Mike Zimmer is ultimately responsible for the special teams and their performance. I understand that this isn’t an incredibly novel, unique or controversial thought. “The guy in charge of everything is in charge of everything” stated the know-it-all football blogger. The reality, however, is at times it doesn’t feel that way. This past Sunday was once again one of those times.
Full disclosure I am a Zimmer supporter.
As a 21 year old in 1998, in the prime of my youthful sport-loving years the Minnesota Vikings climbed headfirst into their most explosive stretch in franchise history. Those late 90s seasons endeared Denny Green to an entire fan base. It was hard to imagine another Vikings head coach would come along and easily gain the appreciation Green had.
Enter a gruff defensive coordinator with a Super Bowl pedigree who seemed to embody the toughness that an entire state believes it has. A no-nonsense hard-working coach who for bonus points has a bunch of dead animals hanging all over the walls of his ranch. What’s not to love? Zimmer is the sort of tough SOB you expect to see running his snowblower in shorts and a t-shirt.
Despite that connection and appreciation I, like the head coach, found myself frustrated this past Monday.
At the start of the second half, Hall of Fame-level return threat Cordarrelle Patterson took a kickoff and thoroughly housed it. Fortunately, the Vikings were able to recover, but in a tightly-contested important game this was a crucial moment.
Unfortunately it wasn’t the Vikings only crucial mistake on special teams. Just eight days after getting two punts blocked in Detroit, the unit made mistake after mistake.
Zimmers frustration was on full display as cameras caught him in a top-level heat of the moment explosion against special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf. Things got to the point that Anthony Harris had to step in and calm the head coach down.
Zimmer’s fiery nature is generally one of fans’ favorite qualities about him. The internet celebrated the sideline meltdown and even Maalouf himself didn’t seem to take it remotely personally. “He’s a passionate guy. I love his passion,” he said. “For him, there’s no gray. I know what he likes, I know what he doesn’t like.”
My frustration is the explosion added to a concerning trend. In the eight years that Zimmer has been in Minnesota, it often feels like he believes that the main job of the special teams unit is to not screw the game up for his defense.
People say quarterback is the toughest job in sports. You could make an argument that being a Vikings place kicker for a damaged fan base and an aggressive coach is a close second. Zimmer’s constant frustration with his kickers, and the unit in general, is not something that he keeps to himself. Although he’s not one to shy away from handing out criticisms in general, with the special teams unit it tends to feel different. It sometimes feels like they’re a second class group whose only task is to not blow it.
Interestingly, you could also argue that the same mentality had been used against the offense for years. A unit that has seen five play callers in as many seasons. Two of whom left in very unceremonious departures. At times you could almost feel the tension of an offense getting in the way of a head coach’s winning defense.
As things came to a head with the offense, Zimmer eventually took a head-on approach. He publicly stated he was taking a larger interest in the offensive game planning and approach. He would step over, spend more time in their meetings and have a heavier influence in their process.
Although the current season didn’t get off to a great start — the understatement of the century — since the moment he made that decision, the team seems to be a more in sync unit as a whole.
That has to be the hope for this special teams issue. The detail-oriented stud of a head coach leans in and takes a bigger role to help resolve the issues. The great coaches in this league truly lean into all three phases of every football game. Bill Belichick‘s approach to special teams is legendary, and John Harbaugh was a special teams coordinator before ascending to head coach. It’s no coincidence that these two continue to put out good football teams year after year.
Despite the optics, the special teams issues aren’t as dramatic as you might think. And if Zimmer puts a more invested, supportive stamp on the unit, you can expect them to go the other way in a hurry. That expectation feels fair.
After all, Zimmer is ultimately responsible for the special teams and their performance.