Not long after Mike Zimmer conceded to the wishes of his doctors and co-workers, the Vikings coach had a request for his most trusted assistant: be his voice while he’s away.
“He just texted me and asked me to make sure I kind of get his message across to the team,” said defensive line coach Andre Patterson. “We’ve been together a long time. We have a close friendship, and I think he trusts I’m going to do the best job I can to get his voice across.”
Before Zimmer relented to admonitions and is taking a couple weeks at his northern Kentucky ranch to rest his eight-time surgically repaired right eye, he received a nudge from Patterson, a friend of 30 years. Behind closed doors, Patterson willed Zimmer to take his own health into consideration, just as he had done when Zimmer underwent eye surgery No. 3 and still considered coaching against Dallas a day later.
The Vikings don’t have a de facto head coach in Zimmer’s stead, as they did when Mike Priefer assumed those duties against the Cowboys.
Duties have been delegated among a veteran coaching staff while Zimmer continues to call in for coaches meetings and evaluate practice film from about 800 miles away, sending along daily notes to assistants and players.
Given one of the more prominent duties is the 56-year-old Patterson, the respected position coach who has replaced Zimmer in the middle of the Vikings huddle after practices and during team sessions.
Who better than the man who has known Zimmer since their days at Weber State in 1988?
“Mike’s vision is always here whether he’s here or not,” Patterson said. “Every day I’m here that I get a chance to stand up and speak, I’m going to make sure things are done the way Mike wants them to be done to the best of my ability.”
A coaching bond
By even Zimmer’s account, it wasn’t easy to convince him to step away.
Zimmer, who plans to return to Minnesota on June 4 with a doctor’s appointment the next day, called it “kind of a forced situation” that he’s not at Winter Park. Cataracts from the many surgeries and scar tissue in his eye meant more operations this spring for the 60-year-old football lifer.
This month, after the eighth operation, Patterson again found himself urging Zimmer to rest — if only to ensure he’s physically ready for the upcoming season.
“On a personal level, I love the man,” Patterson said. “He’s like a brother to me. So obviously my number one concern was his health … because that’s the best thing for our football team. That’s the best thing for our players. That’s the best thing for our coaches. That’s the best thing for our front office. That’s the best thing for our fans.
“Mike is tough, ornery and a hard worker. I had to get the point across to him at some point that Mike had to think about Mike and get himself healthy. Whatever we had to do to get that done, that was the most important thing.”
So Zimmer listened — to his doctors, his family, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman and head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman — as well as Patterson, the trusted assistant whom he’s hired onto four different football teams.
“Well, Andre knows me probably better than anyone there, including [my son] Adam,” Zimmer said.
The coaches’ bond grew away from the field as their families became intertwined over time. They met when Zimmer hired Patterson to be his defensive line coach at Weber State nearly 30 years ago. At their third stop together, Zimmer’s daughters, Marki and Corri, babysat Patterson’s daughter, Ashmera, while the two served on the same Cowboys staff in the early 2000s.
They even leaned on each other when coaching different NFL teams. In 2005, Zimmer, then the Cowboys defensive coordinator, called Patterson over to his Indianapolis hotel room during the scouting combine so Patterson, then the Broncos defensive line coach, could give him tips on how to get the most out of newly drafted DeMarcus Ware, who ended up with 138½ career sacks. When Zimmer joined the Bengals as defensive coordinator, he had his defensive line coach call Patterson for more guidance.
“We’ve sat in meetings forever and ever,” Zimmer said. “So I just know that when I tell — not that there’s anything different about any of the other coaches — but when I tell Andre to do something with the team or to relay a message, I know that it’ll get done and it’ll get done in the right way.”
Zimmer ‘still in charge’
During Wednesday’s practice, coordinators George Edwards and Pat Shurmur ran their sides of the football. Linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, Mike’s son, was trusted with leading the situational drills.
Afterward, Patterson stepped into the middle of an 88-player huddle to share his impressions on the tone and to remind players of their responsibilities the rest of the day.
“He’s stern, he’s equal,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “With Zim not being here, the media might be thinking, ‘Ah, they’re just out here playing around and not taking it seriously.’ But guys rally behind Andre; guys respect him. He’s a stand-up guy. We’re taking him serious.”
Many Vikings view Patterson as an extension of Zimmer, who said he spends about 90 minutes on his iPad evaluating footage of the defense after a practice before resting and returning to the offense later in the day.
“I know there’s no question he’s still in charge of this football team and what’s going on between the white lines,” Spielman said.
Players know they are not out of Zimmer’s sight, either. He will send text messages pointing out improvements and mistakes after watching the film. Then Zimmer will call into a coaches meeting and meticulously go through each period of practice.
“Why we did this? And why we did that?” Zimmer said. “If we busted a protection, who busted it? And why did they bust it? We had a false start the other day on third down and I want to know why we had that.”
Even when Zimmer puts down the phone and iPad to take a much-needed break, he’s not out of earshot with Patterson relaying the coach’s daily message.
“It makes me feel good he trusts me to carry that mantle for him,” Patterson said.