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.