Mike Zimmer doesn’t have immediate plans to relinquish defensive play-calling responsibilities, but he has thought about it and may even experiment with it.
It’s all part of Zimmer’s self-evaluation of his duties, his past and future growth in the job, and an overall evaluation of his coaching after three years leading the Minnesota Vikings.
“At the end of practices the last three days we’ve had a game-like situation where we just go play it out. I think not only for the players, but it’s good for me,” Zimmer said after the final practice of minicamp Thursday. “You know, I got to use a timeout here. Alright, defense I’ve got to use a timeout here, on offense I’ve got to use a timeout. We’ve got to clock the ball. It’s not necessarily two-minute drills. It’s about winning the football game at the end, however that is. To me, that’s one of the area that I need to continue to improve, but I think it’s also important that I get around.”
Zimmer has always been a defensive coach.
His first coordinator job was at Weber State in 1983 and he has continued on the defensive side of the ball – coordinator at Washington State, the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals before taking the head job with the Vikings in 2014.
But even as a rookie head coach, Zimmer maintained his play-calling status on the defensive side of the ball. The only time he hasn’t done that with the Vikings was when he was forced to miss a Thursday night game last year after having emergency eye surgery the night before. George Edwards, the defensive coordinator who got his first chance in Minnesota to call plays, held Dallas to 17 points in a 17-15 loss.
That helped open the door for Zimmer to give his most serious consideration yet to have someone else call the defensive plays.
“I thought he did a great job that night. So, I think that was good for him,” Zimmer said. “I was able to sit in on game-plan stuff, obviously, but you still got to make these calls out of your gut a lot of the times. I thought he did good job and I thought the players did a good job.”
To be sure, Zimmer isn’t ready to give up calling plays on defense yet and may never be. But he has made a concerted effort this offseason to become more involved with the offense and put a greater emphasis on learning deeper game-management skills.
“I’ve thought about it more this year than I ever had. If I did that, I think I’d be able to interject a lot – you know, George wants to call blah-blah-blah and I say ‘No, no let’s do this,’” Zimmer said. “I think I’m a technical football coach to a fault and I have a vision for this football team. When I go out there and I watch the tape, I want this team to look a certain way. The defensive backs do things a certain way, the linebackers, the defensive linemen do things a certain way. Even though I’m trying to be a little bit more aggressive this spring, I don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
However, this offseason Zimmer has spent more time watching offensive positions. When he was away for two weeks of practice to let his right eye recover from surgery, he stayed in constant contact with QB Sam Bradford, texting with him on a daily basis.
Even then, Zimmer’s advice would come from a defensive perspective, but his situation is much like a player learning at a new level. Sometimes it takes players a few years to reach their stride in the NFL. The same often holds true with former coordinators or position coaches getting their first opportunity to be head coaches.
“There’s so many times you get to be a head coach and you’re a defensive coordinator and you come in trying to be able to get the defense fixed. Then you get fired in a year or two years,” Zimmer said. “So you don’t learn how to truly be a head coach. You’re just trying to put your fingers in different holes as much as you can. It takes a while to learn how to do this job, it really does.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but there’s this guy in New England who’s doing pretty damn good now and he might’ve had a rough start in his deal [Bill Belichick’s first five years as a head coach were with the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990s]. That’s kind of my mentality is to continue to grow as a head coach, continue to be involved with the defense, but be a lot more involved in the overall game … than I ever had been before.”
Zimmer finally feels his defensive players have enough experience in his scheme to feel comfortable there. Perhaps that will allow him to feel more freedom to become more involved in other aspects of the game.
“We’ll have to see how it goes once we get to [training] camp,” he said. “But it helps feeling good about the coaches that I have and I’m not being derogatory about anybody else.”
He may allow Edwards the opportunity to call the defensive plays for a preseason game. But, still, it’s hard for Zimmer to give up too much control on the side of the ball that helped shape his career to this point.
“I’ve always felt that one of my best traits was on Sundays,” he said, “when one of these great quarterbacks got the ball and I’ve got to try to figure out how to stop them.”