Long before Mike Zimmer ever thought of a union with Norv Turner, one mutual acquaintance believed in the power of a Zimmer-Turner tandem
Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman was the one who saw the potential with Turner leading an offense and Zimmer using his skills to hone the defensive side of the ball.
"Well, Troy Aikman, he really thinks a lot of coach Zimmer," Turner said. "I got a chance to coach Troy for three years, which was amazing and awfully great. People never mention that I had to coach against him, you know, about 10 times. So, he thinks a lot of coach and we’ve always stayed close and he’s always mentioned that."
Rick Spielman, the Minnesota Vikings’ general manager, is hoping Aikman’s vision is wise.
Spieman brought Zimmer to Minnesota to be the team’s next head coach and oversee a defensive overhaul. Shortly after, Zimmer — unaware of Aikman’s foresight — hired Turner to lead the offense as offensive coordinator.
"I’ve got great respect for what he’s about, what he does, how he goes about doing his job, his business," Turner said of Zimmer. "I’ve had a couple friends that were in Dallas that always said, ‘You and Zimmer would, if you paired up, it would be good.’ So, we’re going to find out."
The Vikings have missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons. Spielman hopes he has found the right offensive mind and defensive leader to turn around the struggling franchise.
Zimmer has concentrated on evaluating the defense early in his time with Minnesota. He’s leaned on Turner’s experience to oversee the offense and the evaluation of the quarterback position. While Zimmer can’t stay away from the defense, he wants to be involved on both sides of the ball and learn from Turner.
"I told him he other day, ‘I want to get in that room and talk to you about all the things you’re doing,’" Zimmer said earlier this month. "But I’m trying to get the defense done, get all the coaches hired. So it may be a little while before I get in there, but I’ll get it . . . When guys have been in the NFL and coordinator, head coach, and won Super Bowls and the things that he’s done and the number of years he has, it’s great to be able to visit with him on everything, not just the quarterbacks or offensive plays, but what do they do in this meeting room, or how do they do this, just different things. It’s been good."
One is the head coach and wants to ensure that he has control over the organization, but Zimmer and Turner are trying to form a true partnership in Minnesota.
"I think it’s nice to have someone there to run things by," Turner said earlier this month about how he can help Zimmer. "I know what my job is. My job is to coordinate the offense. I’m really pleased with the staff Mike put together offensively. We’ve got a good mix of young coaches and very experienced coaches. I think that will really help us. My number one job is to make sure we’re good on offense and if there’s something I can do to assist Mike obviously I will."
The two never coached together in Dallas. Their relationship began coaching against each other.
Turner, the Cowboys offensive coordinator from 1991-93, left to become the Washington Redskins head coach in 1994. Zimmer joined Dallas in 1994 as the defensive backs coach and would later become the team’s defensive coordinator from 2000-06.
With Turner in Washington and Zimmer in Dallas, they learned all about each other and the systems they prefer.
"It’s kind of fun," Zimmer said of working with Turner now. "I’ve played against Norv so many times and he’s got me a few times and I’ve got him, but he’s always a great guy. I’ve always respected that. I’ve always respected the offenses that he’s done. It’s actually been, we talk about hey you remember when we played you in 1995 or something like that. It’s good."
Turner, after several years as a head coach, spent last year as an offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. With the tumult ongoing with Cleveland’s coaching staff, Turner looked elsewhere to continue his coaching career and found his way to Zimmer.
Matching up against each other, Turner always appreciated Zimmer’s defenses.
"The combination of being very sound, because you have to be sound in this league to be successful," Turner said of Zimmer’s defenses. "I think being very aggressive and they’ve been very successful and create a lot of problems with their third-down pressure packages. And then to me, the thing I always look at in coaching and coaches is are they getting the most out of the players they have, and I think he’s always done that."
Maybe that’s what Aikman saw in the two veteran coaches in the past, masters at their craft and educating the players they work with to get the most out of their players, and each other.
Zimmer never heard from Aikman about the potential in an alliance with Turner. It’s more validation, in Zimmer’s mind, for both of them in their current structure.
"I hope he’s right too," Zimmer said. "He’s been good friends with Norv for a long, long time and it’s nice when somebody with those kind of credentials endorses you, I guess."