There was a time when Mike Zimmer was so down after losing out on head coaching job after head coaching job that he thought about pulling out for good and accepting life as a career defensive coordinator.
Zimmer couldn’t understand why other candidates he believed were less qualified kept getting jobs ahead of him. He was told it was because he came across as cocky in job interviews, as if he had it all figured out and wouldn’t bend or adapt where necessary.
On its face, it’s a legitimate concern. It’s easy to be brash and unaccommodating as a coordinator — particularly one on the defensive side of the ball and one who is as good as Zimmer had been. But a head coach has to be less about X’s and O’s and more cognizant of managing personalities in the locker room, the front office and even the media. It’s not hard to see why an owner would get the impression Zimmer wouldn’t be as political as he needed to be.
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"You know what, someone’s going to give me a chance," Zimmer, in an interview with me in 2013, claimed he once told an owner during an interview, "and 31 other teams are going to be upset about it."
The count might not have been that high on Tuesday when Adrian Peterson showed up at the Minnesota Vikings’ facility, but there were probably a few decision-makers who realized they’d underestimated Zimmer as a head coach.
The Peterson resolution revealed Zimmer knew exactly how to handle one of the most delicate situations in the NFL of late. It was a touchy one from the moment Peterson’s indictment on charges of child abuse came down, along with the pictures of the cuts and bruises on his son as a result of the father’s whipping him with a switch. It continued to be a challenging situation when the Vikings faced pressure from sponsors after initially saying Peterson would be back, and again when the league and union were at odds over whether to allow the 2012 NFL MVP back on the field last year. When Peterson went public with his gripes and the situation spilled into the offseason, it was clear there wasn’t going to be a clean resolution any time soon.
Zimmer had to navigate through all of this as a rookie head coach — not to mention with a young roster and a rookie quarterback under center. He had to align himself with the team’s public stance while also making sure he didn’t alienate Peterson. He had to be supportive of Peterson the football player and person while not condoning the actions that precipitated Peterson’s vow to improve himself.
Zimmer was a key player because Peterson still respected him. While Peterson and his camp were upset with Vikings COO Kevin Warren, who they believed conspired with the NFL to keep Peterson off the field, Zimmer never ceased to have an open line of communication with Peterson.
"I love this kid," Zimmer said Tuesday. "I wouldn’t fly down to Houston (for a meeting with Peterson in March) if he wasn’t important to me."
This is where the cynics say Peterson is important to Zimmer and the Vikings because he’s a future Hall of Fame running back with some good football left in his body. There is absolutely no question about that. Peterson wouldn’t have gotten the attention and forgiveness from Zimmer and the organization he received if he were the 53rd guy on the roster. No way.
But the fact Peterson is such a high-profile player with a lot of pride in himself and his career also illustrates how well Zimmer managed the situation. And in talking to several players who once played under Zimmer, any suggestion the coach cares about Peterson only because of what he can do with a football under his arm is off-base. He’s a tough coach who demands a lot out of his guys, but he’s shown many of them in the past how much he cares about them as well.
Peterson would surely back up those players on that last point.
In fact, Peterson’s allowance for a rare Zimmer slip of the tongue last week showed the respect he has for his coach. A frustrated Zimmer told reporters Peterson would play for the Vikings or no one. The reaction from the media on hand and online revealed how much of a change in tone that was for Zimmer, who hadn’t taken as hard of a stance as management had in recent months.
But as I reported on FOX Sports 1 last week, Zimmer called Peterson that night to explain he was more irked by the repeat questions than by Peterson himself. (Zimmer didn’t get into details at his Tuesday news conference but confirmed the gist of the conversation.) Peterson’s accepting Zimmer’s explanation and moving forward was a sign of his respect for the Zimmer — and in retrospect, a sign he’d soon be putting an end to the drama.
"I’ll always fight for my players," Zimmer said when asked whether there’d be changes to Peterson’s deal.
Zimmer also expressed pride in Peterson for "all the things he had to go through last year." One of my Twitter followers criticized Zimmer for painting Peterson as the victim in a situation that began with his striking his son. I wasn’t in attendance at the news conference, so I couldn’t ask for context on that statement, but having monitored Zimmer’s quotes since last year and knowing the kind of guy he is, I believe Zimmer meant he’s pleased with the way Peterson has expressed remorse and vowed to change as a parent and person. Zimmer might also be referring to Peterson’s swallowing his pride and showing up for work Tuesday.
The point is it was earned praise at the right time. And Zimmer wasn’t thumping his chest or lauding the team for getting Peterson to cave. He was standing by his player — an act that will earn him even more respect in weeks and months to come.
Both from Peterson and maybe even from those owners who once passed over him.