Funny how the NFL can come full circle.
When Zygi Wilf and his family bought the Minnesota Vikings, they were enamored with the New York Giants, who won two Super Bowls with Bill Parcells as their head coach in 1986 and 1990.
The Wilfs were well-heeled fans without any real idea how to run an NFL team, beyond their willingness to spend to turn around a franchise that was cut to the bare bones. They relied on others for the important football decisions, but there was no general manager in place. In fact, there was little conventional structure intact.
Eventually, Rick Spielman became that general manager, but when the Wilfs made the decision to fire Mike Tice after their first season of ownership – their inexperience showed by having a release announcing that firing before Tice had a chance to inform his own family – there was no one in place to fully take charge of the search for the next head coach. Enter Brad Childress, whose anti-Tice hard-nosed ways rubbed the players raw in only a short time. Then came Leslie Frazier, the easy hire because he was already in place when Childress was fired.
But when Spielman was put in charge of the next hire, it ironically was the next coming of Parcells – or at least a person with experience under Parcells, who had many of the same qualities. The Wilf fandom could be relived in the Parcells protégé. Only this time, the evidence is becoming overwhelming that the Wilfs finally have a capable coach in charge.
Mike Zimmer to be the right balance of football IQ and no-nonsense without wearing down the players mentally, emotionally or physically.
“When I first met him, you could tell he really loved football. He’s a guy who’s really passionate about the game,” said Vikings cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who was one of Zimmer’s first free-agent signings. “He wants to win. I talked to guys before I got here about him. He’s a hard coach. I knew that already, but he just wants the best for you. He wants the best for his players and he wants to bring out the best in you.”
Time and again, that was the message last week as one player after another talked about Zimmer’s coaching style. He prepares his teams extremely well, mentally and schematically.
Players might have had some natural hesitancy when Zimmer first arrived, especially those who experienced the Childress regime. Zimmer knew exactly what he wanted in his players and from his players. His first minicamp raised a few eyebrows as his hands-on approach, especially with defensive players, was immediately obvious. They received more coaching from a head coach than ever before.
He was specific and detailed. Now, it shows, for good reason. When run right, his defense is more effective than most.
Even after wins, he is prone to point out the mistakes, setting the tone for the upcoming week of practice. And he rarely hesitates to tell a player how it is.
Although some denied Zimmer lights up players on occasion with a blue streak, as witnessed when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals on the show “Hard Knocks,” Mike Wallace was more forthcoming when asked if Zimmer ever lays into a player.
“Yeah. I mean – hell, yeah! – I’ve seen him get on people. All the time. He does it all the time and he goes hard,” Wallace said. “He’s going to curse, he’s going to yell, scream. But we’re grown men. Nobody cares about that. Nobody takes it personally, like, ‘He can’t talk to me like that.’ Nobody cares. We’re just like, ‘OK, I was wrong.’ Pick it up and go to the next one. When you play football for so long, people yell. You get immune to it. That’s just like normal talking. I’ve been playing football for a long time now so you’ve heard it from all types of different people.”
Players have figured out Zimmer. They know his personality and know what he wants. Really, it didn’t take long because Zimmer is willing to tell them to their face what is expected … and when they aren’t fulfilling those expectations.
“I think they’ve heard me say things enough and then probably when I’m giving them a hard time they understand that there’s a message in there somewhere. I don’t think they take things personally,” Zimmer said, admitting there likely was a transition period for players to get to that point.
“They probably didn’t know how to take me. Sometimes I joke with them about things that they’re surprised at, I guess.”
There are still the occasional public jabs at players. Some are subtle, others are more blatant, but all come with a purpose – to get the most from them and thereby the most from the team.
Even after outsiders seemed satisfied that progress was made in Zimmer’s first season, taking a 5-10-1 team from 2013 to a 7-9 record in 2014, he was far from satisfied. At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, he said he couldn’t wait to get the players back to Winter Park to show them all that could be improved.
The self-proclaimed “fixer” has repaired much as the Vikings have ridden a five-game winning streak to a 7-2 record and a chance to put distance between themselves and the Green Bay Packers, the bullies of the NFC North this decade, on Sunday. Yet he also knows how momentum can change and how fleeting and temporary success in the NFL can be.
“I think we have a smart team. I think they understand how we have to play to win and the way our mentality has to be to win. I try to do things differently each week depending on who we’re playing,” he said. “I think our team is smart enough to understand that if we lose, all the guys will be gone. I understand how this works. I think they understand that as well.”
Zimmer’s biggest apprenticeship came under Parcells in Dallas, after the Big Tuna had won with the Giants and moved to their division rival. In Dallas, their offices were next to each other and Zimmer soaked in the sage advice.
Their personalities seem similar, as well as their approach with the players.
“He’s got good leadership ability. He’s very, very honest. He’s very candid with the players. … I mean, there’s no possible way they could mistake what he’s thinking, or what he’s saying. It’s not ambiguous,” Parcells told the New York Post.
For four years in Dallas, Zimmer received the Parcells mentorship, and Parcells saw how players reacted to him.
“The players responded in a positive way to his coaching,” Parcells told the Post. “He’s not the easiest guy. He’s on their butt pretty good most of the time. He’s insistent on certain things, and he’s not afraid to be critical of them. He doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything. He’s just a straightforward guy, and after a while the players get to understand that and they respect him. He’s not harassing the players, but he’s not coddling them either.”
Despite recent success, Zimmer refuses to accept or throw bouquets. He has said his team is of the “low-rent district” ilk, and he knows the construction is far from finished. They win how they have to for now and he simply preaches about being the best team on that field for that game, knowing they aren’t the best team in the NFL.
Defense is his forte, and therefore the defensive players hear it from him the most “because Coach Zim loves, loves, loves defense. I know he cares about the offense, but he kind of leaves that in Coach Norv (Turner’s) hands,” Wallace said.
But Zimmer often praises the work ethic of his players, and Wallace says he has never heard Zimmer question that because Wallace believes all the players have been self-accountable for what they need to improve.
Munnerlyn, who admits it took him time to trust Zimmer in their first season together, now sings the praises of the mighty mentor, especially when it comes to defense.
“He’s like a genius. He’s a genius of the game. He’s a real live professor of the games,” Munnerlyn said. “He’s not a student no more. Of course he’s a student of the game, but at the same time he’s like a professor. He’s teaching. He’s seen a lot of football in his life and he’s one of the best out there when it comes to defensive schemes, and being a head coach I think he’s doing a terrific job. It’s just crazy how he comes up with stuff and if you listen to him it works. … This year I bought and it’s like, ‘Man, this stuff really does work.’”
And it appears more certain than ever that Zimmer will work for the Wilfs in Minnesota as long as he wants.