Maybe someday, when he’s not feeling 64 years young and so old-school stubborn, Mike Zimmer will take a step back from the defense he created and let someone else call plays on game day.
“I’ve been trying to relinquish that for years,” said the Vikings head coach, laughing at his own headstrong ways as he prepared to open his seventh season in Minnesota with Sunday’s game against the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“It’s just the stress level,” he said. “The stress level of game days and trying to manage the offense, trying to manage penalties and field position and … there’s a lot that goes on.
“But,” he added, “I’ll do it again this year. Knock on wood, I’ve been fairly good at it over time.”
That’s not a dig at his new co-coordinators. Andre Patterson is his closest friend and most trusted coaching confidante. Adam Zimmer is, well, his son.
No, Zimmer’s decision to keep an iron fist around his call sheet comes at a critical moment for this unabashedly self-confident “fixer” of defensive issues. He’s at another crossroads that could define the twilight of his career and the next step for a proud Vikings defense that’s ranked 11th or better in points allowed in each of the six seasons since Zimmer inherited the league’s worst unit.
“We had it pretty nice there for a while with the number of veterans we had coming back every year,” Zimmer said. “But one year in Dallas [as defensive coordinator in 2001] we had a bunch of people who no one really knew who we were. And I think we finished fourth in the league [in yards allowed]. It’s the NFL life.”
The cupboard hasn’t been emptied from a Vikings defense that ranked fifth, first and fifth in points allowed in Zimmer’s playoff seasons of 2015, 2017 and last year.
Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris might be the best safety tandem in the league. Linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are elite players in their prime, and a training camp trade with Jacksonville added one of the NFL’s best young pass rushers in Yannick Ngakoue.
But Zimmer also has a new cast of raw cornerbacks, none older than 23. His prized free-agent acquisition, nose tackle Michael Pierce, won’t play until 2021 after taking the COVID-19 opt-out. And, oh yeah, left end Danielle Hunter, one of the best defenders in the league and arguably Zimmer’s finest player, was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday and will miss at least the first three games.
There also are concerns about depth, the effects of a virtual-only offseason, no preseason games and the absence of home-field advantage to start the season. Because of the pandemic, there will be no eardrum-bursting Purple zealots allowed into U.S. Bank Stadium to help Zimmer’s defense for at least the first two games against Green Bay and Tennessee — two teams that made it to conference championship games a year ago.
“Our expectations will never change,” Zimmer said. “You know, sometimes, like Barry Switzer said to me one time, Bud Wilkinson created a monster [at Oklahoma] and it was his job to feed it. We’ve kind of created a monster here with what we’ve done defensively. It’s our job to keep it going the same way.”
Not getting any younger
Zimmer isn’t sure how much longer he wants to coach. He says a minimum of three years, but those close to him don’t see even a 67-year-old Zim leaving on his own accord.
“[Head athletic trainer] Eric Sugarman told me when I first got here I had to make it 10 years,” said Zimmer, who recently signed a three-year extension through 2023, which would be his 10th season. “So that’s the minimum. Then we’ll see from there.”
For now, he’s just happy to be back on the field. Back to the rejuvenating practice of teaching young cornerbacks. Back to the joy of sitting around and talking ball — in person — with the 60-year-old Patterson, 70-year-old first-year defensive consultant Dom Capers and 59-year-old Gary Kubiak, the Super Bowl-winning head coach who agreed to succeed former mentee Kevin Stefanski as offensive coordinator.
Asked what that foursome’s window of opportunity is to deliver a first Lombardi Trophy to its 60-year-old franchise, Kubiak laughed and said, “Well, we’re not getting any younger.”
“A lot of good coaches had to wait a while before they won a Super Bowl,” Zimmer said. “I was happy for Andy [Reid] when he won it last season after 21 years as a head coach. I think [Bill] Belichick didn’t win one until his seventh year. [Bill] Cowher I think was 14 years, so a lot of these coaches that have won it, it’s been six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years before they won it. It’s not easy to do.”
A few years ago, Zimmer was at a charity event roasting Marvin Lewis, his old boss in Cincinnati. Lewis won 131 regular-season games but went 0-7 in the playoffs.
After a few glasses of his favorite red wine, Zimmer told the audience that he never understood why Lewis couldn’t win a playoff game. Then he laughed and said, “until my kicker missed a 27-yard field goal.”
Yes, there is gallows humor among coaches. And Zimmer will always have Jan. 10, 2016, and Blair Walsh’s infamous miss in the closing seconds of a 10-9 wild-card loss to Seattle at TCF Bank Stadium.
“Going on seven years here now, I think if you look at the culture, the way we practice, the type of people that we have here, the way that management and the coaching staff and the players get along, I think you see that, OK, this thing is going in the correct direction,” Zimmer said. “Winning the Super Bowl is not the easiest thing to do, but I think when you’re winning 60% [.599] of your [regular-season] games, you’re going to have opportunities to rally at the end of the year and maybe get hot.
“I’m not disappointed in where we’re at or where we’re going.”
‘Never had a bad defense’
In 20 years as a defensive coordinator or head coach, Zimmer has had only three defenses finish in the lower half of the league in yards allowed. He’s had 10 finish in the top 10.
“I’ve never had a bad defense,” he said.
But there was that one year in Atlanta, 2007, when the Falcons finished 29th defensively. That was the year Zimmer left the Cowboys to join Bobby Petrino’s new staff.
Petrino quit after a 3-10 start to take the Arkansas job. Zimmer never has forgiven Petrino and has said he doesn’t even count that year as being part of his record.
In 2010, he told the Cincinnati Enquirer, “I was never even there as far as I’m concerned. … When a coach quits in the middle of the year and ruins a bunch of people’s families and doesn’t have enough guts to at least finish out the year, I am not a part of that. … He is a coward. Put that in quotes.”
Ten years later, Zimmer wasn’t that fired up when the Petrino season was mentioned. But the competitor in him still wants no part of being associated with Petrino and what happened that year.
“We were playing pretty good on defense that year,” Zimmer said. “Then toward the end of the year, it all kind of fell apart with the whole coach thing.
“But there are always going to be times when you struggle through seasons. It’s always about adapting and changing. Go back a couple years ago when we played the Rams out there in L.A. I was not very happy with how we performed defensively that night. So we figured out some ways to change some things. We adapted and I think we played better the rest of the year, if I remember right.”
Needless to say, the competitive fire still burns in the belly of Zim. To the point where he’s actually concerned that he might not be able to retire and go live out his golden years at his beautiful ranch in Kentucky.
“If you want to know the truth, I kind of got a little bit bored down there this offseason,” said Zimmer, referring to being cooped up during the pandemic shutdown. “I was down there for five months straight. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I could do this full time.’ I actually worked out, which is really bad.”
Zimmer said he’s been re-energized by having younger players to teach. Patterson, on the other hand, said, “He looks like the same Zim to me.”
“You just roll up your sleeves and coach,” Patterson said. “There’s no woe is me. There’s none of that. You coach. There’s excitement to be able to work with younger guys and have a clean slate.”
A year ago, when he had a veteran-filled defense primed for a Super Bowl run, Zimmer was asked what he’d do if he won Minnesota’s first Super Bowl. He smiled and said he’d throw a party at TCO Performance Center and “bring in Kenny Chesney or Toby Keith or somebody and have one hell of a good time.”
So what would he do to celebrate in 2021 if he were able to say goodbye to this most dreadful of years by raising the Lombardi Trophy?
“We’re going to have the party at the ranch,” he said with a chuckle. “And we may not social distance.
“I don’t know what the rules are [in Kentucky]. I might get cited, but, hey, at that point, who cares?”