Mike Zimmer looked backward before moving forward with Marwan Maalouf as his special teams coordinator this past offseason.
Like many, the Vikings coach questioned 2012, what happened in Indianapolis and why Maalouf’s first and only job as special teams coordinator lasted that one season.
The Colts actually improved under Maalouf in many areas. Football Outsiders ranked their special teams 12th, the highest since 1996. And, as a team, Indianapolis went from 2-14 the year before to 11-5 and the postseason.
Then General Manager Ryan Grigson essentially fired Maalouf.
“I think there was a conflict of how he sometimes talks to the players, from what I understand,” Zimmer said. “But I didn’t have a conflict with it. We checked into it. The sources that I know really, really well said, ‘You can handle him as far if you need to.’ ”
The 42-year-old Maalouf, now with his fifth team in 15 seasons as an NFL coach, says he’s become a willing mentee of a 63-year-old boss known for being blunt.
“Like there was one day Marwan got after a player out here,” Zimmer said. “I talked to him after. Too aggressive, maybe. You can be aggressive, but then you got to let it go. It was a guy who wasn’t going to make the team and he was [yelling] at him for like 10 minutes. I’m like, ‘C’mon. You’re just practice coaching now.’ ”
Zimmer has been more hands-on with special teams since Mike Priefer went to Cleveland after he and the Vikings reached an impasse on a new contract.
“I’ve tried to be in a lot more special teams meetings than I have in the past,” Zimmer said. “Trying to emphasize to them how important this phase is.”
It’s been only one week, but so far, so good.
Maalouf’s strong, hiccup-free debut in last week’s 28-12 victory over Atlanta included the team’s first blocked punt since 2014. This Sunday, it’s on to Green Bay and a chance for the Maalouf men to exorcise any demons still lurking from 364 days ago when the Vikings gave up a blocked punt for a touchdown, missed three field goals — including a 35-yarder as time expired in a 29-29 tie — and cut rookie kicker Daniel Carlson.
“I think we’re playing fast, physical and with confidence on special teams,” Zimmer said. “I think that’s what we need to do. We need to play that way.”
Unappreciated in Indianapolis
Maalouf grew up in Strongsville, Ohio, near Cleveland. He played guard, defensive end and very little special teams in high school. He played guard and even fewer special teams snaps at Division III Baldwin-Wallace College in nearby Berea.
Unbeknown to Maalouf at the time, the spark for a lifetime in coaching was lit by a connection he made as a history major. He did an internship under Eloise Tressel, the mother of Jim Tressel and the curator of a local history museum in Berea.
Jim Tressel, who would go on to coach Ohio State, was coaching Youngstown State at the time. Eloise put Marwan and Jim together. Marwan worked some football camps at Youngstown State and, bingo, a career was born.
Maalouf helped coach the offensive line at Baldwin-Wallace in 2000 and Fordham in 2001. In 2002, he went to Rutgers for two years as a graduate assistant and befriended special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, who mentored him while igniting his interest in special teams.
Now a respected NFL special teams coordinator, Rizzi also was there for Maalouf 10 years later as Dolphins special teams coordinator when the bottom fell out in Indianapolis. The Colts called the firing a “mutual parting” because Maalouf just wanted out of Indy and had a standing offer to reunite with Rizzi as his assistant.
“Darren talked to me during that season and said, ‘If you need a place to go, come here,’ ” said Maalouf, who spent six seasons in Miami before joining the Vikings. “The opportunity to expand my special teams résumé under Darren was a no-brainer. He’s in New Orleans now. I truly believe he’ll be one of the next special teams coordinators to get a head coaching job.”
Maalouf’s first NFL job was back in Berea as a scouting administrator in 2004. He gravitated toward special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg and became his quality control coach the next two years until another coaching upheaval came to Cleveland.
Maalouf volunteered at Baldwin-Wallace in 2007 before joining Rosburg as his assistant in Baltimore the next four years.
In 2012, the Colts hired Grigson as general manager. Grigson hired Chuck Pagano. Pagano hired Maalouf, whom he had worked with in Cleveland and Baltimore.
In August of that year, Grigson was talking with reporters when he announced that owner Jim Irsay had “specifically charged” him with improving special teams, which had long been a weakness under the otherwise successful stewardship of Grigson’s predecessor, Bill Polian.
“I think a lot of the problems were the head coach wasn’t with us at the time,” Maalouf said. “Chuck got sick [with leukemia] and was away for three months. So Bruce Arians took over. I had a good relationship with Bruce, but I didn’t necessarily agree with what [Grigson] was doing with a lot with the players.
“To me, you can’t change three or four guys on the punt team every week. You just can’t do that. [Grigson] wanted to constantly turn over the bottom of the roster. That hurts you as a special teams unit. Those are my main players. It’s not a recipe for success.”
Football Outsiders ranked the Colts’ special teams 31st in 2010 and 2011. Maalouf’s jump to 12th in 2012 included punt and kick return touchdowns by the Colts in the same season for the first time since 2001 and statistical improvements in kick returns, opponent kick returns, punting and punt returns, which went from a 3.4-yard average in 2011 to 11.1 in 2012.
Pat McAfee, the punter and kickoff specialist, set franchise records for punting average (47.9) and net punting (40.3) while tying the record for punts inside the 20 (26). He did have a punt blocked, but he also had punts blocked in 2011 and 2013.
McAfee also was one of the players who admitted he didn’t see eye to eye with Maalouf and chafed at his coaching style. A year later, when the Colts replaced Maalouf with Tom McMahon, McAfee told reporters he’d take a pay cut to keep McMahon.
“It’s also important and key as well to be in the right situation with a guy like Coach Zimmer, who understands special teams and understands what we’re trying to get out of players,” Maalouf said. “I haven’t changed that much from 2012 to now as a person. But I think being matched with the right head coach vs. somebody who’s maybe a little bit more of a players coach and doesn’t value special teams as much is important.”
Growing, learning what works
Maalouf also likes that Zimmer gives him some freedom to use starters and key backups. Last Sunday, when Maalouf called his first kickoff coverage, he used starters Harrison Smith, Trae Waynes, C.J. Ham and Ben Gedeon. The tackle was made at the Atlanta 16.
“And we used Anthony Harris on punt,” said Maalouf, referring to the NFC Defensive Player of the Week. “We weren’t allowed to use starters in Indianapolis. In Indianapolis, if they had four or five tight ends up, they wanted you to use three of them in the coverage phases. And if that doesn’t fit what you’re trying to do, how is that a recipe for success?
“Coach Zim has been great on, ‘Use who you need to use.’ That’s how John Harbaugh became a successful special teams coordinator. Jerry Rosburg. When you can use just about anyone on the roster, you got a chance.”
Still, Maalouf admits he has had to grow as a coach since 2012.
“I think I’ve grown just being exposed to more people, more situations,” he said. “I think learning how to get the most out of people. I think that’s what I learned most from Darren Rizzi. He’s an excellent teacher. He really knows how to draw the strengths out of people. I think that’s something I hopefully have improved on.”
When asked to talk about Maalouf this week, Zimmer laughed, shook his head and channeled his own mentor, Bill Parcells.
“Don’t you think we should wait more than one week to make him a guru?” Zimmer cracked.
Yessir. For now, Maalouf is a coach who’s still evolving and trying to make the most out of a second chance at directing one of the three phases of football.
“Yeah, I think [it is a second chance],” Maalouf said. “No doubt this is a terrific situation. The biggest thing here is the train has been moving. I’m jumping on. This is an unbelievable team, unbelievable roster, a great head coach. I’ve got to catch up to them and that’s a good thing. I just feel like all the tools are here.”