During this time of year, NFL franchises are about as secretive as the CIA or the Mafia. Family business is kept tight to the vest and in-house matters remain there.
But Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been taking a novel approach to an openness with the fans and media of the team since his arrival in Minnesota in 2014. On Wednesday, Zimmer will host a third film session with the local media. He first tried the experiment a few months after being hired in early 2014 and opened it further last year to critical success.
It not only gave media and fans an insight into Zimmer’s coaching philosophy, but also cleared up some ambiguity that surrounded the ascent of Pro Football Focus and its analysis of determining whether a player graded out well on a specific play.
The purpose of the film study is to give the media a better understanding of how Zimmer coaches and what are the responsibilities of players on a specific play. When Teddy Bridgewater is sacked on specific play, was it the result of poor protection, shut-down coverage from the defense, a player missing an assignment or Bridgewater holding the ball too long?
All of those scenarios, and more, are possible on any pass play. Zimmer uses such film study as a teaching moment – even for the media types, which are typically viewed as a necessary evil by NFL coaching staffs, not close, personal friends.
When Zimmer first held a more open session last year, he showed the media how plays develop, work and break down as a good way to maintain a positive relationship with those who evaluate their work performance.
It is a refreshing approach that other coaches should embrace, although it is unfathomable to consider Bill Belichick doing the same type of thing on a regular basis. For coaches like Belichick, the media aren’t too dissimilar from paparazzi to celebrities. They’re always there and, to him, they’re almost always annoying. At least that is the stance he portrays.
What Zimmer is doing is something the NFLPA should consider doing as well. Without the benefit of knowing the schematic themes that make plays work – whether offensive or defensively – it can give the media and, in turn, fans who listen to what they have to say, a better insight as to the fact that a play call can be nearly unstoppable if the defense doesn’t have the personnel in place to attack it. It can also show that 10 players can do their assignment correctly, but one key mistake from one player can lead to the type of play that changes the momentum of a game.
Seeing the failures of plays is often just as telling as the successes. When you do something right, you tend not to change it because it works. When a play’s intent is shut down, it’s important to realize when to bail out on a play or when to stick with an extended play defensively. Those subtleties of the game are only taught through mistakes. It’s the repetition of mistakes that causes problems.
By showing the media that closely cover the team a film study session much in the somewhat the same way coaches do with players, it’s a learning process that doesn’t have a downside. The Vikings’ 2016 playbook will have plenty of variations off of previous plays and providing generic examples of base plays on offense and defense won’t provide any behind-the-curtain type of insight that could be used to gain a competitive advantage.
This is a 100-level college course. Acumen isn’t required. But it will open eyes as much as a 100-level human studies course. It will provide an insight to the coach’s room that, by most accounts, is something relatively unique to Zimmer. Other have done it occasionally, but it doesn’t appear anyone does it as regularly as Zimmer.
Hopefully, he won’t the lone wolf forever and there will be more opportunities for those who are the most vocal and transmitted critics of the Vikings see how a Sunday afternoon strategy session is fought and what battles ended up winning that game.
Most coaches view the media in terms of the ancient proverb that says, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend. Zimmer is going the “Schoolhouse Rock” angle that “Knowledge Is Power.”
With any luck, Zimmer’s pilot project will expand to other teams. Getting a peek behind the iron curtain of the NFL can only have benefits with a better informed fan base.
Zimmer is a pioneer in this respect. We’ll see if it catches on or if it’s the ember that attempts to start a fire and instead provides wisps of smoke when it goes out. If nothing else, the Vikings media corps will get a look inside the X’s and O’s of the game from the generals in charge. That’s a plus for the media, the fans and even the team.