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Gary Zimmerman: Zone blocking will keep defenses off-balance, could extend Manning's career

Twenty years ago, when the offense underwent a schematic overhaul as part of a coaching change, the final pieces of what would create a Hall-of-Fame resume for offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman fell into place.

He didn't realize it at the time, but an offense built around zone blocking would help him add two Pro Bowls, another first-team All-Pro selection and, finally, a Super Bowl ring to one of the finest ledgers any offensive lineman ever assembled.

Zimmerman retired after Super Bowl XXXII, going out on top the way that John Elway would a year later, and the way that Peyton Manning would like to leave, whenever the record-breaking quarterback ends his career.

"Leaving on top is great, because you can look back and say, 'You know what? I went out a winner.' It's a great way to go out," Zimmerman said during a phone interview this week. "Very few guys get to do that, and I think that would be special if he could do that."

And if he does, a zone-blocking intensive offense will help make that possible. It brought out the best in Elway during his final seasons by diversifying the attack, making the offense as potent on the ground with Terrell Davis following Zimmerman, Tom Nalen, Mark Schlereth and others as it was when he dropped back to locate Ed McCaffrey, Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith downfield.

That kept defenses off-balance in the 1990s, and Zimmerman expects history to repeat itself with Manning and the current array of targets.

"It's going to take a lot of pressure off him, for one. In the past, the [offense] was one-dimensional, it was pretty much a throwing team, and that's what everyone prepared for, and all the pressure was on Peyton, so when you have a zone-blocking game, if the run's not working, you go to the pass, and if the pass is not working, you go to the run," Zimmerman said.

"I think the biggest thing in the zone blocking is that the defense has a lot more to think about, because a lot of plays look alike, and there's a lot of pass plays that look like run plays. It kind of puts a little more thinking on the defense as in the previous years, where they just lined up and played, and knew that the pass was coming. Now they're going to have to first determine if it's a run or a pass, and then go from there."

As we've seen in the last three seasons, even a second of hesitation from the defense is all Manning needs.

"The defense has to study more. You can block different plays," Zimmerman said. "You can block a sweep the same way as you can block a dive. Your (line)backers can't just fill A-gaps, and that kind of thing, because if they fill the A-gap, it could be a sweep.

"It puts a lot more pressure on the defense, and it makes them do a little more thinking, which is what you want to do to a defense, because if you make a defense think, it kind of cripples them."

And by keeping the defense off-balance, Zimmerman believes the offense can length, echoing a sentiment that Elway has shared in recent months.

"I think everybody's going to like it. I think it's a win-win for everybody because you're not going to be one-sided; you're going to have the run and the pass game," Zimmerman said. "I think eventually Peyton will embrace it because it will possibly extend his career. I think it will be hard for him at first, but I think once he gets the feel for it, it will be great."

Seventeen years after his last game, Zimmerman still likes to examine offensive-line play, and when he watches the NFL these days, he usually watches the Broncos -- the team with which he most identifies because of the Super Bowl win and his affection for owner Pat Bowlen and the organization. But the television coverage doesn't give an ex-offensive lineman the perspective he really wants.

"Maybe it's one of those good-old days things, but it seems to me that when something happens, they don't replay the line; they always replay the quarterback and the receiver and the running back. You see something happen the first time on the line, but I can't get a second view of it," Zimmerman said.

"I guess that's the way the game has gone. People want to see the ball. That's the way it is."

But perhaps it's not always the way it will be.

"I'd like to see them come out where you could get the option of watching it from the end zone. What I like to watch is the end-zone view. Maybe the future with the technology they have, they'll give you the option to watch the tight cuts of the linemen."

But his football-watching fits around other aspects of his life.

Today, Zimmerman is a self-described "semi-snowbird." He divides his time between Arizona and Oregon, where he has what he describes as a "hobby ranch" with 40 acres of timber. He also conducts small football camps in Oregon each summer.

"I'm just kind of a lumberjack-wanna-be-type guy," he said. "I do some hunting and fishing. I'm just enjoying life."

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