This week at The MMQB is dedicated to the life and career of Paul Zimmerman, who earned the nickname Dr. Z for his groundbreaking analytical approach to the coverage of pro football. For more from Dr. Z Week, click here.
By Matt Millen
I’ve got some good stories about Paul Zimmerman, dating back almost 40 years. I’ll get to those. It’s a sad thing, seeing Paul not being able to speak or write anymore. But the saddest thing is seeing this young generation that loves football so much growing up without being able to read or hear Dr. Z. That is a huge loss to everyone who loves our game.
What made Z different was that he knew the game. You could just tell by talking to him. I mean, he knew the game so well that he actually helped me prepare to play one of the best games of my life, in one of the biggest games of my life.
But let me start at the beginning. I first met him in 1977, when I was a young defensive end at Penn State. He was writing for the New York Post. When you talk to reporters in a group, normally all you see is a sea of faces. But there was this guy that day in State College … his questions weren’t normal questions. Either he played, or coached, or had been around the game in a way like no other writer. He had this nasty cigar, and the stogie breath that came with it. That was my introduction to Z. I immediately liked him. You could tell he loved the game, asking about far more than just the surface. I loved that.
The next time I saw him was at the Sugar Bowl, the national championship game against Alabama, in 1979. There he was, asking me about the Alabama team. His questions were full of information about Bear Bryant’s philosophy—how he coaches, how Alabama called plays, their tendencies. I thought, This is good stuff. I’m going to look for it on tape and see if I can find it. That’s the kind of stuff that nobody else asked.
I saw him again in 1980. He was at Sports Illustrated then, and I was getting ready for the NFL draft. I remember him saying, “You’re going to the Redskins at the bottom of the first round.’’ After that, I will never forget Washington GM Bobby Beathard calling me and telling me, “If there’s no quality receiver when we pick, you’re our guy. We’ll pick you.’’ Of course, when they drafted in the first round, some bum named Art Monk was there, and they drafted him. I went to the Raiders in the second round.
In my rookie year, we went to the Super Bowl. Here comes Z—chomping on the same cigar, I think, that he had at Penn State—with these same insightful football questions. In Super Bowl week he said to me, “Hey, you gonna be watching tape later?’’
“Can I watch?” he asked.
So we went to my hotel room and watched tape. That is when I started getting to truly know him. His love of football, watching tape that day, was unmatched. He was asking questions about everything. His strength, his forte, was the front seven. He loved the physical nature of the game. In those days, the game had a lot of hand-fighting, head-butting, guys going for knees. I found out that he had played at Stanford, and Columbia, and somewhere in the Army. He told me about playing semi-pro football, and those were the best stories. Actually, it’s a generous title—“semi-pro’’ football. Talking to Z, he told me about all the cartoon characters in that game. He had some incredible stories, getting fingers bit, dirty stuff.
Three years later, we made the Super Bowl again with the Raiders. We played Washington. And the week of the game, I watched a bunch of tape with Z. He knew everything I knew. That was the game where I had the best-called game of my life. I called the defensive signals for that team. Preparing throughout week, he quizzed me. He would ask me question after question. Questions he would ask were questions I wouldn’t think of. I’d say, “Okay, out of this set, they’re running 83% of the time. Russ Grimm does this, Joe Jacoby pulls here.’’ He knew Washington was studying too, so he said, “What if they do the opposite? What if they change up what they’d been doing?” He made me think. He made me better that week, because I went in thinking about different things they might do. I think that helped me prepare for the game and play one of the best games of my life.
That was the thing about Z. He never presented himself as just a writer. He knew the game. He was different.
One more story. In 1989, I was with San Francisco, and we played the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now he was the famous Dr. Z. He had evolved from Paul Zimmerman, the football writer. He was the authority. So during Super Bowl week in New Orleans, he says to me, “Could you and Steve Young go to dinner with me, to the Court of Two Sisters?’’ Steve wasn’t playing then. I just figured he wanted info about the game. I said sure, we’d go with him. Why’d we go there? Z was a wine guy, and we find out he wanted two virgin palates. I didn’t drink wine. Steve didn’t drink. He wanted people without prejudice to go in and taste wine.
I remember that night distinctly. Z had this thick old notebook where he made all his notes about wine, and he had that out. The wine came and Z sniffed it, rolled it around the glass. He hands it to me. “Taste this one,’’ he says. He gets ready to write in his ratty notebook. I tasted it.
“Tastes like dirty feet,’’ I said.
He starts writing: “Tastes … like … dirty … feet.’’
Here’s my point about Paul, and why I think he’s important: When somebody is passionate, and really knows his subject matter, it elevates him above the rest of his peers. There may be guys who are stylistically different, head-knowledge different, but you don’t hear the experiential knowledge come out of many people the way it came out of Paul. That’s not a knock against anyone else. It’s just the reality of that business. When we would argue about the top running back of all time, he would hang his hat on Marion Motley. It wasn’t just talking to someone who watched him as a kid and said, “Oh, he’s really good.” It was, “Here’s why.’’ With all the specifics, and what he did better than everyone else who ever played.
So, in the last eight years, since his strokes, it’s been tough for Z. It’s been tough to communicate with him, of course. But I have a great appreciation for him. I have not had verbal communication with him, but I have had some awesome non-verbal communication. His gestures say so much. I’ll say something he won’t agree with, and he’ll slap the table, roll his eyes, and it’s like he’s saying, “Do not even go there. You are so wrong.”
One of the alltime memorable people I’ve been around in football. He’s one of the guys who really enriched my life.
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