Mike Zimmer was on the podium bobbing, weaving and swatting aside all questions he didn’t want to answer when the twinkle in his eye suggested he knew his well-honed NFL head coaching stubbornness has just won another tug-of-words with the media.
“You know,” he said with a smile, “I’m a six-year veteran at this thing.”
Indeed, he is. And that, believe it or not, makes the 63-year-old Vikings coach eighth in seniority among active head coaches. Among NFC coaches, Zimmer is now fourth as he takes his Vikings into Sunday’s game against Detroit at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“That,” Zimmer said later, “is crazy.”
With Carolina sacking Ron Rivera — its all-time leader in wins and a Super Bowl participant just four years ago — this week, only Bill Belichick (20), Sean Payton (14), Mike Tomlin (13), John Harbaugh (12), Pete Carroll (10), Jason Garrett (10) and Andy Reid (seven) have survived longer. And Garrett sits upon a seriously hot seat with the talented Cowboys floundering away at 6-7.
Zimmer — an inherent worrywart even with his .603 winning percentage, two division titles and a trip to the NFC Championship Game — was reluctant at first to sit down the with the Star Tribune for this story.
“It’s bad luck,” he said. “Like a football coach buying a house.”
Then he brought up his six-year run of good luck, mentioning ownership, General Manager Rick Spielman, assistant GM George Paton, an in-sync coaching staff and a talented roster. If someone else in town hadn’t already trademarked it, you’d have sworn Zimmer was going to talk about everyone rowing a boat in the same direction.
“The turnover at head coach in this league is unfortunate, really,” said Zimmer, whose contract runs through next season. “There are guys who get these jobs who probably don’t deserve it, and then whatever they do with it, they do with it.
“And then there are guys who deserve the jobs and don’t get them. And then there are guys who do a good job, raise expectations so high and then aren’t able to sustain it because of injuries or whatnot, and teams make a change.”
Best trade ever?
Cowboys and Vikings fans would suggest the most lopsided trade in NFL history was the famous — or infamous — Herschel Walker trade.
Patriots fans would beg to differ.
On Jan. 27, 2000, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Jets owner Woody Johnson settled their tug-of-war over Belichick. Woody got a first-round pick in 2000 for unleashing the unheralded Belichick, who had accepted the Jets head coaching job and reneged 48 hours later.
Many thought Kraft had overpaid for a sub-.500 coach who hadn’t been a head coach in five years. They were doubling down when Belichick started 5-13.
But, six Lombardi trophies later, it appears the 16th overall pick was worth it. The Jets used that pick to move up four spots and select Shaun Ellis, a solid defensive end who played 11 seasons for the Jets and, in true Belichick last-word fashion, finished his career playing for the Patriots in one of Belichick’s nine Super Bowl seasons.
Since 2000, the NFL has made 137 coaching hires. The Patriots, of course, have made only one of them. The Raiders lead the way with nine followed by the Browns and Dolphins at eight apiece.
Among those 137 hires are 72 coaches (52.6%) with an offensive background, 64 with a defensive background and one former special teams coordinator in Harbaugh.
When Belichick was hired in 2000, seven of the league’s nine new hires that year, including Belichick, were defensive-minded coaches. In six of 10 seasons from 2000-09, more coaches with defensive backgrounds were hired as head coaches.
Shift to the offensive side
But that has changed drastically. In eight of 10 seasons from 2010-19, more coaches with offensive backgrounds have been hired.
After 2015, when six of the seven new hires were defensive-minded coaches, NFL teams have chosen offensive-minded coaches in 21 of 28 hires (75%), including all seven in 2016.
“I guess each organization has their thoughts on how to win,” said Zimmer, the noted old-school defensive mind. “Whether it’s scoring points and putting people in the stands. Or playing good defense and trying to win games.”
Zim with the zing.
After firing the defensive-minded Rivera, Panthers owner David Tepper sounded like a guy who’s ready to switch over to the other side of the ball. He didn’t rule out coaches with defensive backgrounds, but his comments were telling.
“In the modern NFL, I think there is a preference for offensive coordinators, and I think there are reasons for that,” he said. “The NFL has made rules to lean to the offense. That’s why you’re having more people go that way. And I think you have a lot of people on that side accepting the more modern processes.”
After hearing that quote, Zimmer looked like he was ready to send Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks after Tepper on one of those vintage Zimmer A-gap blitzes.
“I don’t agree with that,” Zimmer said. “I think each individual is different. I know there are some defensive coaches who are very innovative and open-minded. And I’ve been around a lot of offensive coaches who are very stubborn and won’t change.
“An offensive guy can be disciplined and hard-nosed, and a defensive guy can be loosey-goosey. I don’t think that stigma is right.”
If Zimmer sounds defensive, well, that’s because more and more people seem to think his kind is going the way of the dodo bird. (Even though Belichick schooled young offensive wunderkind Sean McVay 13-3 in the Super Bowl just 10 months ago.)
Of the 26 head coaches with defensive backgrounds hired this decade, only eight (30.8%) are left: Carroll (2010), Zimmer (2014), Dan Quinn (2015), Sean McDermott (2017), Matt Patricia and Mike Vrabel (2018) and Vic Fangio and Brian Flores (2019). And Quinn is most likely on his way out in Atlanta. Of the three hired in 2014, Zimmer is the only one left.
Of the 42 head coaches with offensive backgrounds hired this decade, 18 (42.9) are left. Two retired and one resigned. Of the four hired in 2014, only Houston’s Bill O’Brien is left after Washington fired Jay Gruden earlier this season.
Decades ago, comedian George Gobel went on “The Tonight Show” and asked Johnny Carson, “Ever feel like the world is a tuxedo and you are a pair of brown shoes?”
Zimmer laughed when asked that. He got the point and wasn’t offended that he basically was being called a dinosaur in a land where more attention is paid to the wizards on offense.
‘What can the players do?’
“I’m a figure-it-out guy,” Zimmer said. “I’m an, ‘OK, what’s the offense looking at? How can we move this chess piece to another spot? How can we come up with a different way?’ So I like it.
“I believe in the things we’re doing with our technique and fundamentals. But when you’re talking about scheme, then I’m always tinkering and looking at things. But there’s a fine line to that, too. I’ve had some very smart defensive coaches in the rooms with me. They’ll say, ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that.’ And I say, ‘Those are good ideas, but what can the players do?’ To me, that’s the most important thing.”
Many in Purple Nation are calling for Zimmer to figure out why his vaunted defense is ranked 16th in yards allowed, a mark that, if it holds up, would be the worst finish for a Zimmer defense since the 2007 Falcons finished 29th.
“We have not played up to my expectations in a while, maybe going back to it starting in Detroit [Week 7],” Zimmer said. “But it’s not a crisis. I have guys that I trust.
“Now do I want us to play better? Heck, yeah. I’m one of those guys who wants to choke every team we play. But at the end of the day it’s about wins, not rankings.
“Here’s a good example. One year in Dallas, I had a really good defense that was ranked fifth with four games left. We ended up 13th. It was one of the worst defenses, statistically, but that was a good defensive crew. All that stuff can change. All I worry about is the wins. I’m not panicking on it.”
As for that brown pair of shoes in a tuxedo world, well, Zimmer’s not fretting about that either.
“Every year, there is some kind of offensive trend, right?” he said. “It’s the rocket sweep, the wildcat, back in the day it was the run-and-shoot. Now it’s college football.
“It’s zone read, it’s all college football stuff, the rocket with the flash and everybody going this way and that way and this way. So, honestly, that gets my juices flowing because I want to prove to people that I can figure this stuff out.”
That’s not all.
“And the other thing is I want to prove to people I can put an end to it,” Zimmer said. “You know what I mean? Because if it don’t work, they aren’t going to run it anymore. They’re going to have to come with something else.
“That’s probably what the offensive guys they say about me. ‘He runs those double-A gaps, so we’re going to do this so he stops running it.’ And then I have to come up with something else. That really gets the juices flowing for me.”