In his introductory press conference two years ago, Mike Zimmer said that is what he does – he fixes defenses. The job isn’t finished yet, but Zimmer’s approach to fixing the Minnesota Vikings is part scheme, part attitude with a heavy dose of honesty.
Frankly, Zimmer doesn’t really seem to care what others say or think, but he’ll pay attention in case they give him some motivational material. He’s a master of motivation without grinding his players’ psyche to a nub.
Mike Wallace agreed that Zimmer in some ways can be like a high school coach. Maybe that’s only natural given how much Zimmer learned from his late high-school-coaching father growing up in Illinois.
“He’s kind of like the Junction Boys. I love Coach Zimmer. Some days he’s always going to have something to say, no matter what day it is,” Wallace said. “Something to say, something smart, some type of (expletive) comment, but I love it though because it’s fun. I’ve been around coaches that are too nice and I’ve been around coaches I felt were too mean, but I think he has that good mixture. He’s going to be hard-core to his team, let us know that this is his team, but at the same time you’re respecting him. It’s not like selfish; we know he cares about us and wants to win.”
In talking with several Vikings players about what Zimmer has done to bring the Vikings back to a playoff team, perhaps Wallace’s comments summed it up best. Zimmer can ride a player hard, but it’s done with a purpose – to make them better to make the team better.
Captain Munnerlyn saw it first-hand last year. He arrived in Minnesota as one of Zimmer’s first free-agent signings and was installed as a starter. It didn’t always go well. Even if Munnerlyn thought he was playing well, Zimmer wasn’t afraid to tell him otherwise. The techniques weren’t always what Zimmer wanted. Munnerlyn had come from Carolina and carried over different philosophies and it didn’t always mix well with the scheme or sit well with the schemer.
At the end of the Munnerlyn’s initial year in Minnesota, which produced a 7-9 record, he said he didn’t have a great year. When he returned for offseason workouts last spring, there was a Zimmer veteran, Terence Newman, pushing Munnerlyn into slot duty, where his snaps would be reduced.
But there was lesson there and Munnerlyn realized he wasn’t going to win a battle of the wills or wits against Zimmer.
“If you listen to this guy, he really is a guru. Last year I was a little stubborn and he’s definitely stubborn. Everybody knows that, but I had to give in to it,” Munnerlyn said. “I was like, ‘If I want to be here and I want to be on this team and play at a very high level, I’ve got to do what this guy is telling me to do.’ It works. It hurts me to tell him, ‘Man, coach, if I was doing this last year it would be totally different.’ It definitely works. All you’ve got to do is buy into the scheme.”
Newman has known that for a long time. He played for Zimmer with the Dallas Cowboys, then the Cincinnati Bengals, and finally this year in Minnesota. Success breeds respect.
“He’s been him. He’s been successful as a coordinator every place he has gone so I don’t think it’s different when he became a head coach. He installed what he believes in and it has worked,” Newman said.
“He didn’t have to get (players) to buy in. They saw how he was and guys bought in because it was him. He doesn’t tell you something that’s not true. With that being said, it’s easy to buy in. You’ve got to know that a guy is not going to lie to you. You’ve just got to come in here, do your work and at the end of the day everybody does it and it’s a good situation.”
Another hallmark of Zimmer: honesty with his players. Sometimes that translates to brutal honesty.
An adjustment period was probably needed after Leslie Frazier’s run as a head coach. Frazier had a calm, mentoring style. Zimmer’s approach with players is more aggressive, just like his scheme.
There is little room for repeated errors or excuses. If one player is injured, the next is expected to play at a high level, like when Newman had to move to safety for a game or rookie Anthony Harris was elevated from the practice squad to the starting lineup for a game.
Sharrif Floyd went from pass-rushing defensive tackle to fill-in nose tackle. Danielle Hunter went from seldom-used rookie to oft-used, rotational defensive end. Edmond Robinson went from inactive some games to starting others. Gerald Hodges went from starting middle linebacker to a traded afterthought as Eric Kendricks went from rookie backup to productive starter.
Zimmer asks his players to adapt, just as he has adapted his approach and his scheme over the years, and from game to game.
Even his coaches have seen the change. George Edwards coached with Zimmer long ago. He was reunited with Zimmer as his defensive coordinator last year and says he continues to learn.
“There’s no doubt. Every day there is a learning process,” Edwards said. “Hopefully that continues on every day until I get ready to retire.”
As far as the scheme goes, it changes. One week Brian Robison is rushing solely from the outside, the next week he is used as an inside pass rusher on occasion and the next he is standing up on occasion as a spy on Aaron Rodgers.
“We kind of go through it as you’re looking at how they are trying to attack you,” Edwards said. “We kind of put ourselves in a position of what we’re asking the players to do and the skill set that they have and make sure that the matchups are favorable in what we’re asking them to do schematically to have success.”
Zimmer’s approach with the players rarely changes, however. He sets high expectations and reinforces them often.
Despite all the strident expectations, Zimmer can admit his mistakes and even poke fun of himself at times, too. Last week, he said that Jerick McKinnon “even makes me smile sometimes.”
And it isn’t always the sulfuric criticisms of the players. Zimmer has repeatedly talked about his appreciation for the players’ work ethic and credits them for winning game, not the coaches. In return, they keep working.
Whether that is all enough for the Vikings to advance in the playoffs remains to be seen, but there is little question their arrow is pointing up. Still, it likely won’t satisfy Zimmer until he – and his players – reach their ultimate goal and have in their possession “trophies and rings” rather than “banners.”
“I hope this is just a step, honestly,” Zimmer said of making the playoffs in his second season as the head man in Minnesota. “I don’t want this to be the defining moment of my career, for sure.”