EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The public got to know Mike Zimmer as the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator when the team was portrayed on HBO’s "Hard Knocks." The way he demanded more from his team with a red-faced, profanity-laced tirade in one episode became Zimmer’s persona.
To those who only knew him from snippets on "Hard Knocks," Zimmer was a tough, fiery coach. In some ways, the description is fair. He’s a throwback in his no-nonsense, straight-shooting ways. Listen to Zimmer or some of his players speak, and the portrayal wasn’t entirely accurate.
Zimmer demanded the best from his players. Seeking perfection is the disguised heart of this longtime football coach. At his core, Zimmer is a teacher.
"At the end of the day, in order to be a really good coach, you have to be a teacher; and he teaches," said safety Chris Crocker, who was cut by Zimmer over the weekend but had played in Zimmer’s defense the past seven years. "That’s all I can say about him. He’s a teacher. He’s a great teacher."
Zimmer’s eight-plus months as the Minnesota Vikings head coach has been all about teaching. A complete organizational change seemed to occur when Zimmer was hired.
Teaching was an offseason priority. His defensive philosophies would outline an offseason of change. His strength as one of the premier defensive minds in the NFL matched Minnesota’s biggest weakness — a defense that had faltered too many times in recent years.
Many players have sworn by Zimmer’s coaching, his teaching. Some followed him from Dallas to Cincinnati. They’ve thrived under his tutelage. To Zimmer, the coaching aspect is just a part of him.
"It’s just who I am and what I do," Zimmer said. "That’s what gets me excited about trying to get players better. I don’t think I will ever get away from it. I like teaching, I like coaching, I like trying to improve players and I like them to have success and the more of those guys that have success, the more we have success."
From the moment he was hired, Zimmer went about teaching general manager Rick Spielman, the team’s scouts and the personnel staff what skills he would need from players for his defense.
Once he was able to get on the field with his new team, the teaching took another step. From individual technique to position philosophies to his defensive scheme, Zimmer has been coaching and teaching.
"His knowledge of the scheme is ridiculous," linebacker Chad Greeway said. "His football knowledge is unbelievable, some of the greatest I’ve seen. I think the biggest thing is just his care for us as players and wanting to win. He’s here to win. He’s a football coach and like anybody that comes into his first head coaching job, it’s their first opportunity and could be the last, so he wants to make the most out of it."
Zimmer’s hands-on approach can be seen in each practice. One moment he’ll be working footwork with the defensive backs, another he might be showing a defensive lineman how to use his hands, or a linebacker how to read a play.
"That’s his personality," said linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, Mike’s son, who has seen it through the years. "He’s not going to change just because he’s the head coach or because he has more responsibility. He’s going to do what he does. He coaches and that’s what he does best."
The way he coaches might be rare, too.
Not only does Zimmer know what he wants scheme-wise from his defense, but he also knows what he wants from each position. Some coaches might be specialists in certain areas. Zimmer is able to fine-tune technique and skills at each level of the defense.
"The fact that he can see it from 40 yards down the field means a lot, too," defensive end Brian Robison said. "The fact that he can do that, whether it’s a D-lineman, linebacker, DB, he can coach every one of those guys up, and you really get to see what he’s talking about when you turn around and you do it right. To have that on our team is invaluable."
Minnesota’s defense slipped nearly as far as it could last season, allowing the most points in the league and the second-most yards in the NFL. Taking over a fledgling defense isn’t new to Zimmer. Before Zimmer arrived in Cincinnati in 2008, the Bengals defense had been a top-10 unit once in 18 years.
In four of the past five years under Zimmer, Cincinnati featured a top-10 defense and was third in the league last year. Zimmer’s effect isn’t surprising.
"I think he’s very meticulous in the way he studies the game, the way he wants things done," Adam Zimmer said. "He’s a perfectionist. He wants to get things exactly the way he wants it and in order to do that, he has to know everything that everybody’s doing."
Crocker said he’s been around other coaches who could work technique at each level of the defense, but none like Zimmer.
"Zimmer, he’s an extremist with it," Crocker said in training camp. "You have a level of respect for him because he is that way and he knows what he’s talking about."
While he can teach technique at every position, he will always have his eyes on the secondary.
The first position Zimmer coached was defensive backs at Weber State and he got his NFL start with the Dallas Cowboys as a defensive backs coach before eventually taking over as defensive coordinator as part of a 21-year NFL coaching career.
The secondary has been Minnesota’s downfall. Even as a solid defensive line of Robison, Jared Allen and Kevin Williams had pressured quarterbacks, the defensive backs couldn’t hold their coverage long enough. Interceptions were few and far between.
Zimmer’s biggest project might be working with second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes, a talented, first-round draft pick last season. The team signed veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn in the offseason. After a full offseason and preseason, Zimmer still isn’t ready to declare a starting safety next to Harrison Smith.
"DBs are his baby and he wants to make sure they’re playing with great technique," Adam Zimmer said earlier in the preseason. "He teaches press technique as good as anybody in the league. With him teaching them, it’s going to be great for our team."
On Monday, with his 53-man roster initially set, Zimmer was still teaching; the staple of Zimmer’s coaching style the public hasn’t had the chance to see.
"I’m not afraid to jump into any spot if I see something," Zimmer said Monday. "I was coaching some guys today. That’s what I do. I’m pretty hands-on."
And if the players aren’t doing something right, he let them know too.