5 times NFL teams have had to deal with a coach’s unexpected absence
The Minnesota Vikings announced on Thursday that head coach Mike Zimmer will not be at the helm for its TNF game against the Dallas Cowboys after undergoing emergency surgery on Wednesday to repair an issue with his retina. According to Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, the 60-year-old coach’s vision “got significantly worse” on Wednesday, prompting the medical procedure.
It is unclear if Zimmer will miss more than the one game; special teams coach Mike Priefer will take over as interim head coach. Zimmer’s absence brings a shot of reality to the game. “Football is family” is a tagline but in most healthy locker rooms, it’s true. These players and coaches depend on one another for everything, from protection against blindside hits to emotional support in navigating a cutthroat business.
Last Thursday Minnesota suffered a deflating loss when the Lions mounted a late-game comeback in Detroit, and now the Vikings host the streaking Cowboys who have won 10 games a in row. Will Zimmer’s absence set them off course or will the players respond with an inspired performance? Consider the following recent cases where current NFL coaches unexpectedly missed time.
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Broncos HC John Fox missed four games after undergoing heart surgery (November 2013)
During the Broncos’ bye week in 2013 after a 7-1 start, Fox felt light-headed while golfing in North Carolina, went to a hospital for treatment and later discovered that he would require surgery to replace an aortic heart valve.
Fox, who’s now the Bears head coach, ended up missing four games as defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio (now the Raiders head coach!) filled in as the interim. "I had open-heart surgery, and watching those games was harder than any pain I felt," Fox said. The team went 3-1 in Fox’s absence, only losing to the Patriots 34-31 in an overtime thriller.
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Texans HC Gary Kubiak collapses while walking off the field at halftime (November 2013)
Early November 2013 was a scary time for head coaches. While heading toward the locker room at halftime against the Colts during a Sunday night game, the 52-year-old Kubiak fell to his knees while suffering a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA or mini-stroke), which is basically a warning before a more serious, permanent stroke. "It was really weird," Texans quarterback Case Keenum said at the time. "Someone came in [to the locker room] and started yelling for a trainer. They said that he had passed out and we were all very worried."
Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips took over as the Texans surrendered a 21-3 halftime lead over the Colts and lost the game 27-24. Kubiak was forced to miss the Texans’ next game and coached the next one from the booth before returning to the sideline as the team continued to reel, losing every single game from Week 3 until the end of a miserable 2-14 season. The final three games didn’t fall on Kubiak’s record, though, because he got fired after Week 14.
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The Colts’ Chuck Pagano misses most of the season to undergo treatment for leukemia (2012)
In his very first season as a head coach after a lifetime in football, Pagano discovered in late September 2012 that he had a curable form of leukemia. It hit him and the team hard in the first year of the Andrew Luck era but the team rallied and supporters including Colts cheerleaders shaved their heads in solidarity.
“Chuck Strong” took hold as offensive coordinator Bruce Arians took over as interim head coach and helped lead the team to an overall 11-5 record and a playoffs berth after a brutal 2-14 campaign; with Pagano’s cancer in remission, he returned to the sideline for Week 17 and the Colts’ Wild Card game against the Ravens -- a 24-9 loss as Baltimore caught fire and ended up winning the Super Bowl.
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Bountygate claims Saints head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season
The league came down hard on Payton, then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and general manager Mickey Loomis after determining that Williams implemented a bounty system operating from 2009-2011 that monetarily rewarded players for aggressive play and injuring opponents.
Because the league found that Payton had knowledge of the scheme and tried to cover it up, the league hit him with an unprecedented (for a coach) one-year suspension that separated him from the team for the entire 2012 season. The scandal dominated sports media and consumed the team, which lost its first four games as co-interim-head-coach Aaron Kromer (previously the offensive line coach) and Joe Vitt (previously the assistant head coach and linebackers coach) struggled to steady the ship.
The Saints fell to 7-9 and Payton returned the following season, leading New Orleans to an 11-5 turnaround and a Wild Card round win over the Eagles. Most recently Payton and the Saints faced a Gregg Williams-led Rams defense -- and ran up the score on them to 49-21 with the fourth quarter coup de grace coming on a trick play touchdown pass from wide receiver Willie Snead to Tim Hightower.