MANKATO -- We interrupt our regularly scheduled Norv Turner coverage to ask the following:
Who in the heck is George Edwards?
Turner, the Vikings offensive coordinator, is the NFL’s favorite uncle, the old pair of jeans that fits just right, the résumé-bulging famous guy you think you know even when you don’t. Edwards, meanwhile, is the defensive coordinator we don’t really know and may never fully appreciate or denigrate because of the tremendous shadow that the head coach, Mike Zimmer, casts over his defense.
“If you’re asking me if I care about getting the credit or whatever, I don’t,” Edwards said. “We all work together to try and make these players better and win football games. The rest of it doesn’t matter.”
Edwards, 47, was born Jan. 16, 1967, in Siler City, N.C., “a very rural area I wouldn’t trade for anyplace,” Edwards said. Eventually, he grew into a linebacker before shipping off to Duke, a downtrodden Atlantic Coast Conference program that hadn’t succeeded in 25 years.
A year after Edwards arrived, the man who inspired his coaching career joined him as Duke’s head coach.
“Steve Spurrier came in and made the game so much fun,” Edwards said. “My last two years, 1988 and 1989, we went 7-3-1 and 8-3, tied for the conference title and went to a bowl game for the first time [since 1960]. That just didn’t happen at Duke back then.”
Whoa. Hold on, big fella. A former linebacker and current NFL defensive mind was inspired by … Steve Spurrier? Did the offensively gifted Spurrier even know he had a defense?
“Oh, he knew,” Edwards said. “When he needed to get the ball back for that offense of his, he knew.”
Spurrier left Duke for Florida in 1990. Edwards followed a year later as graduate assistant. Three more college assistant jobs at Appalachian State, Duke and Georgia followed before Edwards was hired by the Cowboys as linebackers coach in 1998. Zimmer was Dallas’ defensive backs coach.
“George is a Dukie,” Zimmer said. “So he’s very, very smart.”
Zimmer became Cowboys defensive coordinator in 2000. Edwards stayed two more years until Spurrier got the Redskins head coaching job and hired Edwards as assistant defensive coordinator under Marvin Lewis. When Lewis left after a 7-9 season to become Bengals head coach, Edwards became defensive coordinator.
Things didn’t go so well. The Redskins fell back to 5-11 while ranking 25th in overall defense and 24th in scoring defense. Spurrier and his staff were fired.
Another six years passed with Edwards coaching linebackers in Cleveland (2004) and Miami (2005 to ’09). In 2010, the Bills hired him as defensive coordinator.
Again, things didn’t go so well. In two seasons, the Bills went 10-22, ranking no higher than 26th in scoring defense. Dave Wannstedt was hired as defensive coordinator while Edwards returned to Miami as linebackers coach until Zimmer called from Minnesota.
“The defensive coordinator in Miami is Kevin Coyle, my defensive backs coach in Cincinnati, who basically ran the same defense,” Zimmer said. “So not only is George a very smart guy, he is a good guy and he was in [my] system again recently.”
It’s no secret the Vikings are installing the defense Zimmer used as longtime defensive coordinator to help win a Super Bowl in Dallas and turn the Bengals from feeble to feared. It’s been a dramatic overhaul in philosophy and personnel, but one Zimmer hopes to expedite with a defensive staff that includes only one person — defensive backs coach Jerry Gray — that Zimmer hadn’t worked with.
Asked for one word to describe the defense, Edwards says, “Aggressive.” The leftover players from last year’s NFL-worst scoring defense agree. The pressure-based attack comes with multiple fronts and schemes, which is a stark contrast to the conservative Tampa 2 philosophy employed previously.
“We were a little predictable, but I think people understood that and knew that we just had to be a lot better [physically] than other people,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “And last year, we just weren’t. You see that defense going away now as all these quarterbacks are getting better and getting the ball out quicker.”
Watching Zimmer in training camp reveals a hands-on teacher who pays close attention to the defensive backs. It also shows an outsider a glimpse of what team insiders are talking about when they say Zimmer didn’t hire “yes” men to help him on defense.
“I felt like it was important that on defense I have a [defensive coordinator] that knows how I am,” said Zimmer, who isn’t timid with his temper. “They kind of know when to temper me down a bit and when to tell me that I am wrong, which I guess I can be.”
Gray, a former NFL defensive coordinator, laughed when asked if he was worried that Zimmer might want a “yes man” to coach the position he knows best.
“Mike is a smart man,” Gray said. “I feed off him, he feeds off me. He also knows that when you hire yes men, you don’t know when you’re actually right or wrong.”
Zimmer and Edwards still are working through how best to coordinate their coaching. Both have led the defensive meetings and both have relayed defensive calls to Greenway on the field via the radio helmet during two-minute drills. Zimmer will use the preseason to determine whether he or Edwards will call defenses during the regular season.
“They both seem to be very comfortable together and feeling like they’re both in the driver’s seat,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “I think it’s great getting both perspectives. It’s almost like a two-headed monster type of deal.”