Mike Zimmer’s coaching philosophy?
“I don’t have one,” he said. “I fly by the seat of my pants.”
There is some truth to that.
Zimmer is the rare NFL head coach who isn’t selling something. A scheme. A persona. A philosophy. A coaching tree.
Since he became the Vikings’ head coach, he hasn’t tried to curry favor with the public, or even with his players. His approach has proved intelligent because most coaches who try to be salesmen end up in perceptual debt.
Mike Tice, an excellent offensive line coach promoted to head coach, won more games than he should have with a low budget for assistant coaches and a shallow roster, but he will be remembered for the “Randy Ratio.” And it turns out that the “Randy Ratio,” intended to determine how many times Randy Moss should get the ball, wound up referring to the numbers of players the Vikings could get for Moss in a trade.
Brad Childress helped the Vikings to the brink of a Super Bowl, but will remembered for his “kick-ass offense” line, even though his offense actually wound up kicking a few posteriors.
Leslie Frazier sold himself as a players’ coach, which worked well until he had to make tough calls on the players whose support he craved.
Zimmer made few promises when he took the job. He is not a salesman. Instead of trying to construct an overarching organizational philosophy that might allow him to write a book someday, he went to work teaching defensive players intricate techniques.
He went micro when most go macro. “I just try to be myself,” he said. “My only strategy was that, especially around the defense, I wanted to show them that in the meeting rooms and by the way I’m teaching them with the tape and with techniques, that they can believe that I can coach.
“That’s the first thing — getting them to believe that you can actually coach. Part of the reason I went into a lot of meetings with them was not only to show them what I was looking for, but to show them that I knew what I was doing. The reaction seemed to be, `OK, this guy can coach,’ or whatever. I think that helped them trust me.”
Not all professional athletes are book smart, but most, especially those who experience long-term success, are shrewd. They judge coaches as harshly as coaches judge them.
Most Vikings players knew Zimmer only from his cameos on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” during which Zimmer — as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator — could be heard profanely addressing Bengals players.
He sounded like a stereotype — an aging, blood-and-guts defensive coach, who probably idolized Vince Lombardi and denied his players water breaks.
Zimmer has been much more nuanced and interesting in real life than on TV. He will occasionally use coarse language, but he’s not cursing a purple streak. He pushes his players during practice, but the practices are short, and he has considered altering practice schedules to keep his players rested.
Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway has said he expected Zimmer to be difficult, and has found him to be humane and approachable.
Asked if he thinks the players are surprised by his approach, Zimmer said, “I think they probably are. I’ve asked a couple of players about that. They thought this was going to be a boot camp. I mean, we work hard, but we work fast.
“If we weren’t doing that, if we weren’t practicing fast and doing the right things, there would be a little bit of yelling and screaming going on, but these guys work. I don’t want to be a yeller and a screamer just to do it. Sometimes they may think I am. But if they aren’t doing what I want, they will hear about it.”
If Zimmer had painted himself as a disciplinarian, he may have tied his hands with Adrian Peterson. Instead, he never described himself as anything other than a coach who wants to win games. He retained Peterson’s respect, never contradicted himself, and instilled calm in a historically fractious organization.
It’s a pretty good philosophy, this not having a philosophy.