Thank you, Dr. Z. Yours truly, Everybody
Zimmerman’s mastery of football minutiae was staggering. During the game, he would keep a visual game chart, with different squiggles denoting pass, run, or punt, his tiny script indicating the ballcarrier or receiver. He’d also record: a defensive chart, in which he would highlight good plays by defenders (not necessarily just tackles); an offensive line chart, which would note successful blocks; a cumulative statistical summary, recording individual statistics for attempts, completions, carries, and fumbles for each team (the New York Times’ Jerry Eskenazi said, “I don’t believe Paul has ever believed a press release); a chart on punters, including elapsed hang-time, distance, and return yardage, coffin-corner efficiency, and, at the end of the game, the average hang-time for each punter. For fun, he would time the National Anthem.
“He is a sick f—,” said one editor at SI with a measure of affection. “But we need him.”
– Michael McCambridge, “The Franchise, A history of Sports Illustrated Magazine,” Hyperion Books, 1997
The reason Sports Illustrated needed Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman, and hired him away from the New York Post in 1979, is the same reason that sports fans today need Bill James, Football Outsiders, Prospectus Ventures, Pro Football Focus, “Moneyball,” NFL Films, and the ever-burgeoning cottage industry of tape mavens and advanced analytical scholars: Because somewhere, someone loves their favorite sport enough to take a closer look underneath the hood and desperately wants to know how things work beyond the popular and easy narrative.
And it’s safe to say that without Zimmerman, few of the people and organizations named above would have the same understanding of their own work — whether they know it or not. Because, whether you know it or not, Zimmerman has been as much of a pioneer and masterful influence on football analysis as Bill James was to the advancement and enhancement of baseball knowledge.
Zimmerman’s classic tome, “The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,” was first published in 1970 when there was no internet, no coach’s tape available to the general public, and very little in the way of national football analysis as you see it today. He based his expertise on his time as an offensive lineman for Stanford and Columbia University, and started his journalistic endeavors for various East Coast newspapers before landing at the Post in 1966. He put out a new version of the book in 1984, and nobody had come close to the book’s comprehensiveness in the ensuing decade-and-a-half.
But it was really with SI that Zimmerman’s influence grew, and fans of the game developed a knowledge of where to go for the expert’s take.
The last five years have seen an explosion in the technology allowing football fanatics to analyze the game. But Dr. Z has been an observer only. In Nov., 2008, he suffered a series of strokes that left him unable to read, write, or communicate for the most part. An unthinkable sentence for one so eloquent, one would think. But as he always was in his work. he faced this horrible challenge with defiance and dignity.
“Can you imagine being a writer who can’t read, write or speak?” his wife Linda said during a benefit banquet in May, 2009. “And not once has he been angry or shown any sign of defeat.”
Now, Paul and Linda Zimmerman spend their at their Mountain Lakes, N.J. home, and they deal with the aftereffects of the strokes every second of every day. Ken Rodgers of NFL Films recently visited the couple at their home and helped Dr. Z pen a touching letter to his readers. The letter and accompanying video show that no matter what external forces silence him, “Z” still has all kinds of things to say.
My wife says the best way to understand my current situation is to take a look at my library. Like my brain, it’s filled to the rafters with information; some valuable, some worthless, but all of it a mystery to anyone but me. In this room and others like it, I covered professional football for 55 years. Friends tell me I’ll be remembered as the author of the definitive book on football. Or as the writer who popularized weekly NFL picks. Or one of the early crossovers into 24-hour sports television. To me, none of that matters. Right now, I’m just a guy whose library went dark on November 22, 2008.
That’s the day I suffered the first of three strokes. I haven’t written a word in the five years since. It’s called aphasia. My brain still works perfectly. I’m just unable to communicate my thoughts to others. I can’t read. I can’t write. And the spoken word, once the playground of my soul, has become a tedious one-way street.
Three words comprise most of my vocabulary. The first one is “Yeah,” and the second one is “No.” It’s taken me four years of speech therapy to get those bastards out.
Most everything else comes out as the word “when” – though it sounds a bit like “one” when it comes flying out of my mouth like the Howitzers I saw in the army … In my head, those are all different words, assembled together in masterful, witty sentences. But all that comes out is “when.” Which may be fitting since much of my time these days is spent re-living “the when.”
– Paul Zimmerman and Ken Rodgers, “Yours Truly, Dr. Z,” NFL Films, 2013.
Dr. Z was much more than a historian, but re-living “the when” when it came to football was his specialty. Nobody has ever brought the game’s eras together with more expertise. He had played against Vince Lombardi’s power sweep long before the Packers of the 1960s, and he seemed to know how to tie every modern and supposedly trailblazing development to some relevant antecedent.
I’ve heard that people are fascinated by Pete Carroll’s new age coaching style. But I remember 40 years ago when the Cowboys were charting their players’ emotional biorhythms. Are you impressed by Peyton Manning’s exploits at age 37? You should be. But don’t forget that fifty years ago, 37-year-old Y.A. Tittle set the NFL record for passing touchdowns. A record that stood for 21 years till Marino broke it in ‘84. I guess that was my favorite thing about sportswriting: putting every Sunday in historical context. But like I said, the NFL is cyclical. My audience has moved on. I don’t blame them. Because so have I.
The thing I most like about Bill James’ work is the thing I most liked about Dr. Z’s — he was able to present concepts that would have been lost in the hands of others. He could make the most advanced ideas acceptable without talking down to the reader, because he had a wonderful, original, and conversational style. And with that, he would take you into the immediacy of the action, just as he would lay open the secrets of the game for all to see. When he wrote a game story, it was different than anybody else’s game stories. Why? Because he went through the door with his own ideas, and he wasn’t going to change that for anyone.
At big games I covered before I got to SI, I used to see Zim interviewing someone alone … almost always alone. Jay Hilgenberg after a Bears playoff game; that’s one I recall. He always thought: Why do I want to get what the crowd gets? Why do I want what’s going to be in everyone’s story tomorrow? I want my own story. That’s such a valuable lesson. When I would cover a big game for the magazine, I’d turn my story in at dawn on a Monday, then open up every paper I could find to make sure all (or 95 percent) of the quotes and stories I used were mine and no one else’s. That’s the most valuable lesson he taught me.
– Peter King, The MMQB.com
My favorite Dr. Z pieces were his boots-on-the-ground articles, when he had to encapsulate a game on the fly and could use his mammoth stock of football wisdom without a seeming second thought and integrate it perfectly into the conversation of the gameday narrative. Nobody has ever done it better. His game story for the San Francisco 49ers’ 26-21 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI on Jan. 24, 1982 is the single best and most informative game piece I’ve ever read. I often think of it when I’m on a deadline in a press box, and I aspire to do one-tenth as much as well. While most writers try to beat you over the head with what you just saw, Z started his article with the plays the 49ers didn’t run in the game. And then, he proceeded to delve the anatomy of Bill Walsh’s brilliant game plan in ways that nobody else could. Then or now.
Because he knew when, and what, nobody else knew.
They had an end-around pass, Dwight Clark throwing to Freddie Solomon. They had different option passes for every healthy running back. They had a play in which Solomon throws a pass off a reverse and they had a pitch-and-later-al, Joe Montana to Ricky Patton to Earl Cooper. They had something called a Nickel Blizzard, which isn’t the big brother of Pennies From Heaven; it’s a safety blitz out of the nickel-back formation. What else? Oh yeah, they also had what they call a Short Yardage Triple Pass, which means sweep, reverse, pitch back and pass…no, wait a minute, they did use that, yes they did. They used it in the first half, in which they built a 20-0 lead on the way to their 26-21 triumph over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich.
Why didn’t they use that other stuff? Well, they had enough, quite enough, more than enough. How many new toys can you fit in the attic? How many candy bars can a healthy child digest? How many newfangled things can you throw at a team without having the Competition Committee come up with another Parity Edict in the off-season…O.K., Walsh, the other guys get two weeks to prepare for Super Bowl XVII, but we’re giving you three days, see.
Brother, did 49er Coach Bill Walsh throw some stuff at the Bengals. The Triple Pass, in which Montana hands to Patton who hands to Solomon who pitches back to Montana who throws downfield to Tight End Charle Young, was designed for third-and-one. It made its entry on the Niners’ first third-and-one situation of the game—in the middle of their long (68 yards), exotic touchdown drive in the first quarter—picked up a neat 14 yards and then bowed out for the day amid polite applause.
He could get caught up in the minutiae, just as anyone else can. When the Post sent him to cover the 1965 NFL Championship game, he got so wrapped up in a conversation with Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer about Green Bay’s blocking prowess that he forgot to interview Bart Starr and Paul Hornung. He was so far ahead of his time, through — he knew (perhaps without knowing) that there would be an audience interested in the Packer Power Sweep as much as there were people who wanted Hornung’s quote and the box score.
Dr. Z is the most accomplished football writer of all time, and when I joined SI in 1994 as a 29-year-old covering the NFL, it was slightly intimidating. And I have to admit that, at first, he didn’t go out of his way to make me feel less intimidated. He had every reason to be annoyed by me, a young, loud, new-guard journalist who acted like I had it all figured out a lot more than I actually did. He messed with me a little, and I had to navigate my way through the situation.
Once I hung tough and started working with Zim, however, there was a relatively quick thawing–and I had the great pleasure of getting hands-on training, intended or otherwise, from a legend. I loved that he was so strong and secure in his opinions–and I loved even more that they were founded on unparalleled knowledge and intensive reporting. I would never approach him in the former area, though it was sure fun to soak up as much as I could in his presence.
And when it came to the latter, I was merely trying to report to his lofty standard– i.e. interviewing John Elway on the balcony of his room at the Broncos’ team hotel following Super Bowl XXXIII (after Zim had famously watched a replay of Super Bowl XXIII with Joe Montana in Montana’s room hours after the game). It turned out we had more in common that either of us had realized. Zim had done his share of late-night carousing with sources back in the day, and for all his superior football acumen, doggedness and toughness were at the foundation of his reporting excellence. I was simply trying to follow the path he’d blazed.
We have an obligation to do what he did as much as we possibly can. We have an obligation to dig deeper and write smarter and ask the questions we might not have asked the day before because we took that extra time to watch tape or research an aspect or talk a few extra minutes with a source. We have an obligation to make football writing a richer tapestry than it was yesterday. Because he did it, and he did it decades ago, and we may never catch up to him, but we have an obligation to try. We have an obligation to remember his name and his work and to forward the reasons for his influence. Because we would not be here without his work. We would be decades behind.
The DNA of Dr. Z’s columns is all over modern football journalism. When a blogger posts a Cleveland Browns play diagram, a website breaks down stats 30 ways from Sunday, when a hot stove article breaks down free agent rumors or coaching carousel news, they all assume (correctly) that there is a regional and national audience that craves analysis of that detail. Dr. Z. is one of the first people who made that assumption, then cultivated and educated the audience he attracted. He was the insatiable, writing to the other insatiables. — Mike Tanier, Sports on Earth
I wish I could have known and worked with Dr. Z. Learned from him. Carried his laptop case. Run errands. Whatever. Anything. He was the king of power rankings and mock drafts for SI when I was just finding my feet in the industry — one more little guy who was trying to gauge the size of his footsteps, much less walk in them. Through his work and the guidance of those who were inspired by him, I started to put it together — learned to ask the right questions once in a while, learned to watch tape and pick the right thing out one time in three, learned to see the game in a different way.
I was able to see the game in a different way, in large part, because Dr. Z had cleared the path.
When Tom Mantzouranis hired me to write for Sports Illustrated this last July, I thought about all the people who have written for the magazine and the website who have inspired me — Peter King, Mike Silver, Dan Jenkins, Gary Smith, and on and on — and I wasn’t freaked out until it hit me.
Oh, s—. I am going to write about football where Dr. Z had once written about football.
And for all the work I’d done to get to this point, and all the expertise I imagined I might have, the thought made me feel very small. And very sad, because Dr. Z had written about football and he wasn’t going to any more.
It still does. Because Paul Zimmerman’s legacy as a Thinking Man who wrote about pro football is something that is hopefully passed from mind to mind, and heart to heart. When you read his work, you feel that the game is more accessible and elevated at the same time, and it’s that rare gift that makes him timeless.
I think of “Z” every time there’s a national anthem (which he used to time) or a punt (he used to clock the hang time) or a really good bottle of red wine being ordered on behalf of the company. It took a while, but he legitimately took me under his wing, and it was an honor to work with the man. He penned me handwritten letters and paid me compliments I probably didn’t deserve and made me feel like I belonged on his level–which, of course, was a lie. I didn’t. I still don’t. None of us do. – Mike Silver
In the last few years he wrote, Zim was haunted by the annual torturous spring ritual of the Mock Draft. To say he agonized over the thing would be a massive understatement. His mock would be due at the SI offices on Sunday morning for the draft that would be the following Saturday. (Usually; it has been a moving target.) I’d be working on my own mock for SI.com at the time, and that wouldn’t come out till a day or two before the draft. And I was working my sources. So I’d see his version, and we’d talk four or five times on that Sunday before his draft got set in stone and readied for print by Sunday night. And I’d tell him, “Hey, if I were you, I would make these changes … ” And it would really piss him off. Some he’d know, some I’d know.
But he couldn’t get over the fact–it enraged him–that a guy he’d known in the league for a long time wouldn’t be totally upfront with him about who they’d take. They’d smokescreen him. Hey, they’d smokescreen me, too. But often times there are others who know–friends in the league who might have had a beer at the Lexington Marriott one night with a Browns scout who said, “Forgot Akili Smith. Forget McNabb. This is our guy–Tim Couch.” Or maybe an agent heard something real. But I’m not here to say it’s bad Zim didn’t know the guy having the beer at the Kentucky bar. Not at all. I’m here to say how admirable it was that a 70ish Zim would agonize over his Mock Draft. His stories, his drafts, his information … all crucial to him. It’s what made Zim Zim.
Zim beat up a lot of people over the years. He wasn’t easy to get along with. He had warts. But he’s an American original, and I’m lucky over the years I got to learn at his feet. – Peter King
I’ve seen loved ones stricken incoherent and paralyzed by strokes: bright, successful people frustrated by the simple act of tying shoelaces or ordering a sandwich. It’s scary to think of what such ailments take away. Watching football – and expressing my thoughts and opinions on it – are joys I take for granted. It was my hobby and passion long before it was my career. I think we all recognize in the back of our minds that we will lose our parents, we may lose our spouses, we may lose much of our eyesight and hearing and mobility. But to lose the ability to tell the guy next to you what you think of a play or a call is unfathomable, and humbling. It reminds you not to take a sentence or paragraph for granted, that talking to fellow fans about this fascinating sport, and being listened to, is a gift and a privilege. – Mike Tanier
I suppose I wanted to write this piece because I was moved to tears by the part of the NFL Films video that has Dr. Z wondering if he has any reach to today’s football fans. I wonder, too. The people I asked to pen marvelous tributes to Dr. Z wonder, too.
If you haven’t read his work — if you only know Dr. Z from those of us who try to carry on in our own “lowercase z.” fashion — do yourself an enormous favor and reach back for the truth about the game. His SI.com archive can be found here, and his magazine pieces here. You’ll soon understand that most of the things that make great football analysis today wouldn’t exist had he not chosen to blaze his own trail.
And blaze your own trail, dammit. I’m sure that’s what he’d tell us now.
Time marches on. Don’t waste it.