Inside Slant: Drilling Mike Zimmer

August, 7, 2014
8/07/14
9:30
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MANKATO, Minn. -- It's fourth down and the clock is ticking toward the two-minute warning. The punt team jogs onto the field. The crowd is moved to hysterics. Half of it screams for a timeout. The other half shouts down the suggestion as the coach considers one of the game-management decisions that will shape public perception of his acumen more than anything other than wins or losses.

Game-management decisions in the NFL spark intense debate and second-guessing, but it's amazing to me how little time we spend discussing it on the front end. This is especially true for first-time coaches, so high atop my to-do list for the Minnesota Vikings' training camp this week was to develop an understanding of coach Mike Zimmer's planned approach.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer and Rick Spielman
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltMike Zimmer, left, and Vikings GM Rick Spielman spend time each day analyzing game scenarios that Zimmer might face in his first season as head coach.
Will he take risks? Will he play it by the book? How much data and analytics will he incorporate into decisions?

What I found was fascinating. With the Vikings' preseason opener set for Friday, Zimmer's style remains under development. Having taken few "mental reps" in game management as an assistant coach, Zimmer has spent up to an hour per day drilling scenarios with general manager Rick Spielman. Together, they are working through a tape Spielman made of most points requiring a subjective decision, from milking the clock to challenging a close play to utilizing onside kicks. What are the options? What do the percentages say? And what does your gut tell you?

"I think I have a decent idea of how I'm going to do things," Zimmer said. "I just never looked at it this way before because I always tried to do my job [as an assistant] as best I could. I never worried about it. Obviously throughout the years, you talk about certain situations that come up. But you don't focus on it like I would focus on calling a defensive game or anything like that."

The exercise is Spielman's idea, and if you're a conspiracy theorist, you're probably wondering whether he is stepping beyond the scope of his job. Perhaps you view it as Spielman's first attempt to exert influence over his first-time coach. I understand those concerns, but having gotten to know Spielman a bit over the years, I think they're unfounded. More than anything, these sessions are a reflection of his obsessive accumulation of information.

This is a man whose draft ratings for players extend to a half-dozen decimal points, one who visited people "outside of football," he said, to compile a list of five characteristics in good leaders before embarking on the search that brought him to Zimmer. During games, he charts timeouts, challenges, fourth-down calls, scoring decisions and the like. Spielman said he mostly wants Zimmer to avoid surprises and isn't pushing a particular answer.

"I'm not trying to coach or make game decisions here," Spielman said. "What I've done in the past during games is always track game management. ... I do it just because it fascinates me, and coaches have to make split-second decisions in the emotion of the game. I've always taken the approach, just like anything else I try to do -- whether it's getting prepared for the draft or anything else -- the more scenarios you can put yourself through, or at least get your thought process going on, the better."

The situation is further complicated in Minnesota because Zimmer is giving strong consideration to calling defensive signals during the regular season. At least 10 other head coaches likely will call plays in 2014, but it still represents a heavy game-day load for a first-time head coach who has never faced a "live" decision on whether, say, to punt or go for it on fourth-and-3 from the 40-yard line late in the fourth quarter of a close game.

Zimmer wouldn't reveal specific answers to scenarios he has discussed with Spielman, but everything about his old-school background suggests he won't be looking to reinvent the game. Asked about his risk tolerance, Zimmer said: "Without giving away any secrets, I think there are situations going into the game where you say if something happens, we want to be aggressive here, we want to take this shot. Or maybe we can handle some things, so let's just be smart and play field position."

I also don't expect Zimmer to be heavily influenced by the recent infusion of analytics into game management. Data might suggest that NFL teams are far too conservative on fourth down and in utilizing the two-point conversion, but neither he nor Spielman seemed overly moved when speaking this week.

"We have all of those charts and looked at them," Spielman said. "But when [the game is] going, you still have to go off what your gut instinct is. How is your defense playing? How are you moving the ball or not moving the ball? So if in one game, your offense is moving the ball up and down the field but you're not scoring, maybe that's a different scenario in terms of your decisions. A lot of it is the ebb and flow of the game, who you're playing against. The right answer for this game might not be the right answer for the next game. But at least you're thinking."

And really, that's the primary point of this unusual exercise between Spielman and Zimmer. There are few universal truths in NFL game management. Avoiding surprises and having a plan seem most important. Spielman said "sometimes you have to maybe make a mistake to grow and learn," and to me it makes sense to stumble or waver during a camp film session rather than in the fourth quarter of Week 3. So it goes.

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