknesses of his players, he started dialing up blitz packages. Gruden saw them all and even he is baffled by the lack of predictability of his friend-turned-adversary.
“The problem is he gives you so many looks, especially in the blitz,” Gruden said. “He’s the blitz doctor. So we just got to be on top of what we do and protect the quarterback.”
The Offensive Mad Genius meets the Blitz Doctor. It has all the making a Marvel comic book movie franchise. It will play out on Sunday and the action on the sidelines may be just as exciting and riveting as the action between the white lines.
Gruden prepares vs. ‘blitz doctor’ Zimmer
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