Spagnola: Wanna Get Away? Go All In Sunday Pulling For My Man Zim

FRISCO, Texas – Empty NFL conference championship weekend.

         Jags at Pats.

         Vikes at Iggles.

         No Cowboys for the 22nd consecutive season, and everybody seems to be piling on, especially since the 25th anniversary of the Cowboys winning Super Bowl XXVII will arrive within two weeks (Jan. 31), yet another reminder of how long it’s been since winning three of four Super Bowls in the 1990s.

         Nope, they instead are busy reshuffling the coaching deck, shaking up Jason Garrett’s staff about as hard as we used to those aluminum Jiffy Pop pans over the gas burners as we debate coaching continuity vs. new voices in the room. Fresh ideas.

         Now I hear the Cowboys don’t know how to adapt when star players go down, or are suspended, the true difference this season between 9-7 and possibly 11-5. Hear that other teams win with backup or lesser talented quarterbacks. Guess everyone forgets the Cowboys went 13-3 in 2016 with their presumed third-string quarterback at the start of training camp and the rookie fourth-round draft choice who had taken not one previous NFL regular-season snap. Won the NFC East for the second time in three seasons under those circumstances. Doesn’t that count for something?

         One other thing that needs to be pointed out during all this wailing about how Minnesota, Philadelphia and Jacksonville are heading into Sunday’s matchups with the likes of Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Blake Bortles at quarterback. Well, it helps when those three teams are top four in scoring defense, Vikings No. 1, Jaguars No. 2, Eagles No. 4, and oh, for good measure, let’s throw in the Patriots at No. 5.

Oh, and the defeated teams from last weekend? Well, three of them finished in the top 10: Pittsburgh No. 7, Atlanta No. 8 and New Orleans tied for 10th.

         The Cowboys, they were 13th at 20.8 a game, and did advance to No. 8 in total yards. Playing top-notch defense can compensate for offensive struggles, even if your backup quarterback can only produce 15 points in a divisional round playoff game, the Eagles one of just two teams to win a playoff game this season scoring less than 22 points over the eight games.

         But hey, if you are searching for some sort of feel-good story on Sunday, just looking for some emotional attachment in one of these games, save the betting line, then let me suggest this:

         Pull for the Vikings.

         Pull for “Zim.”

         That’s right, former Cowboys defensive coordinator and secondary coach for 13 seasons Mike Zimmer. Couldn’t have been happier for the now Vikings head coach when finally the guy caught a break with that “Seven Heaven” 61-yard completion waking up the ghosts of Hail Mary past of 42 years ago, the Staubach to Pearson prayer enabling the Cowboys to advance over the Vikings at old Metropolitan Stadium in the 1975 season playoffs.

         And look, I’ll admit it. Was so happy for Zim, a tear or two wetted my cheek.

         See, Zim and I go way back. Back to the beginning of his 39-year coaching career that essentially began after a neck injury ended his college playing career at Illinois State in 1976. He began as a part-time defensive assistant at the University of Missouri in 1979. Me, I was covering Missouri football at the Columbia Tribune. Just two young guys trying to get going in life.

         So when he arrived at The Ranch in 1994 as a secondary assistant to then secondary coach Dave Campo 24 four years after we had last seen each other, it became one of those say-what moments when we looked at each other, like weren’t you at …

         Life has a funny way of coming back at you.

         Zim moved up the coaching tree with the Cowboys. When Campo was named defensive coordinator in 1995, Zim became the secondary coach. When “Camps” was named head coach in 2000, Zim became defensive coordinator. And when the defensive-minded Bill Parcells became head coach in 2003, he retained Zim as his defensive coordinator, even after eventually moving from a 4-3 defense to an unfamiliar to Zim 3-4.

         The players loved him. Would run through a wall for him. Why? Because Zim would run through a wall for them. I remember when young cornerback Kevin Mathis was taking heat. Zim lashed out, saying he was not going to let the media run another one of his corners out of town. He was – is – a standup guy. Ask Darren Woodson. Ask Deion Sanders. Ask Greg Ellis.  They’ll tell you.

         And he was a fine coordinator, too. Check this out: In 2001, when the Cowboys finished 5-11, they had the No. 4 defense that year. In 2003, Bill’s first year, Zim’s defense was ranked No. 1, a big reason why the Cowboys went 10-6 and into the playoffs with but Quincy Carter at quarterback, Troy Hambrick at running back and fullback Richie Anderson leading the team with 69 receptions.

         Only a dilemma would force Zim to leave the Cowboys after the 2006 season. He had an expiring contract. Parcells was dragging his feet over returning for the final year on his contract. Bill wouldn’t commit and Zim basically was out of work, no guarantees of returning.

         In the meantime, Louisville’s Bobby Petrino was named Atlanta’s head coach. He offered Zimmer the defensive coordinator’s job. He had no job with the Cowboys, and if Bill up and left, chances are a new hire would bring in his own defensive coordinator. He took the bird in hand, and eventually Parcells did decide to retire. The Cowboys hired Wade Phillips, and he also assumed defensive coordinator duties.

         Then more bad luck. Petrino, if you remember, soured on the NFL. After 13 games, he up and left with three games remaining in 2007 to take the head coaching job at Arkansas. Zim was livid. One thing in the coaching profession you don’t do is abandon ship in the middle of the season. You don’t leave your just-assembled staff hanging out to dry.

         Zim moved on to Cincinnati in 2008, Marvin Lewis hiring him as his defensive coordinator. A year later, on Oct. 8, Zim returns home from work to find his wife of 29 years, Vikki, unresponsive, dying unexpectedly of natural causes. That was a Thursday. Not wanting to let his guys down, he coached on Sunday in Baltimore. The Bengals won, 17-14. Lewis gave Zim the game ball.

         A year later, when the Bengals were heading to Atlanta to play the Falcons, Zim was interviewed about returning to where he once was before Petrino bailed on his staff. Zim unloaded. Most times his candor is unfiltered, one of his more endearing traits, I came to learn.

         He called Petrino a “gutless” so-and-so. And when told the noun he used couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper, he changed it to an acronym for what he meant. There, good enough.

         As for the part that could be printed, Zim said, “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, 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.”

         That’s Zim, and at times I think his willingness to speak his mind scared owners away from hiring him as head coach. Probably did when he interviewed for the Cleveland job. Their loss.

         But not in Minnesota when the Viking hired him as head coach in 2014. His first year the Vikings went from a 5-10-1 team to 7-9. They broke through in 2015, going 11-5 to win the NFC North away from the Packers’ stranglehold. But unfortunately, his dad, Bill, passed away at 84 just before that season began. They were tight. Bill Zimmer was Mike’s high school football coach. Coached ball at Lockport High School, just north of Joliet, Ill., about 30 miles or so outside Chicago, for 35 years. Lockport had been in our conference when I was in high school. Enjoyed conversations with Mr. Zimmer when he came to The Ranch to visit.

         A fine season ended cruelly that year in a playoff game against the Seahawks, the Vikings losing, 10-9, when kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal for the win with time expiring. Crushing.

         And then if that wasn’t bad enough, Zim goes through that whole ordeal with his eye in 2016, a scratched retina turning into a detached retina and three surgeries, the final one on Nov. 30 to save the eye and causing him to miss a game he stubbornly was refusing to miss.

         Looking back at that week, was reminded how GM Rick Spielman put it this way to Zim, convincing Mike potentially losing a game was not worth losing sight in his eye for the rest of his life:

         “As hard-headed as he is, and as tough-minded as he is, we had some pretty significant talks, one-on-one, heart-to-heart, on what is important in life. I expressed to him specifically that potentially going blind in one eye is not worth one game in the NFL. You have to look out for your long-term health, and you have to look out for what’s best for you.

“He finally seemed to realize that today, but it’s very difficult for him to handle, because of his personality, because of his perseverance.”

Ironically, the game he missed was the Thursday night one against Dallas, the one the Cowboys won, 17-15, leading to the Vikings’ 8-8 season after losing quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to the horrific knee injury and then Adrian Peterson for the year after the second game.

And how does 2017 begin? Still no Bridgewater. Peterson is gone. And of all things, Sam Bradford, traded to the Vikings from Philadelphia in 2016 for a first-round pick, suffers what has turned out to be a season-ending knee injury, forcing the Vikings to start journeyman quarterback Case Keenum for 14 games.

And what happens? The Vikings go 13-3, win the North and win their first playoff game since the 2009 season when, yes, the Vikings whipped the Cowboys that year, 34-3, in the old Metrodome.

Broke through in the playoffs with the 29-24 win over the Saints on Keenum’s 61-yard of a Hail Mary heave to Stefon Diggs with no timeouts remaining for the winning touchdown as time was expiring.

Miracle? How else to explain all that happening with but 10 seconds left in the game, when all you’re trying to do is complete a pass far enough up field from your own 39 to get in field-goal range and out of bounds in time to stop the clock?

Luck?

Somehow Zim deserved some payback on the luck meter after all that has taken place during his football career, stretching from a career-ending neck injury in college through the personal tragedies through that impossible missed field goal through the eye surgeries and through not having his perceived top two quarterbacks for the entire the 2017 season.

A tear after that win? You bet.

OK, maybe I’m a sap for stuff like this. Maybe it’s too personal.

But if you just need a little reprieve from your Cowboys misery, then hey, go all in pulling for Zim and the Vikings on Sunday to win their first NFC championship since 1976.

You know, he’s still Cowboys family.

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