Zimmer And Belichick: Cornerback Jedis of The NFL

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In the last decade, all the way up to last Sunday, both New England’s Bill Belichick and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer have developed numerous highly successful pass-defense units.  In doing so, they have established themselves as two of the best cornerback coaches in NFL history. 

In 19 years as head man of the New England Patriots, the unmatched acumen of Bill Belichick has consistently used talent to beat talent.

His defensive schemes have changed through the years, yet he has always utilized a combination of speed at the cornerback position (with players like Otis Smith and Asante Samuel) with stronger, press athletes (like Hall of famer Ty Law and the always aggressive Aqib Talib), to break down his opponent’s offensive stratagems.

Mike Zimmer, coming from the same Bill Parcells coaching tree under which Belichick first found success, certainly does not have the Super Bowl trophy room to compare with the Patriot coach, but he does have an NFL career nearly as long.

And, Zimmer does have quite a famous coaching moment in Super Bowl history to tell his grandkids about.

In 1995, an obscure Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback named Larry Brown won the MVP award of Super Bowl XXX after picking off two Pittsburgh Steeler passes to set up game-clinching touchdowns. As the confetti came down over him after the game, Brown said this, excitedly:

“Coach told us to be where we’re supposed to be. I was where I was supposed to be.”

“Coach” was 39 year-old Mike Zimmer, then in charge of the Cowboys defensive backs unit.

Cowboy Ride

After thirteen season in Dallas as DB coach and then defensive coordinator under Parcells, Zimmer has also designed winning defensive secondaries in both Cincinnati and Minnesota.

He has developed corners like Terrance Newman, who has played for him in each city, and Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, considered widely as the best cornerback to ever play in the NFL. While Zimmer was being considered as a head coaching candidate in 2014, Sanders enthusiastically said of him:

“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for. Period.”

Mike got the job with the Vikings.

The Old And The Young

Both Belichick and Zimmer utilize both young and veteran cornerbacks in their gameplans.

In 2018, the Patriots fielded 28 year-old Stephon Gilmore (a First Team All-Pro), and 31 year-old Jason McCourty, along with 23 year-old J.C. Jackson, a rising rookie star and undrafted free agent in Belichick’s secondary.

They shut down the passing game of Los Angeles Rams’ head coach Sean McVay and All-Pro quarterback Jared Goff in Super Bowl 53 like most people shut off a water faucet.

Another one of Belichick’s rookie free agent pickups was Malcolm Butler, who won Super Bowl 49 against Seattle with his miraculous last second pick at the Patriots goal line.

For the Vikings, Zimmer positions a corps of veterans with young athletes learning quickly the quality of his craft. Returning second-year man Mike Hughes has supplemented his secondary as his chief slot corner, Mackensie Alexander, remains out with an elbow injury.

On Sunday against the Giants, Xavier Rhodes fell out of position on a touchdown pass in the game’s second quarter. Zimmer gave the 2017 All-Pro an angry retort on the sideline, displaying a hands-on style that Belichick really exhibits.

Mutual Respect

Comparing the two coaches is a moot point. At the end of the day, Bill Belichick owns the trophies. His masterful defensive game plan to beat the Los Angeles Rams in last year’s Super Bowl was both fascinating–and a little boring–to watch.

However, his counterpart, Mike Zimmer, certainly has Belichick’s respect.

“He’s been one of the great coaches in this league for a couple decades. We always look at the things they’re doing, to give us ideas.”

On Belichick, Zimmer says without reluctance:

“Yeah, well, you know–he’s the best coach ever.”

Through week four of the 2019 season, Zimmer’s defense ranks fifth in the NFL in passing yards allowed. Belichick’s Patriots are number one. New England held veteran Redskin quarterback Colt McCoy to a 60.0 passer rating, while the Minnesota held Giants’ rookie QB Daniel Jones to a 65.9 rating.

It’s good to see that age is still a distance from affecting both coaches’ ability to find and tutor the right athletes at the corner spot. When it comes to that position, Belichick and Zimmer remain the two old sages– if not Jedi Knights–at the top of the NFL mountainside.

You’ll know them when you see them–they’re the ones teaching one constant wisdom:

Be where you’re supposed to be.