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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Mike Zimmer: The last honest head coach

By Matthew Coller

With a semicircle of journalists standing around him, Mike Zimmer used a tissue to dab some goo out of the corner of his puffy eye. And then he dropped a brutally honest one-liner that sent waves through the locker room.

“He has a tendency to coast,” said the Vikings head coach of linebacker Anthony Barr following a Week 15 loss.

It was a 1980s style Parcellsian remark — possibly fueled by Zimmer’s frustration over his fading 2016 season and by a battle with multiple eye surgeries.

His comment toed the line between sending a message and taking a pot shot. One week later, the defense melted down against Green Bay and the defensive backs had a severe case of “miscommunication” as they went against their head coach’s orders to have Xavier Rhodes shadow Jordy Nelson.

Barr played well that day and ultimately had a bounce-back 2017 season. It’s very possible he signs a long-term contract with the Vikings this offseason. That doesn’t necessarily mean the message worked, but in the long run it didn’t… not work.

Terence Newman, who is returning to the Vikings this year at age 40 — having spent a large portion of his career under Zimmer — said there is a method behind the bluntness, even when it comes via comments to the media.

“If he did it in that route, maybe he wants him to hear about it and respond to it,” Newman told 1500ESPN in December 2016. “That’s the way that I take it. I’ve been with [Zimmer] for quite awhile. It’s no different for us in meetings, he’ll say the same thing, he wants you to understand, ‘hey, I’m putting a challenge on you.’ How will you respond?”

You would be hard pressed to find too many examples of head coaches being as straightforward as Zimmer was about Barr.

But that’s how Zimmer has always been. Zimmer’s blueprint for addressing things is the opposite of A Few Good Men. He assumes you can handle the truth and if you can’t, then it’s on you.

Back in 2007, the Vikings’ head coach worked as a defensive coordinator under Bobby Petrino when Petrino skipped out on the Atlanta Falcons after 13 games to take a head coaching job at Arkansas.

“[Petrino] is a coward,” Zimmer said at the time. “Put that in quotes. He ruined a bunch of people’s lives, a bunch of people’s families, kids, because he didn’t have enough nuts to stay there and finish the job. That’s the truth.”

The honest approach is a dying art. Press conferences around the league usually begin with “creating a culture” and end with “trusting the process.” With the state of media/social media, truthfulness at the podium has been significantly quelled. Teams want to avoid being at the center of controversy, so they try to keep the gap wide between what is being said behind closed doors and the message in public.

There’s no better example of how things have changed than Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott’s press conference following a five-interception performance by rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman.

“There were some plays I know we wants back. There’s also some plays where you say ‘That was pretty darn good.’ Hard to see on the surface — you know, the 10,000 foot view — hard to see that with the result being what it was. When you take it one play at a time, and when you really look at and say, ‘Hey, we were moving the ball.’”

The Bills lost that game by 30 points.

After a bad loss, Zimmer might be defiant. He might be angry. Terse. Frustrated. Short. Annoyed. But he’s incredibly unlikely to tell you a 30-point loss was actually good.

Of course, there’s a catch-22 to being authentic. On one hand, players know exactly where they stand. On the other, words can do damage.

On a recent episode of 1500ESPN’s Purple Podcast, wide receiver Adam Thielen said that the sincere approach made players better.

“I don’t think it rubs guys the wrong way,” he said. “Guys really appreciate honesty, especially in this profession, in this business. Obviously there’s times when he can’t be 100 percent honest, but I think guys respect when a coach is honest with them. Maybe they don’t think the same way, but at least they know that’s his honest opinion. I can work with that. I can try to do those things to help me become a better football player. Usually if guys take that honesty and use it to their advantage, it can be a pretty good thing.

“He doesn’t really care how you feel if he says something mean to you — I think it can push your team to the next level.”

Bill Parcells felt every player should see his coach’s honesty the way Thielen does. An old school NFL Films feature called Sensitivity Training dug deep into Parcells’ philosophy on player management.

“They have to know what you think,” Parcells said. “The worst thing for a player is to be sitting there and not know what the coach is thinking — not know what the leader on the team is thinking.”

One of the last of the straightforward coaches, Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, who retired following the 2017 season, was largely lauded for his willingness to spit truth. He credited a good locker room culture with everyone’s ability to be candid.

“Coaches who tried to sugarcoat stuff, they’re basically lying to you,” Arians told AzCentral.com. “Other guys who say, ‘This is how I do it and this is how it’s going to be,’ I really respected that as a player and tried to take that into my coaching. I worked with one of the best in Coach Bryant, and he didn’t sugarcoat anything. He just told you how he felt and it was the truth all the time, so the truth never hurts. I think the players respect it and they can deal with it.”

“With me, there are no secrets. And our locker room is extremely close because we are honest with each other.”

The upside to frankness is that nobody is ever distracted by constantly wondering where they stand.

They might, however, be distracted by the outside reaction to some comments.

Following a win over Washington in which quarterback Case Keenum threw four touchdowns, but also two late interceptions, Zimmer said of his QB: “Sometimes he gets off the reservation a little bit.”

Within that statement, there’s both the origins of the saying and the risk of over-criticizing a journeyman backup who had become a bit of a folk hero at that point. Later in the year, the Vikings’ head coach said Keenum had a “horseshoe around his neck,” referring to the number of magical plays the quarterback had pulled off. It could have come across as saying that Keenum’s success was more small sample luck and circumstances than talent.

Keenum let it all slide off his back and the team kept winning.

Maybe the Keenum quotes could be interpreted as Zimmer’s own worries coming out. He clearly feared that Keenum would throw a pick-six in a playoff game and cost the Vikings a shot at the Super Bowl. It was almost as if he was begging his QB to stop making risky throws.

There are other times in which his frank comments have gone beyond message sending.

Zimmer scoffed at defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd’s injury history. Later it was revealed that Floyd had been the victim of nerve damage during a routine surgery. In an Instagram post, he cited Zimmer’s statements.

Floyd filed a grievance last September in hopes of recouping his 2017 salary. There hasn’t yet been a resolution reported, and it’s unclear whether any of the coach’s words could come into play.

At the NFL Combine, another instance of Zimmer’s bluntness came when he responded to critics of his decision to keep Kevin Stefanski from interviewing for an offensive coordinator position with the New York Giants.

“Should I start on my pet peeve stuff now?” he said. “I get criticized for blocking guys and stuff like that, but loyalty, to me, is a big thing, right? So I come in here four years ago and the offense is 29, 27th, 26th. But I keep them. So the first time our offense is pretty good, then I’m supposed to let all my coaches leave? I don’t think that’s right. If I’m going to be loyal to them and not fire them after they don’t have good years, then I don’t think they should not be loyal to me.”

Maybe there won’t be a ripple effect simply because Stefanski understands the business and has been around Zimmer long enough to know how this all works. But sometimes it’s hard to predict when a flamethrower of truth could light the wrong thing on fire.

Parcells had a rule.

“They could say what they wanted to say, but I could say what I wanted to say too,” he told NFL Films. “Very seldom did a player try to cross a line. There is a line. They know where it is. The veterans get a little closer to the line than the young players, obviously. And once in awhile there’s just outright disagreements between myself and some of the players. But that was OK. At that time it was a healthy situation.”

In order to keep the 2018 version healthy, Zimmer will have to keep his eye on the line, especially with $84 million quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The relationship between Cousins and his previous team was constantly on rocky ground. Generally the team’s lack of commitment to him was at the core of the issue. Washington head coach Jay Gruden largely defended Cousins across the board, but a comment at the end of the year about the team’s 7-9 record relating to its quarterback play seemed to frustrate Cousins.

“What I gathered from the comment was 7-9 and the quarterback play are causally related and that quarterback play is 7-9, 7-9 is the quarterback play,” Cousins said on 106.7 The Fan. “I saw that and I thought, ‘I think it’s slightly more complicated than that.’ I think there’s a few more dynamics in play as to what your final record is.”

So will Zimmer consistently have Cousins’ back the way he did with Bridgewater and Sam Bradford or will he have candid moments like he did during Keenum’s run under center?

We’re likely to find out. While the team is coming off a 13-3 season with the league’s No. 1 defense, the 2018 campaign is bound to have its ups and downs. The Vikings are slated to face Aaron Rodgers twice, Drew Brees, Carson Wentz and Tom Brady.

The middle ground might be Cousins having to adapt to Zimmer’s style as the rest of the roster has over the past four years.

“The first time they went through this, it was hard for them,” Parcells said. “Once they’d been around for awhile, I don’t think they thought anything about it.”

And Zimmer may have to continue to adapt — as he did in 2017 to a some extent.

“I can’t be too sensitive either,” Parcells said.

There’s another side to Zimmer’s honesty: a vulnerability that he’s never been afraid to show — and that you don’t see often in football. It’s the side of Zimmer that cares deeply for his players. It’s the part that endears him to fans and those close to him.

When Teddy Bridgewater went down with a knee injury so severe that doctors feared for his leg, Zimmer likened the event to the loss of his wife and begged the media to give the young quarterback space in his recovery. Since then on multiple occasions, the Vikings’ head coach was willing to share his affection for Bridgewater.

“I love Teddy. I’ve said that before. He is a competitor; he’s got the heart of a Lion,” Zimmer said on March 1.

The Vikings’ head coach has led the team through all sorts of strife with his heart on his sleeve. From Adrian Peterson’s suspension to Blair Walsh’s missed kick to Bridgewater’s injury to his eye surgeries to the death of offensive line coach Tony Sparano.

“Tony was a very good friend of mine, an excellent football coach and mentor for me to be able to go in and talk to about things in the office,” Zimmer said just four days after Sparano’s unexpected passing. “He was always here very, very early in the morning as I usually am. We were able to sit down and talk about not just football, but talk about life, talk about kids and things like that, so it will be hard for a few days, but we’ll get through it and we’ll get back to work and do the things that we do. That’s what he would want us to do.”

When players talked about the loss of Sparano, they carried on his message. They always do.

The post Mike Zimmer: The last honest head coach appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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