Longtime Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, long one of the most respected assistants in the NFL, has been hired by the Minnesota Vikings to be their next head coach. ESPN's Adam Schefter was among the first with the news. Zimmer will replace Leslie Frazier, who was fired after the Vikings finished with a 5-10-1 mark in 2013. According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, the Vikings interviewed Zimmer over the last couple of days and didn't let him leave before agreeing to a deal, even though they had plans in place to have second interviews with other candidates.
Zimmer had been the Bengals' defensive coordinator since 2008. In the year before, Cincinnati's defense ranked 17th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics; they've never finished lower than 17th since and ranked fifth in 2013. He did a similar turnaround with the Dallas Cowboys defense from 2000 through '06 after spending 1994 through '99 as the team's defensive backs coach.
Zimmer has interviewed for multiple head coaching positions in the last few years, but the word seems to be that his blunt style has been at odds with front offices who don't want to hear the unvarnished truth. According to Bill Parcells, who inherited Zimmer in Dallas in 2003, that quality is one that will make Zimmer successful as he transitions to the next level.
“You want my prototype? It’s the Belichicks and Zimmers," Parcells told the Cincinnati Enquirer in August of last year. "They grew up with it, they get it. He got it at a young age. Mike is a little high-strung, a little bit like me, but I don’t know what they are waiting for with this guy because he has leadership qualities and he can coach.”
He is the son of Bill Zimmer, a former defensive assistant with the Kansas City Chiefs.
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The Vikings are a team in transition on both sides of the ball, but Zimmer is not afraid of daunting assignments -- between his jobs with the Cowboys and Bengals, he was the defensive coordinator for the 2007 Atlanta Falcons, a team that was torn apart by the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal and the Bobby Petrino debacle, in which Petrino deserted the team late in the season.
Zimmer's subsequent reflections on Petrino have not been positive in any way, shape or form.
“When a coach quits in the middle of the year and ruins a bunch of people’s families and doesn’t have enough guts to finish out the year, I’m not a part of it,” Zimmer told the Bengals' official website in October 2010. “And you can put that in the Arkansas News Gazette. I don’t really give a [bleep]. He’s a coward, he ruined a bunch of people’s lives, a bunch of families, kids, because he didn’t have enough [guts] to stay there and finish the job. And that’s the truth. Most people in football have enough courage about him and enough fight to stick it out and not quit halfway through the year. It’s cowardly.
“He came in and said he resigned, [said] he’d talk to us all at a later date, walked out of the office and no one has talked to him since,” Zimmer said. “Not that anybody wanted to. He’s a gutless [bleep]. You can quote that.”
The Bengals' most recent season ended with a 27-10 wild-card loss to the San Diego Chargers on Jan. 5. Zimmer said around that time that he knew he was in the hunt for possible promotions around the league, but that it was about focusing on the season until the season was over.
"Obviously you get calls from people, I got texts and somebody sees you on the street and they’ll say something," he said. "But like I’ve said before, I would feel awful for these guys in the locker room here if I was concentrating on getting a job or concentrating on doing an interview. My job is to do the very best that I can for these players in here because they’ve busted their rear ends for me. As long as they bust their butts for me and I bust my butt for them, then we’re good. And then whatever happens after that happens."
That focus and fire are two characteristics that had a lot of people wondering why it took so long for some NFL team to make Zimmer their head man. “Zim does a great job of identifying who to push and when,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has said. “He helps me by being the guy who puts his foot up their butt, getting them moving in the right direction so I don’t have to be the one to do it all the time.”