Fujita: Vikings make splendid call tabbing Zimmer as coach

Finally, Mike Zimmer gets the chance to be a head coach in the NFL.

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Any NFL club who had a head coaching vacancy at the end of the 2013 season and didn’t at least bring in Mike Zimmer for an interview failed its players and fans. That’s how good this coach is. 

That’s not a slight against newly appointed head coaches like Jim Caldwell or Ken Whisenhunt or Bill O’Brien, each of whom I’ve heard great things about from some of their former players. But if you’re a club who makes the usual claim that an “exhaustive, comprehensive search is being conducted to find the right man to lead this organization to a Super Bowl,” and that search doesn’t include even a cursory look at Zimmer, then you’re either not focused exclusively on winning, or you just haven’t been paying attention. 

So congratulations to the Minnesota Vikings. I consider their hiring of Mike Zimmer an ode to meritocracy. 

For years, I’ve been a regular hype man for Zimmer when the head coaching carousel begins each off-season. And each year there are a handful of armchair quarterbacks who choose to debate me as I sing his praises: “Obviously he can’t be that good if no one ever hired him” or “He must be a horrible interview.” There may be some truth to the latter, depending on your definition of horrible.

The truth about Zimmer is that when he steps into an interview, I can’t imagine him going out of his way to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. That’s not his style. 

Zimmer is one of the least ostentatious people in the business, and he’s not going to tell club brass solely what they want to hear. 

I don’t see him instructing his agent to drum up interest around the league by leaking reports that multiple teams are bidding for his services.

He won’t use big words in press conferences or come across as overly polished. And you’re unlikely to find him kissing babies at fan appreciation day. 

He uses colorful language, and he looks you in the eye and tells you exactly what he thinks. 

Some might describe his brash, brutally honest demeanor as “horrible” and off-putting to club decision-makers. Others may even call him an a–hole. But I consider his style refreshing. 

Zimmer’s track record speaks for itself, and he should be judged exclusively on his merits. Since he first became an NFL defensive coordinator in 2000, his units have consistently ranked near the top of league. Upon his arrival in Cincinnati in 2008, the Bengals defense improved from 27th in the league the previous year to 12th in his first season, and finished as a top-10 defense in four of his next five seasons as their defensive coordinator. The Bengals have made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, and Zimmer’s defense is the primary reason. 

OK, so he’s a good defensive coach. But how does that make him head coaching material? 

Here’s the short answer: He knows football, he’s adaptable and resilient, he’s unapologetically confident in his decision-making, and most importantly, he commands the respect of the men he leads. 

Let me explain. 

Every coach should “know” football. That’s part of the job description. But certain coaches have a knack for the feel of the game and have a mastery of game situations. I would consider Zimmer one of those coaches.

When he was my defensive coordinator and position coach with the Dallas Cowboys in 2005, I remember watching game film with him one afternoon in his office. I can’t remember who the upcoming opponent was, but I remember sitting there quietly listening to him talk through calls as each play ran on the projector screen.

I felt like I had a front-row seat to his game-day thought process, as he was essentially thinking out loud. And it wasn’t the defensive calls he was making that I found overly impressive. Anyone who “knows” football can run through a call sheet and match it up with the corresponding game situation. But what I found uncanny was his ability to correctly and specifically predict what each offensive play would be, one after another.

After about 25-30 plays of him making offensive predictions with roughly 90 percent accuracy, I called “bull-s–t” and told him he had either watched this tape a dozen times already or that he was simply reading the offensive plays from his monitor.

So he offered to switch seats with me. I sat in his chair in front of the monitor and pulled up the archives to search for a film of that week’s opponent that wasn’t part of the regular six-to-eight-game breakdown that most teams evaluate each week during the season. I randomly selected a game from early the previous season, hit play, and watched him work his magic. After watching a series or two to get a feel for the game, he started reciting the ensuing offensive plays again, one after another.

Finally, I told him he was showing off. His response: “Nope. I’ve just got these bleepers down.” And that he did. I began to think of Zim as a defensive coordinator with an offensive coordinator’s mind. Like I said — this guy knows football. 

Generally, I try not to get too caught up in judging team defensive performance by overall defensive ranking. I just don’t think that’s a very holistic measure of good (or bad) defense, or of the coordinator in charge. What I like to look at is a unit’s performance in specific game situations, because that generally tells you how well-coached a team is. I also like to evaluate how well the team can adapt and respond to factors beyond its control. Again, another measure of the caliber of coaching.

Here’s what Zimmer’s track record suggests: His defenses have long been one of the league’s best at stopping the bleeding in “sudden change” situations (when the defense is forced to take the field immediately after its offense commits a turnover). His units have also found a way to persevere, and even thrive, after a rash of injuries to key defensive players — especially during this past season. And he can get the most out of his players, regardless of the scheme he employs.

Zimmer is traditionally known for running a “4-3” defensive scheme, but under head coach Bill Parcells in Dallas, he was asked to run a “3-4” when he had primarily “4-3” personnel. And his unit still finished among the league’s top 10 in total defense. What does that tell you? He can get guys to perform regardless of scheme, and he’s an adaptable coach with enough flexibility philosophically to tailor schemes to suit the specific talents of his players. 

In my opinion, one of the defining characteristics of a good football coach is his ability to be confident and decisive. Zimmer fits that bill, on multiple fronts. How many times have you seen his players standing on the field waiting for a call from the sideline? It just doesn’t happen. He knows what he wants to do, and he lets his players know what he wants to do, without hesitation. That allows his guys to play confident and fast, and more often than not, that’s half the battle as a defensive player.

And what have the reports been in the immediate aftermath of his hiring? That Norv Turner, Mike Mularkey and Scott Linehan are potential candidates to fill the Vikings offensive coordinator position. He has a plan, and he’s being decisive about it. Clearly, he’s looking at other guys like him who have earned their stripes and have a track record that can be easily evaluated. 

The most important measuring stick for any coach is his ability to command the attention and respect of the men he leads. We commonly hear about “players’ coaches” and we debate whether such a coach is good or bad for players. I honestly don’t even know what a players’ coach is and in the past few days, I’ve read reports that describe Zimmer as such. Well if being a players’ coach means that the players have a long leash, and that the coach “takes care of his guys” and is quick to throw them a bone, then I don’t know if I’d describe Zim that way.

I think the more important questions about whether someone is a players’ coach should be this: Do his guys want to play for him? When he stands in front of the room, do they respect him and respond to him? Is he able to reach his players? From personal experience, I can answer yes to each of those questions as it relates to Mike Zimmer.

Football acumen and X’s and O’s are great. But when it comes down to it, a coach has to be able to command the respect of his players. And players can see right through a coach that just isn’t ready. I don’t know if it’s possible to judge who deserves to be a head coach and who doesn’t. And I’m certainly not opposed to teams bringing in new blood and bucking the idea of hiring a throwback coach.

Heck, Andy Reid started the trend by being hired from Packers position coach to Eagles head coach. Many people balked at the move at the time and suggested he didn’t deserve that opportunity, and look what he’s accomplished since. 

But in an industry that should be merit-based, but where a player’s status has become increasingly driven by his draft position or where he went to school, or a coach getting hired is often shaped by a brother-in-law mentality or by who his drinking buddies are, or a club’s upper management is constructed in an almost incestuous agent-orchestrated package-deal, it’s refreshing to see Mike Zimmer become the head coach of the Vikings. He’s ready, and he’s deserving. 

And he’s got the merits to prove it.