The Dallas Cowboys have chosen Mike Zimmer as their new defensive coordinator. It’s not easy to process how to feel about this because there is so much that is unknown. Even with some recent struggles from Dan Quinn’s group, it’s difficult to know if undergoing a defensive change will be better, worse, or more of the same.
Whether we wanted it or not, change happened. And looking at all the options the team had, the Cowboys appear to have made the right choice. Hiring a seasoned veteran coach with an impressive track record like Zimmer seems like the best decision they could’ve made. Not only does he have a history with the Joneses since he was with the Cowboys staff from 1994 to 2006, but his résumé only got better after he left.
Since departing Dallas, Zimmer has had success in improving defenses in Cincinnati and Minnesota. Since 2000, his defenses have finished inside the top 10 in both points and yards allowed eight times, and seven of those times have occurred since 2009. Rest assured, his track record is pretty good.
But past success doesn’t guarantee future success. However, there are a few reasons to be upbeat about this hire. Cowboys Stats & Graphics has done a great job keeping fans informed with some smack-you-in-the-face data (highly recommend following him), so we’ll kick things off by sharing some of those highlights.
You may have already heard that he’s a rock star against the Shanahan tree of play-callers, but if you haven’t, here’s the memo. Looking at this doesn’t get old.
I didn't bother to make this chart nice, so I'll just lead with how I interpret it:— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) February 2, 2024
Further right = Better underlying pass defense results against the Shanahan tree of playcallers since 2017
Further up = Better results against all other offenses (over a much > sample) pic.twitter.com/DLan7zAT3s
Not only is he good against Dan Quinn’s kryptonite, he’s been good against everyone. Being in the upper right of these types of graphs is where you want to be. Of course, expecting Zimmer’s defense to be great out of the gate may be a little optimistic because there are typically some growing pains that come with his arrival. If you go back to the first image above you’ll notice that Zimmer’s first year with a new team wasn’t particularly strong, but it doesn’t take too long before they’re one of the top units in the league. Tempering your immediate expectations might be wise.
A typical Zimmer experience:— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) February 5, 2024
1) First-year Zimmer defenses have a steep learning curve.
2) They're often playoff-caliber by the end of their 1st regular season.
3) By mid-Season 2, they arrive among the NFL's elite.
4) This timeline is far ahead of a typical Rivera-coached unit.
But once he gets going, his units are really, really tough.
Here's the "peak" Zimmer defensive era in Minnesota. Four straight seasons where they never once fell out of the top quartile in underlying strength against the pass.— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) February 4, 2024
And over a separate five-season span in Cincinnati (2009-2013), Zimmer's results were arguably even better. pic.twitter.com/VpazoQpmjY
So, realistically, what should we expect? Two things...
- The defense could get off to a slow start until they start figuring things out. Expect some letdowns early.
- The defense will be good. It might not be right away, and it might not be as dominant as they were at times over Quinn’s tenure, but they’ll at the very least be solid and likely more consistent.
But getting there will bring some changes, and those changes will be big. And we’re talking in the literal sense, not figuratively. The Cowboys' defense will need to get bigger across the board. The most obvious one is enough of this lean, mean, chasing machine linebacker stuff that Quinn ran. Sorry Markquese Bell, but another position switch is likely in the cards for you. Look for the Cowboys to add bigger linebackers to the roster this season to aid with the double-A gap blitz that we’ll often see with Zimmer’s defense. Our own David Howman did a great job discussing the simulated pressures this style creates, and here’s a nice video courtesy of PFF.
While Bell’s displacement at linebacker might be one change coming, he might slide into the team’s new strong safety spot. That’s because Jayron Kearse is likely leaving via free agency and Donovan Wilson lacks coverage skills. Remember, Bell is a converted safety and might be more effective closing in on pass catchers than he was at sifting through blockers and closing in on ball carriers. Juanyeh Thomas or even Israel “where have you gone” Mukuamu should also be in the mix for the new strong safety spot as well. Look for the Cowboys to improve their coverage capability at the safety position that extends beyond just Malik Hooker.
Bigger linebackers will help fend off offensive linemen barreling through the second level, but it would also be nice if they could get a little beef in the interior defensive line as well. The Cowboys used a first-round pick on Mazi Smith a year ago and his development will be huge in determining how much success the defense can have in the middle. But don’t be surprised if the Cowboys go even bigger with another nose tackle either through free agency or the draft as they look for someone who’s got a little extra girth.
The good news is they already have some strong pieces in other places. They have talented edge rushers and good-sized corners who can press off the line. If they can just get a little bigger at LB and DT, this could speed up Zimmer’s success with the defense. The Cowboys will need to do some redecorating with their defensive personnel and it may take a little trial and error to get it right, but once Zimmer finds his guys, this defense will start to take off.