Thursday, January 16, 2014
Vikings: On the coaching style debate
By Ben Goessling
MINNEAPOLIS -- In the simplistic terms, the Minnesota Vikings went from a soft-spoken father figure who rarely showed any signs of anger on the sideline to a demonstrative, fiery head coach with a strong command of four-letter vocabulary. Their switch from Leslie Frazier to Mike Zimmer could be viewed in terms of one of the most reliable cliches in coaching -- that when a team fires a coach, it always hires the opposite of what it just had -- but that makes it hard to know what to do with this:
When the Vikings fired Frazier, numerous players talked about what he'd meant to their lives, and running back Adrian Peterson -- who'd campaigned for the Vikings to keep Frazier -- was so upset he wouldn't talk to reporters about it until we caught up with him this week. Zimmer comes to Minnesota with an equally fierce adoration from the players he's coached, and retired linebacker Scott Fujita -- who was one of the game's most perceptive and thoughtful players -- penned this ode to Zimmer for Fox Sports.
Mike Zimmer will bring a different coaching style to Minnesota than the one the Vikings had under Leslie Frazier.
That's as impassioned an homage to a coach as I've seen a player write, and in it, Fujita raises a good point: The definition of what constitutes a "players' coach" is probably too simple.
"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," he writes. "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."
The funny thing is, I'd say Frazier got the same response out of his locker room. The success of coaches like Tony Dungy -- under whom Frazier worked in Indianapolis -- has done plenty to break down the stereotype of how a football coach has to behave, and from what I've heard players say about Zimmer, he doesn't necessarily fit into the typical hard-headed disciplinarian mode, either. He'll likely be louder, more blunt and more direct with criticism, but he also seems to exude a passion for the game that players love.
Can both approaches be effective? Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway, who played for Kirk Ferentz (a Bill Belichick disciple) in college, had Mike Tomlin as his first defensive coordinator and spent the last seven years with Frazier, says yes.
"I think all different styles can work," Greenway said. "You see guys from Tony Dungy to Belichick to (Bill) Parcells all win in different ways. It's more about who can get results. A change was made, and it'll be a different approach. I hope that breeds success. We'll get a new system with a little bit different style, and hopefully it leads to wins."
Both defensive end Brian Robison and fullback Jerome Felton had close friends who'd played for Zimmer and raved about him; Robison talked with Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who had Zimmer as his first defensive coordinator, and Felton spoke with Bengals safety Taylor Mays, who played for Zimmer the past three seasons. Both got the same report on Zimmer: Tough, profane, emotional and direct, both with criticism and praise.
Felton, who loved playing for Frazier, sounded particularly optimistic about that last trait.
"One of the most stressful parts about the NFL is wondering where you stand," Felton said. "If you can get an idea of where you stand, gives you a chance to know what you need to work on. You can just focus on football, rather than wondering, 'What’s going on? Why is this the situation happening?' When everybody asks what you want from a coach, I always talk about being an authentic person."
If there's going to be a major difference between Frazier and Zimmer -- both former Bengals defensive coordinators under Marvin Lewis -- it might be more in the scheme than anything else. The days of Frazier's Tampa-2 scheme are probably gone; Zimmer hasn't blitzed much more than Frazier in his career, according to ESPN Stats and Information, but he's been known to play more aggressive man coverage and use a number of different stunts to get his defensive linemen to the quarterback.
He coached in a 3-4 under Parcells, but has largely used a 4-3 scheme over the years, and Greenway expects the Vikings will stay with something similar to the 4-3 defense Zimmer called in Cincinnati.
"It's not that Coach Frazier and his ways can't win. It just wasn't working for us last year," Greenway said. "A new scheme, to a point, will be refreshing, and I hope, successful."
The Frazier-vs.-Zimmer comparison will be done ad nauseam in the coming weeks, but the NFL has a wider scope of coaching personalities today than it probably ever has. If Zimmer succeeds in Minnesota, it won't be because he's the opposite of what the Vikings had before. It will be because he can maximize what they have now.
"It's my first time going through a true coaching change, after Leslie taking over for Brad (Childress in the middle of 2010)," Greenway said. "It will be a lot of new things. That's not bad; it's just new and different."