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How Mike Zimmer is changing in fourth year as Vikings coach

MINNEAPOLIS -- Mike Zimmer sat in the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line meetings on many days this spring with players he wants to know are "my guys." Zimmer's evenings, when he was away on a two-week break following his eighth eye surgery, were dotted with text messages to quarterback Sam Bradford.

Zimmer is one of the rare head coaches who call defensive plays on game days, but in the preseason, he said, he might turn things over to defensive coordinator George Edwards at times.

Perhaps more this spring than at any point in his first three years as Vikings head coach, Zimmer was the chief executive of the team's entire operation. That shift, the coach said last week, comes in a season of personal development that many NFL bosses don't reach.

Zimmer, who turned 61 this month, heads into his fourth year with a team that has plenty to prove after finishing 3-8 following a 5-0 start in 2016. But the coach was given an extension before last season, providing a measure of job security that some first-time coaches never enjoy. He spent a protracted period of the offseason revisiting what went wrong last season. He believes he has a more thorough command of a job that can require years to fully master.

"I’ve said this a million times -- maybe not a million, but I’ve said, 'There’s so many times you get to be a head coach and you’re a defensive coordinator and you come in trying to be able to get the defense fixed. Then you get fired in a year or two years,'" Zimmer said. "So you don’t learn how to truly be a head coach. You’re just trying to put your fingers in different holes as much as you can. It takes a while to learn how to do this job; it really does. I probably shouldn’t say this, but there’s this guy in New England who’s doing pretty damn good now and he might’ve had a rough start in his deal. That’s kind of my mentality, [which] is to continue to grow as a head coach, continue to be involved with the defense, but be a lot more involved in the overall game-type team offense, special teams than I ever had been before. I know I’ve probably said that before, but this is the first time I’ve finally felt comfortable."

Zimmer's expertise will always be on the defensive side of the ball, but the coach has used that to forge connections with his offensive players by functioning as an opposition research specialist. He's telling his linemen where pressure will come from off a certain coverage rotation, or letting Bradford know how he'd try to stop him if he were an opposing defensive coordinator. And in practices during the Vikings' mandatory minicamp, Zimmer made time for specific game situations, giving himself the chance to drill some of the clock-management scenarios in which he's struggled at times during his first three seasons.

"It's good for me," he said. "[It's], 'You know, I got to use a timeout here. All right, defense I’ve got to use a timeout here, on offense I’ve got to use a timeout. We’ve got to clock the ball.' It’s not necessarily two-minute drills. It’s about winning the football game at the end, however that is. To me that’s one of the areas that I need to continue to improve, but I think it’s also important that I get around. I’m talking to Sam [Bradford] so much more than I ever did a year ago, and he asks me so many more questions."

Zimmer has presided over one of the league's best defenses the past two seasons, and the Vikings figure to be one of the NFL's top defensive units again in 2017. But it wasn't enough to stem their slide last year, when injuries ravaged a shaky offensive line and reduced the offense to Bradford trying to succeed without a running game. A return to the playoffs will demand a more balanced performance this year.

Zimmer seems to know it. A coach who was hired at age 58 with a well-formed sense of how he would approach the job now seems to appreciate just how much an NFL coach can only learn through experience. Even Bill Belichick had to do it during a star-crossed tenure in Cleveland, as Zimmer referenced.

If the Vikings coach, another disciple of Bill Parcells, is to attain some approximation of Belichick's success, perhaps it will come after somewhat of a revision in his style this spring. Call this Mike Zimmer 2.0.

"I think," he said, "I do a better job as a head coach by spreading myself out a little bit more."