EAGAN — Mike Zimmer came into the NFL as a position coach.
Ask any position coach at the highest level and they will tell you that the job involves a personal touch. You get close with your students. Minnesota Vikings running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu said last year that he plans to be at his players’ weddings.
Some head coaches do not take the relationship-building approach. Bill Belichick and Bill Walsh, for example, are/were both famous for cutting players before they declined without a moment’s regret.
That’s not Zimmer when it comes to the players he has developed over the years.
When he arrived in Minnesota in 2014, Zimmer was given some talent in the form of Harrison Smith, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and his first draft pick Anthony Barr. All of them improved into Pro Bowlers under Zimmer. Before he arrived Smith, Rhodes and Barr were raw talents and Griffen was merely a situational pass rusher. In Zimmer’s time they have all signed contracts worth more than $50 million.
When the Vikings could have cut Griffen to create cap space after a down 2018 year, he was brought back. When Barr decided against signing with the Jets, the Vikings brought him back too. And when Rhodes struggled in 2018, ranking 72nd out of 78 corners by the PFF system, Zimmer believed he could bounce back.
The Vikings’ head coach — as he has often done during his time — was straight forward at the owner’s meetings, saying Rhodes needed to play better to justify his contract and that he believed the former Revis-Island corner would do so.
But it hasn’t worked out that way and the Vikings’ one-score loss in Seattle put Rhodes’ issues in the spotlight. He not only gave up a 60-yard touchdown on a coverage bust but had a helmet-throwing meltdown on the sideline in addition to a key 15-yard penalty earlier in the game. He’s now sitting 79th of 84 by PFF’s metrics.
Zimmer said Wednesday he would not evaluate Rhodes through the media — though he said Tuesday that he felt his 29-year-old defensive back had made improvements versus Seattle. What Zimmer did talk about was his close relationship with a corner who took him back to the position-coach days of developing raw talent into stardom.
“It’s important, Xavier’s (Rhodes) a good kid,” Zimmer said. “We’ve always had our little moments, I guess you’d call it, but at the end of the day, he knows I’m always trying to do what’s best for him. He’s always trying to do what’s best for me. I have a ton of respect for him, not just him, every player. He’s done what we’ve asked him to do. He tries to do it. He’s a good kid. He’s got a smile on his face all the time, comes out to practice and works hard. Yeah, I have a ton of respect for him.”
If the Vikings had no other options, the situation wouldn’t be as precarious or questionable but the team selected Mike Hughes with a first-round pick in 2018 and saw solid play from undrafted rookie Holton Hill last season. When he filled in for Rhodes, opposing QBs registered a 67.0 rating throwing in his direction.
Neither of those players appear to be in consideration for more playing time. In the last three games, Rhodes has played 69, 78 and 60 snaps, about 90 percent of total snaps since getting dinged up and missing the second half against Washington.
However, the proof is in the scheme that Zimmer isn’t blind to Rhodes’ problems this year. He has rarely been a shadow corner. In his best years, Rhodes didn’t even have to ask who he’d be matching up with. Calvin Johnson? Check. Julio Jones? Check. Alshon Jeffery? Check.
Rhodes talked on Wednesday, apologizing for his sideline outburst. He acknowledged that he hasn’t done the same job as in 2016 and 2017.
“I know my role, I need to play it better, I need to play better out on that field, eliminate the penalties and just do well,” Rhodes said.
Zimmer wants to fix the problem. He’s always been a fixer. He wants to work on technique. Coach ’em up, just like he did in the early days of Rhodes’ career.
“What we’re trying to do is in every one of the guys that when they’ve had a bad game or they’re struggling, is try to get back to the basics,” Zimmer said. “Try to get them to focus on whether it be their footwork or their hand placement or their route depth or whatever it is, to kind of get back to the basics of where they’re at and then kind of figure out where you’re at. ‘Am I losing at the top of the route, if I’m a receiver or DB, am I losing at the top of the route, am I losing at the bottom of the route, at the beginning of the route, where’s my body position?'”
Zimmer isn’t just loyal to his guys, he’s loyal to being a ballcoach who can solve the problem by pulling someone off to the side or finding something on tape. At the bye week GM Rick Spielman said he expected Zimmer to be looking for solutions on defense in his deer hunting stand — and he wasn’t kidding.
Last year was a great example of the Zimmer fix. The Vikings got toasted by the Los Angeles Rams on a Thursday night and when they returned the following Sunday they looked like a completely different defense and ended up in the top five in yards allowed. He’s changed the way they cover certain looks, stayed in tune with modern tweaks to offenses and continued to have a knack for dialing up the right pressure in the red zone or third down.
“You just try to analyze it,” Zimmer said. “We did a lot of that last week, especially in the pass defense last week we did. Quite honestly, there was a lot of really good things pass defense, now obviously not the busted coverage that we had, but a lot of the other things I saw improvement.”
We might say he’s being stubborn. We might say he’s going to die on the Rhodes hill. He’s really being the same Mike Zimmer that he’s always been — a football coach who isn’t any type of CEO and doesn’t make decisions like a market analyst.
Now the question is whether he can coach ’em up over the last four games and into the playoffs. Rhodes is battling age, which at last check is undefeated.
“It’s just been what’s been going on this year,” Rhodes said. “I’ve been battling some things, but that’s no excuse. It’s no excuse. When I’m out there on that field, everything I’m battling has to go away.”
If it does go away, the door isn’t entirely closed to a bounce back. There is an element of coverage that is tricky and unpredictable.
“Coverage is one of the most difficult things to predict year to year with our numbers, particularly when it comes to passer rating against, that’s very much dependent on who you play and who the quarterback is,” PFF’s Steve Palozzolo said on Wednesday. “Right now though it is at a concerning level for Xavier Rhodes giving up 87% completion of passes his way, passer rating of 132.6. Yes he should improve but it’s happening in different ways, whether it’s man coverage or coverage busts. As a whole though coverage can fluctuate.”
Of course if the plan to shore up Rhodes’ issues doesn’t come to fruition, we may see more performances like Sunday night in which the Vikings gave up 445 yards to the Seahawks. And that would likely mean an early exit to the postseason if the Vikings match up with the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Russell Wilson on the road.
But Zimmer’s going to do it his way and with a Super Bowl-caliber offense, whether his way works could define how this season ends.