Mike Westhoff and the late Gunther Cunningham have won the 2019 Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman Award from the Professional Football Writers of America.
Cunningham spent 33 of his 35 NFL seasons as an assistant coach, renowned for his feared defensive units in Kansas City over two stints and nine seasons as the Chiefs' defensive coordinator. Westhoff spent 32 seasons as an NFL assistant coach and is regarded as a special teams pioneer.
The Dr. Z Award is given for lifetime achievement as an assistant coach in the NFL and is named for Zimmerman, who covered the NFL for 29 years as Sports Illustrated's pro football writer.
Cunningham, born in Germany, was a three-year linebacker and placekicker at Oregon (1966-68), and started his coaching career with the Ducks as a defensive line coach (1969-71). He also was a college assistant at Arkansas, Stanford, and California. His first pro job was with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1981 as defensive line and linebackers coach. In 1982, he entered the NFL with the same jobs for the Baltimore Colts.
Cunningham spent six seasons with the San Diego Chargers, then four with the Los Angeles Raiders (1991-94) for four seasons, including two as defensive coordinator (1992-93). He was hired by the Chiefs in 1995 as defensive coordinator and worked with linebacker Derrick Thomas during his Hall of Fame career. After four seasons as D-coordinator, Cunningham became Chiefs head coach for two seasons (1999-2000), going 16-16. Then the Titans hired him as assistant head coach and linebackers coach before the Chiefs rehired Cunningham for a second stint as defensive coordinator from 2004-08. He also worked for the Lions.
Westhoff played linebacker or one year at Wyoming and then spent three seasons at Wichita State (1967-69) as a center and linebacker. He began coaching as a graduate assistant and freshman coach at Indiana, also worked for Dayton, Indiana State, Northwestern and TCU (1981). In 1982, Westhoff got his first NFL job with the Baltimore Colts as an offensive line, tight ends and special teams coach, and he worked for the franchise for three seasons. After one season (1985) with the USFL's Arizona Outlaws as offensive line coach, he returned to the NFL with the Dolphins. Westhoff spent 15 seasons there as special teams coach: His punt and kickoff coverage units were top ranked for four seasons, and he was voted NFL special teams coach of the year by his peers in 2000.
A survivor of bone cancer, Westhoff moved to the New York Jets, where he spent 12 seasons as special teams coordinator; he was also assistant head coach for two seasons (2004-05). The Jets' kickoff coverage and return units combined to rank first in the NFL in both 2001 and 2002.
Westhoff retired after the 2012 season, but was lured back into the NFL in midseason 2017 by New Orleans to oversee the Saints' special teams units, and he coached with the Saints through the 2018 season.
Other 2019 nominees for the Dr. Z Award were the late offensive line coach Bobb McKittrick; current Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli; and current Jacksonville Jaguars running backs coach Terry Robiskie.