Replacing defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was clearly the biggest and most pressing priority for the Dallas Cowboys after Quinn won the head coaching job for the Washington Commanders. They decided on Mike Zimmer. I am already on record, along with my Ryled Up podcast partner Roy White, as thinking he was the best of the options they had. Now that they have have gotten things done, here is a deeper dive into why that was so.
The situation came with some obvious limitations. It is the final, make-or-break year for head coach Mike McCarthy. That limited the opportunity to get an up-and-coming young defensive mind for the position. That is not the way they roll at The Star anyway, but it may have played a part in why they did not wind up promoting Joe Whitt or Aden Durde from within, with both of them now going elsewhere as defensive coordinators. If McCarthy does not prove he is able to take this team further in the playoffs, there will be a general housecleaning which will probably include the DC position. They needed a coach who was comfortable with that. Zimmer is getting back into coaching after a couple of years off, although he did work with Deion Sanders at Jackson State in a consulting role. This is his chance to show he still can be an asset for a team and continue his career if his stay in Dallas is brief. He was similar to two other candidates that were interviewed, Ron Rivera and Rex Ryan, in that respect.
So why was Zimmer the best option? With the Cowboys, familiarity is a big factor. He served as a former assistant and defensive coordinator with the team from 1994 until 2006, a very long run. It included the last Super Bowl win by Dallas. That had to have been a big plus for Jerry Jones. He yearns to recreate the glory years of the 1990s. Obviously the two know each other very well and anticipate a good working relationship. Having coached against each other, he and McCarthy also should have a good feel for how they can work together. Zimmer is going to be a strong presence, just like Quinn was. That is good both for a team with an offensive-minded head coach, and even more so when the organization is led by Jerry Jones.
There is the thought that Zimmer might be seen as a possible candidate to replace McCarthy, but that is not something to dwell on right now. The media will certainly be speculating on that soon enough.
The most important thing is how well Zimmer will do his job. Our David Howman has already done a great job breaking down how he uses his front seven and his secondary, and if you haven’t read them already, you should correct that oversight. Some of the personnel the Cowboys have look like great fits for him, but the management will need to add some more talent to fill some holes. Those are most likely in the interior of the defensive line, where Zimmer likes some big bodies, and linebacker. He is almost certainly going to move away from the hybrid safeties that Quinn used, which seemed to be part of the issues the defense had last season. We will have to see if Mazi Smith can develop or if Zimmer will want immediate reinforcements. It also makes the return of DeMarvion Overshown from injury important. They were both part of the disappointing 2023 draft class. Zimmer’s arrival could be an opportunity for both to start changing our opinion of that group.
We can still expect the team to look for more talent in the draft. We can only hope they might dip into free agency as well, but that is never something to get too hopeful about.
Another factor to look at is how Zimmer has a good track record for getting his scheme working well in a short period of time. That is crucial for the situation he faces. He also has shown a lot of adaptability, as when he switched to a 3-4 scheme under Bill Parcells. That seems to apply to using his players to their best advantage as well. One of the reasons some coaches ultimately fail is that they try to shoehorn their personnel into the scheme instead of molding things to fit what the players do best. It will be very interesting to see how he approaches Micah Parsons. Zimmer relies much more on traditional off ball linebackers, but can also make them a key part of the pass rush. His history would indicate he will lean more on Parsons’ obvious talent as a pass rusher off the edge, but it seems likely he will move Parsons around at times. Deception is a key part of his scheme, and with the threat Parsons brings coming from anywhere along the line, this might be a way to make him even more productive.
This was a hiring decision that feels like the most logical one available. Zimmer just fits so much about the way the Cowboys are run. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good is how easily he might slide back into the organization, but the bad is that it is a continuation of the often overly cautious and conservative way they approach these things. Still, for what might be labeled by some as just another retread hired in Dallas, Zimmer brings a lot of potential value for the team. He is one that does not seem to have been passed by in the evolving NFL, with a demonstrated willingness to change himself rather than keep on doing things the way he had in the past. Given all the surrounding circumstances, it was not only the easiest call for them to make, it may have been the best they could. And that is not just something that Cowboys fans might be thinking.
all the smartest tape-watchers on my tl are raving about the zimmer hire btw. and not just the ones who cover the cowboys— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) February 9, 2024
Welcome to Dallas, Coach Zimmer. We are hoping for great things for you.