METAIRIE, La. — Bill Parcells paused, searching for the perfect word, as he was trying to describe the difference between former assistants Sean Payton and Mike Zimmer.
“I really think they’re the same guy in a lot of ways,” Parcells said of their drive, intensity and mastery of the offensive and defensive games, respectively.
“Now, Mike is a little more … uhhh … let’s say ‘verbal,’” Parcells said of the fourth-year Minnesota Vikings coach, who is known for his direct, blunt personality, compared to the more gregarious one Payton has displayed in his 12 years as coach of the New Orleans Saints.
Zimmer’s description was even better. Perfect, really.
“We’re pretty opposite, I think. I mean, Sean’s a great guy and a heck of a coach. You’d have to ask him how I am. I don’t know,” Zimmer said in his typical curt fashion.
Then when asked to expand on what he meant by “opposite,” Zimmer simply replied, “He’s a lot more outgoing than I am,” followed by an awkward silence.
That got a big laugh out of Payton when he heard what Zimmer said. He knows Zimmer well after the three years they spent together on Parcells’ staff with the Dallas Cowboys from 2003-2005, when they lived about a mile away from each other, talked a lot of football and played a lot of golf together.
Well, spent a lot of time on golf courses, anyway.
“We were professional driving range partners. … And we were frustrated golfers, I would say,” Payton cracked. “But we enjoyed the same things. We enjoyed football, our families and golf. And holy cow, we did a lot of things together. And his daughters were great [when they babysat Payton’s children]. And when [Zimmer’s son and current Vikings linebackers coach] Adam finished college, I hired him here and his career got started. … We’re both from Illinois, and his father was a legendary high school coach there.
“We’re close friends.”
When Payton got his job with the Saints in 2006, Zimmer’s wife Vikki threw the Paytons a going-away party that Adam said he came back from college to attend. When Vikki died unexpectedly in 2009, when Zimmer was coaching with the Cincinnati Bengals, Payton went to the funeral.
With that close friendship has come a tremendous mutual respect. There aren’t many coaches doing their jobs at a higher level anywhere in the NFL, especially considering they both call their own plays. Payton leads the NFL’s No. 2-ranked offense and Zimmer the No. 1-ranked defense as they head toward a collision course in Sunday’s divisional-round game at Minnesota.
Former Saints and Cowboys linebacker Scott Fujita also got a big laugh out of Zimmer’s short-and-sweet personality breakdown.
“That’s just classic. That paints the most perfect picture,” Fujita said. “Because in terms of kind of the ‘mad-scientist, knowing how to scheme an opponent’ they’re so similar in that. But their way of dealing with people is completely different.
“With Zim, obviously as everyone sees in press conferences and everything else, that’s also how he is in meeting rooms, that’s how he is with his coaches. It’s just no b.s., he cuts to the chase, there’s no wasted words at all. And then with Sean, he’s just a gifted storyteller and motivator.”
‘Respecting the genius’
Fujita’s respect for both of them is obvious (he wrote a 1,600-word opinion piece for foxsports.com four years ago about why the NFL blew it by waiting so long to hire the now-61-year-old Zimmer as a head coach — which included a terrific story of how he experienced Zimmer’s brilliance while watching film with him one afternoon). And he said “in terms of respecting the genius of a coach,” they probably rank as the top two he has ever played for.
But Fujita also admits that he probably wanted to punch both guys in the face at some point.
“One thing that is similar, they know how to push your buttons,” Fujita said.
None of this should suggest that Payton is the more mild-mannered one. Not even close, actually.
Payton’s intensity goes up about a thousand notches on game days, as his players and assistant coaches have long attested — and as he regretfully displayed by making a “choke” gesture toward Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman last month.
“Sean is like two different people,” Adam Zimmer said. “During the week he’s great to work for. He’s upbeat all the time. Then on game day, he’s crazy. He’s literally crazy. He’ll cuss out the equipment guy to the trainer to the special teams coach.”
When asked if he ever fell victim, Adam said, “Once.” When he was a quality control coach and the Saints had allowed 8-of-9 third downs in the first half against Green Bay.
“He couldn’t find any other defensive coaches, so he found me and said, ‘They’re eight of nine on third down!’ He was yelling at me,” Adam said. “He said ‘Get it fixed!’ and I said ‘Yes sir.’ That was the end of it. On game day he’s a little different animal.”
Payton was an offensive whiz kid with his star on the rise when he joined Parcells’ staff in 2003, shrewdly taking the job as a sort of “head-coaching internship” under the same NFL yoda who produced other coaching greats like Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin.
Parcells once joked that Payton could get the “disease” at times as an exotic play caller. But he quickly developed enough respect for him to hand over the keys to the offense. And the two have been extremely close ever since.
Parcells said he speaks to both Zimmer and Payton on almost a weekly basis through texts or phone calls, although he’s giving them both their space this week as he plans to watch at home in Tequesta, Florida.
‘Misery loves company’
Payton’s recollection of those days in the Dallas meeting rooms make it seem like he and Zimmer were a couple of high school kids trying to stay out of detention.
“When we were all working there in Dallas, there’s that feeling as you’re all getting hammered by Bill that … you’ve gotta be close with each other just for any other reason than to survive. So misery loves company I guess sometimes,” Payton said. “If it was Zim one day, then I would probably doodle on a pad that would probably say, ‘Better him than me today.’ And then if it was me, I’m sure Zim would be doodling the same thing.”
That’s not all that Payton and Zimmer were doodling in those notebooks, though. Today you can walk in either coach’s locker room and see some of their Hall of Fame mentor’s classic sayings on the walls or hear them in their motivational speeches or media interviews.
Payton, 54, strayed from Parcells in one way, though, when he decided to stick with the Saints for a second decade after kicking the tires on a possible separation two years ago.
Parcells was famous for believing it was better to leave a place too early than stay too long. But Payton ultimately didn’t see any better situations available than the gig he has in New Orleans under owners Tom and Gayle Benson and general manager Mickey Loomis.
And despite three straight 7-9 seasons, everyone involved had enough faith to re-up last year on a five-year contract extension worth more than $9 million per year.
Parcells said he never advised Payton to leave: “I don’t tell anybody what to do.” But he said he is impressed at how Payton not only stayed, but reinvented a team with a record-setting passing offense into one that is now leaning heavily on its run game and defense.
“He’s kind of had to almost recycle his team from that Super Bowl team,” Parcells said. “I know we discussed that part of the process, just as it was starting to go on, when some of those top quality players from his team the first time were now leaving and their careers were over. That’s a cycle that, first of all, some coaches don’t even get to go through it if you’re not there that long. But when you do, sometimes that’s a difficult cycle.”
Payton’s legacy is mostly intact as one of the NFL’s great offensive minds. But it could become a Hall of Fame legacy if he proves able to rebuild and win another one.
Zimmer, meanwhile, has compiled a stellar 39-25 record in the regular season. But it goes without saying that a Super Bowl run would be a game-changer.
So without trying to overstate the significance of a divisional-round playoff game, it’s safe to say there is a lot more on the line in this battle than there was on those suburban Dallas golf courses.
“It’ll be a battle of strengths,” Parcells said of the Saints offense and Vikings defense.
“They’ve had some battles going back to when they were coordinators when Sean was in New York and (Zimmer) was in Dallas, so I think it goes back awhile,” Adam Zimmer said. “I know he wants to beat him whenever we play them. But in the playoffs, it really doesn’t matter who you’re playing. You just want to win.”
“Sean’s legacy is cemented, [but] he can deepen the legacy,” Fujita said. “But for Zim, who for so long never got the respect he deserved … I think for him to have a big moment like this on a big stage against a team like the Saints, against Sean who’s a friend and rival, is a huge, huge moment in his career.”
ESPN Vikings reporter Courtney Cronin contributed to this report.