Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman promised to exhaust 13 categories of coaching candidates to make the most important hire of his career.
Would he hire a small college offensive whiz? A retired legend? A Bud (Grant), a Chud (fired Browns coach Rob Chudzinkski), or a dud (Jim Schwartz is available)?
After a search of every galaxy identified by the Hubble telescope, Spielman landed on category No. 11: NFL defensive coordinator who cusses a lot. That category was wedged between No. 10: NFL defensive coordinator who cusses a little and No. 12: NFL defensive coordinator who makes players contribute to a swearing jar.
Spielman’s search never became as mysterious or open-minded as he promised. He interviewed mostly NFL defensive coordinators, and reportedly narrowed his list to three finalists who were NFL defensive coordinators: Mike Zimmer, Todd Bowles and Dan Quinn.
The Vikings hired Zimmer on Wednesday, meaning they have replaced a defensive-minded coach known as a leader with a defensive-minded coach known as a leader.
While Spielman won’t win any awards for creative thinking, he conducted a rational search and landed an intriguing candidate with a strong résumé. With no one reminiscent of Chip Kelly or Jim Harbaugh available, Spielman made a safe choice, hiring a veteran coach with widespread success who will fulfill the mandate of most coaching changes: Acting dramatically different from his predecessor.
Leslie Frazier believed in quiet leadership. He gently pushed buttons. Zimmer tends to smash them with a hammer while conjugating four-letter verbs.
There is no doubt Zimmer can coach defense and lead men. The questions he will have to answer in his first head-coaching job are the same every novice NFL head coach has to answer, including Frazier three years ago:
1. Will his leadership skills translate into his new role? Coordinators coach one-third of the team and rarely deal with big-picture organizational decisions, or have to act as the spokesman for the franchise. Many new head coaches are shocked at the diverse demands on their time and patience.
2. Can he augment his strengths by hiring a winning coordinator on the other side of the ball, and can he either command or effectively delegate on the side of the ball that is his strength? Zimmer needs to hire an excellent offensive coordinator, and a defensive coordinator who can either take command of that unit or effectively act as Zimmer’s proxy.
3. Can he find the right quarterback? The easy answer is drafting a franchise player in the first round, but Jon Gruden earned his fame by coaching Vikings castoffs Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson, and there are second-, third- and sixth-round draft choices still alive in the NFL playoffs. Zimmer and Spielman have to find the right guy somewhere, or they can share an agent while they are searching for jobs in two or three years.
Here’s what everyone should like about Zimmer:
He’s adaptable, and he’s about to take on a league that rewards creative thinking on a week-to-week and sometimes minute-to-minute basis.
He worked for and impressed Bill Parcells, but isn’t part of a particular coaching tree. In other words, unlike so many coaching-tree hires, Zimmer isn’t a coach who relied on one superior for his success.
He has succeeded in many places under many coaches while employing many schemes. He isn’t tied to a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment, which gives the Vikings an opportunity to keep or pursue the best front-seven athletes without being restricted to one philosophy.
Wonder why a respected 57-year-old coordinator hasn’t gotten a previous chance to be a head coach? Don’t.
To do so would be to pretend that NFL teams know what they are doing when they hire a coach, instead of realizing that, for most owners, coaching decisions are an expensive version of blindfolded musical chairs. Zimmer probably would have been better than most of the coaches hired over the past 10 years, including Schwartz.
If Zimmer can improve the pass rush and cornerback play, and Spielman can find a quarterback, the Vikings will have a chance to contend.