Paul Zimmerman, legendary football writer, dies at 86

Sports Illustrated

Paul Zimmerman, the longtime football writer known for in-depth analysis and cantankerous opinions that appeared in Sports Illustrated for decades, has died at the age of 86.

Zimmerman, affectionately known as Dr. Z, understood the sport of football in a way few if any members of the media before him did: Zimmerman would write not only about the running back who gained 100 yards, but about the offensive linemen who made it possible — and he would explain in great detail how the offensive linemen did it, often interviewing players and coaches not just to get a glimpse of their personalities but to get minute details like what went into a proper three-point stance.

In the 1980s, when fans didn’t have NFL Sunday Ticket or DVRs or access to all-22 game film, Zimmerman made use of the then-new VCR technology to watch games over and over again, looking for little-known players who made a big difference to their teams. You could get a profile of a star quarterback anywhere, but only Dr. Z could tell you who the best guards in the NFL were, and why.

Born in 1932, Zimmerman was the son of Charles Zimmerman, a union leader and onetime chairman of the Socialist Party of America. Paul Zimmerman embraced his father’s pro-labor stances (any time there was a labor-management dispute in the NFL, you could bet Zimmerman was siding with the players), but he gravitated toward sports. Zimmerman attended both Stanford and Columbia and played football at both, and he also played football in the army after graduating from college.

Zimmerman’s newspaper career began in New York in the 1960s, and he covered the AFL’s Jets during their Joe Namath-led heyday. He also wrote a newspaper wine column, and his passion for wine never dissipated.

He made his greatest mark at Sports Illustrated, making the magazine’s official pre-season Super Bowl predictions, picking games each week, choosing All-Pro teams at the end of the season and writing features that tended to favor players who weren’t getting much attention anywhere else.

Zimmerman also worked in television occasionally, as one of the first NFL draft experts when ESPN began televising the draft, although he was the first to acknowledge that television wasn’t his strong suit: His passion for deep analysis didn’t fit well in the world of soundbites, and his argumentative nature didn’t always endear him to his colleagues, in the days before TV sports shows were mostly a series of arguments.

The author of several books, most notably The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, Zimmerman embraced the Internet later in his career, answering questions submitted by readers across the country and seeming to enjoy being the “old guy” online, at a time when online sports writing was dominated by younger writers.

Zimmerman suffered a stroke in 2008, and that ended his writing career. During the final decade of his life, those who saw him reported that he was well attended to by his wife, Linda, whom he affectionately referred to as the Flaming Redhead. He is survived by Linda and his two children.

63 responses to “Paul Zimmerman, legendary football writer, dies at 86

  1. R.I.P. Dr. Z. He was always a great read on the NFL until the major stroke 10 years ago. It was a shame what it did to him the past decade.

  2. Too bad. I always enjoyed his work. He worked in an era that kept the content to sports instead of sports, contracts and social politics… RIP

  3. One of the best writers I’ve ever been fortunate enough to have read. His Wednesday column on was for years a “must read” for people looking for inside information about the NFL.

    I really liked Paul Zimmerman.

  4. RIP Dr Z I liked how he timed the National Anthem before football games to see what singers were milking the song.

  5. I I am a true fan of his. His thinking man’s guide to football was one of the first sports books I ever read, and I followed him religiously in sports illustrated. I must confess that when he stopped writing I thought that he had died years ago. So Long sir you will be missed

  6. Know the feeling about strokes as my paternal grandmother sadly succumb to one. Paul was a pioneer in the NFL writing world, an original one of the last of his kind. May he RIP. Thoughts and prayers are with his family.

  7. RIP Dr. Z. He was the first (or one of the first) to do an NFL “power ranking”. I recall that in the week after Drew Bledsoe was injured and Tom Brady took over as QB for the 0-2 Patriots in 2001, he rated the Patriots in last place and said that he didn’t know if they had enough talent to win even another game. It was a rare miss for Dr. Z, one of the greats! RIP!

  8. Not just a good writer but a great one. I was really upset when he had the stroke as no one could replace him and kept hoping he could come back and how Peter King would always keep us updated. No more pain Dr. Z, rest well.

  9. Dr. Z was the GOAT and I use that term with all due respect. He knew football, he knew wine, and he knew the national anthem.

    The man was fired by ESPN for saying that the football player of the future would be able to pass any drug test. That alone speaks volumes about his brutal honesty.

  10. Dr. Z talked about the Xs ans Os in ways that were relatable to anyone. Its a standard many have tried to duplicate. And he always provided thoughtful insight and responses to reader’s questions.

    I’ve missed his writing, now I miss the man.


  11. Farewell Dr. Z., and thank you for teaching generations of football fans what the 21 other guys on the field are up to when the QB hits a deep touchdown pass.

  12. Wow what great memories growing up DR. Z
    reading his stories.
    Over the last few years I wondered how he was.
    An opinionated writer well ahead of his time.

  13. RIP Dr. Z

    The man was insightful. One of the features I enjoyed was toward the end of the season he would rate the various broadcast teams. Even now, every time I hear an announcer make a big mistake I wonder if Dr. Z would have mentioned it.

    Too bad no other online personality hasn’t picked up that torch.

  14. One of the best that ever was or will be. I believe he even pointed me to PFT back when it was an up and coming website (sponsored by Sprint!), when he mentioned it in his SI column in 2007 or so. Great man…the world in general is worse without him.

  15. His announcer ranking were the best. “Give me the down & distance, dammit! Nothing is more important than that.”

    Who will inform today’s announcers how they’re getting it wrong?

  16. Farewell, Dr. Z. In a world where blowhards trying to make controversy have taken over football analysis, your passionate, dedicated, detailed and honest analysis has been missed since you had to retire. Heaven’s football coverage just got a whole lot better.

  17. Paul Zimmerman was the best! Great insight and cerebral approach to a writing about a game most thought was only played by Neandrathals and Cavemen. Zimmerman opened a lot of eyes by disproving that belief. Equally important, he only focused on football and the men who played it. He did not believe it was a platform for him to espouse his political beliefs nor use his columns to promote Social Justice. He focused on what happened between the lines and let the others focus on politics.

    That’s why he was the best. Thank you Paul. You will always be missed.

  18. It was Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers that got me to become a pro football fan. It was Paul Zimmerman that got me to understand pro football.

    I always enjoyed his writing and when he went down with a stroke and could no longer put his great prose into Sports Illustrated, they lost, I lost, and the NFL lost too.

    Simply one of the great sportswriters ever. Rest In Power, Dr. Z.

  19. harryshavik says:
    November 1, 2018 at 7:15 pm
    His announcer ranking were the best. “Give me the down & distance, dammit! Nothing is more important than that.”

    Who will inform today’s announcers how they’re getting it wrong?
    The announcers today are more interested in self promotion than they are in allowing the games to be the story. I call it Howard Cosell Syndrome.
    Cosell used boxing and Muhammed Ali, then the NFL to take his career to the top, then once he was no longer relevant he turned against the very sports and people who made him famous.
    As the late Frank Gifford stated after Cosell slammed him and Don Meredith, two of his former booth partners on ABC’s Monday Night Football, Cosell wasn’t an athlete and he never had the taste of fame which athletes do. So when he got it as an announcer, he had no idea how to handle it or to keep it.
    I find myself turning the sound down now when I watch NFL games.

  20. I appreciated that he appreciated announcers like Al DeRogatis.
    I loved listening to Al D and Charlie Jones announce the west coast AFC games, back in the day.
    Those were the golden days of the NFL. Way before Madden and Summerall.
    And I think Dr Z would have agreed.

  21. Back when SI and Pro Football Weekly were the real expert eyes on the NFL and Chris Berman was a just a cartoon character, Paul Zimmerman was the by-line I searched for. Couldn’t wait til the Thursday mail.

    R.I.P., sir, but maybe we haven’t heard the last from you.

    Zimmerman wrote a comprehensive history of the AFL that is not yet published. Heck, we got one just out for the USFL…..FOOTBALL FOR A BUCK by Jeff Pearlman which is excellent. Love to see Paul’s book someday.

  22. I loved his work during the early days of ESPN’s NFL draft coverage, as well as his many writings over the years for SI. R.I.P. Dr. Z.

  23. From this middle aged guy, RIP Paul, your insights & knowledge made the game fun. Sleep well my man, sleep well.

  24. Rest In Peace Dr. Z. I loved his insight and even the year or two before his stroke he would do this online show with supermodel Brooklyn Decker. I always looked forward to that.

  25. Finally something and someone everyone can agree on. Dr. Z was the best.

    I have hoped in my heart for 10 years that somehow he would make a comeback. Now, sadly I have to accept that he never will. The one thing that elevated him above others was the incredible respect his fellow sports journalists had for him. That is one of the true measures of a person.

  26. I was Dr. Z’s ’emailer of the week’ once in his SI column many years ago, for asking him who ‘Dr Blimpy’ was, of all things!. Really enjoyed reading him; a giant among NFL writers. Rest in peace, Dr Z.

  27. He did t use his space to advance his personal beliefs, social justice, not football? Really? Leaving aside the question of why social justice is something you find distasteful, I think you didnt read as much of his work as you think you did. He was an aggressive proponent of unions vis a vis his commentary about the NFLPA and NFL labor relations. He mused more than twice about moving to New Zealand when GW Bush was elected amd re-elected. He was a consistent voice in matters of racial and social equality. Please don’t use his memory to advance your own oppositional ideas. Or at least read a bunch of his work before you try to distill it for others who may be too young to have enjoyed it on the regular.

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