Zimmer's brand? More education than fire

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
4:55
PM ET
Mike ZimmerAP Photo/Johnny VyCoach Mike Zimmer said Friday at the combine that he wants the Vikings to be "smart players."
INDIANAPOLIS -- The image much of football-watching America, and ostensibly a good chunk of Minnesota, has of new Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer is the one portrayed in HBO's "Hard Knocks," where Zimmer could be seen delivering corrections or admonishments well-seasoned with expletives. Zimmer was branded as fiery, or a disciplinarian, or some similar catch-all term meant to depict a coach who does a lot of yelling and swearing.

That will certainly be part of Zimmer's on-field persona, and it will stand in stark contrast to the stoic demeanor of Zimmer's predecessor Leslie Frazier. But both the coach and general manager Rick Spielman have been working hard at the NFL scouting combine to chip away at the image of Zimmer as a drill sergeant who didn't get a shot to be a head coach earlier in his career because he was too blunt for his own good.

"He may be gruff between those lines, but if you ask -- and I called agents with players who played for Mike Zimmer -- as demanding as he is, I've never heard so much respect for a coach, that guys love to play for this guy," Spielman said. "He has that 'it' factor, on being able to hold guys accountable, and get them to play to their utmost ability. The players love him for that."

Zimmer certainly doesn't come across as a coach who will suffer fools. He talked on Friday about how much he likes smart players, and said "I'm not a patient person with anybody" when talking about whether Christian Ponder could get another chance to start at quarterback. But if Frazier's calling card as a coach was leadership, Zimmer's could turn out to be education.

He talked in detail on Friday about how he ordered a renovation of the Vikings' meeting room at their team facility, swapping out a flat floor and tables for stadium seating, where the coach could meet the eyes of every player in the room. He recalled more details from the film session he recently conducted with team scouts and front office members, detailing the specific responsibilities of each position in his defense and what kinds of players could best meet those responsibilities. And he largely declined to offer sweeping assessments of the Vikings' current players, saying he wanted to wait until he'd had a chance to work with them and observe them on the field this spring.

"I try not to prejudge that," he said. "Number one, I don't know if a guy's a smart guy, yet. I don't know what they were being told to do. I think you can make a lot of mistakes by guessing, 'Well, he should have been doing this,' but maybe the coach was telling him to do something else. Whatever they were telling him could be right or wrong, or maybe the player was in the wrong, too. But there are so many different ways to do it, it's what you believe in and how you do it."

The natural tendency in the NFL is to replace a fired coach with his opposite, or at least perceive that the replacement must inherently be the opposite of the fired coach. Frazier reached players through quiet motivation; therefore, Zimmer must do it through loud force. Those narratives might encompass some fragments of reality, but they can also be overly simplistic.

Zimmer will be more animated than Frazier, and if he is fiery, he'd follow Jerry Burns and Dennis Green in the tradition of Vikings coaches who have been that way. But for as many players as have credited Zimmer for getting the most out of them, his methods must be more nuanced than sheer volume and obscenity.

At the combine this week, he and Spielman have offered a part of his platform: Zimmer will have exacting standards for his players, but he'll make sure he's equipping them with enough knowledge to do the job.

"Bill Parcells used to have a big sign in the facility -- and I may put one up, too -- that said, 'Dumb players do dumb things. Smart players very seldom do dumb things,' and it's true," Zimmer said. "I want us to all understand that we all represent one another, and all of our livelihoods are based on how (we all) do. That's one of the things that we tried to do, tried to [set up] a good educational environment, football-wise."

Ben Goessling

ESPN Minnesota Vikings reporter

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