Gone are the days when NFL head coaches entered their first season with the license to develop a team over the course of a few years. The firing of Cleveland Browns head coach Rod Chudzinski marked the third consecutive season of a coach being fired after their first year with a team. Nothing is promised by desperate front offices. In 2011, Oakland fired Hue Jackson at the end of his first season after posting the franchise’s best record since 2002. The bar is at an all-time high for new hires. Last season, three coaches (Andy Reid, Mike McCoy, and Chip Kelly) took their teams to the postseason in their first year, while Chicago’s Marc Trestman and Arizona’s Bruce Arians missed a playoff berth by just one game.
Seven teams parted ways with their coach this offseason, and all seven new hires know that there are immense expectations to not only win, but to win immediately. We’ll be taking a look at a different first-year head coach each week, determining what they bring to the table, and just how well they will fit in with the current personnel.
Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings
- University of Missouri, 1979-1980. (Defensive Assistant)
- Weber State University, 1981-1984. (Inside Linebackers Coach)
- Weber State University, 1985-1988. (Defensive Backs Coach)
- Washington State University, 1989-1993. (Defensive Coordinator)
- Dallas Cowboys, 1994-1999. (Defensive Backs Coach)
- Dallas Cowboys, 2000-2006. (Defensive Coordinator)
- Atlanta Falcons, 2007. (Defensive Coordinator)
- Cincinnati Bengals, 2008-2013. (Defensive Coordinator)
Minnesota Vikings fans were especially anticipatory of announcements regarding Mike Zimmer’s new staff, which is understandable, considering that their offense has been as much of a mess as their defense in recent years. Fans knew that with Zimmer’s defensive pedigree, it would take an equally elite offensive mind to drive the newly tooled franchise to success. Zimmer placated any doubts by announcing that he would hire Norv Turner as offensive coordinator. Turner first achieved his revered status as offensive guru after transforming a Dallas Cowboys offense that ranked the worst in the league into back to back Super Bowl champions. In his three years as offensive coordinator, he transformed a mediocre Troy Aikman1 into the elite form that would later earn him Hall of Fame honors. He also led Emmitt Smith to three straight rushing titles,2 and he is considered responsible for the emergence of Josh Gordon in his historical season last year, as well as the development of deep passing threats like Vincent Jackson and Malcolm Floyd.
Zimmer has also reunited with former staff members in his first head coaching job. Defensive coordinator George Edwards worked with Zimmer for four years in Dallas as the linebacker coach, two of which were directly under Mike Zimmer after his promotion to defensive coordinator. Andre Patterson also served under Zimmer in Dallas, and he enters into the same role of defensive line coach with the Vikings.3 It’s also a family affair in Minnesota. Zimmer’s son, Adam Zimmer, is the linebackers coach. Adam served as assistant linebackers coach for the Chiefs, coaching three linebackers (Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Derrick Johnson) to the Pro Bowl in the same season. He also coached Johnathan Vilma to the Pro Bowl in New Orleans as the assistant linebackers coach. Norv Turner’s son, Scott Turner, is the quarterbacks coach. Scott most recently served as the wide receivers coach under his father in Cleveland, contributing to Josh Gordon’s All Pro season in which he had the sixth most receiving yards per game in NFL history.4
Mike Zimmer entered the head coaching market with the most compelling defensive resume, which made him the clear frontrunner for a Vikings team was ranked 31st in total defense last season and surrendered the most points in the league. Zimmer represents the sort of focused turnaround that the Minnesota front office is desperate for. Zimmer joined the Bengals at a time when defensive incompetence was considered part of the team culture. But in four of the past five years, the Bengals defense has been ranked in the top ten in both yards and points allowed.5 The Vikings have had a perpetually bad secondary for years, which has been sometimes disguised by a strong run defense, but Zimmer brings a balanced defensive scheme; in 2013, the Bengals ranked in the top five in run defense, pass defense, total defense, and scoring defense.6
While Zimmer’s success is statistically supported, his persona is perhaps the most appealing quality for Vikings fans. Many people know Zimmer for his profanity-laden rants on HBO’s Hard Knocks, and he is notoriously candid when people ask for his opinion.7 But what inspires the most confidence in Zimmer is his reputation for embracing the fringe players. He is known for finding players on the bubble, whether that status comes from injury, age, conduct, inexperience, or poor play. Zimmer extensively assesses the talent on the team, and builds hybrid schemes to fit the personnel.
This gives hope to the Vikings and their current roster. The Minnesota secondary has been highly criticized for their average play and inexperience, but Zimmer should be able to produce better results by developing second year standout Xavier Rhodes and newly signed cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. Zimmer will also have the chance to work with Sharrif Floyd, who displays exceptional athleticism but was ultimately underwhelming last year in his rookie season. Sharrif Floyd’s measurables are eerily close to Cincinatti’s Geno Atkins, though, who enjoyed two All Pro seasons under Zimmer and developed into one of the best defensive tackles in the league. Chad Greenway, whose productivity has been critically attributed to the lack of surrounding talent, will benefit at the weak linebacker position in Zimmer’s scheme where the undrafted Vontaze Burfict reached the Pro Bowl and led the league in tackles last season in his second year. Likewise, rookie linebacker Anthony Barr, whose athleticism made him a standout at the NFL Combine, should benefit from the fluid nature of Zimmer’s hybrid defenses.
When it comes to assessing Mike Zimmer, there aren’t exactly negatives in his history so much as there are questions that are currently unanswered. Not only has Mike Zimmer never been in a head coaching position in his thirty-five years of coaching, he has never held an offensive coaching position at any level. The Norv Turner hiring has assuaged many doubts, but it all comes down to how much control Zimmer is willing to relinquish. Zimmer has also confessed that he needs to do his research on facets of the game like clock management and challenges, and he will have to work with the Vikings staff to be able to wield the statistical weight of punting and conversion probabilities. He is also relatively ancient when it comes to first time head coaches. He enters his debut as the seventh oldest active head coach, and some people wonder if there are any hidden red flags that have contributed to the amount of time it took him to secure a head coaching job. And while Zimmer’s personality is one of the favorite qualities of fans and players alike, that sort of thing only works when you’re winning. Bill Belichick’s surly interviews are embraced because of his genius, and Zimmer’s candid nature would almost certainly be classified as abrasiveness if the Vikings started tanking.
With years of statistical proof of just how elite Mike Zimmer is as a defensive mind, and only question marks when it comes to flaws, Zimmer looks to be the safest head coaching hire this offseason. He has assembled a dream coaching staff, and has tons of untapped potential in Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson, Xavier Rhodes, and company. The NFC North is a tough division for first-year coaches, but Zimmer has all the tools to become an instant contender.
Aikman’s career win percentage as a starter was a dismal 0.280 before Turner’s arrival ↩
If only the Vikings had a premier running back for Norv to utilize… ↩
Patterson also served as defensive line coach of the Vikings from 1998 to 1999. ↩
Just ask him about Bobby Petrino. ↩