The Cowboys are in the market for a new defensive coordinator after Dan Quinn opted to become the new head coach of the Commanders. There is no shortage of candidates for the role, though one name has emerged as a prominent contender early on: Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer has plenty of ties to the organization, having coached for the Cowboys for 13 seasons in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, working as their defensive coordinator for the final seven seasons. Most notably, though, Zimmer was the head coach of the Vikings for eight seasons, where he frequently squared off against his potential new boss.
The prospect of replacing Quinn is a complex one, though. By most metrics, Quinn was a resounding success in Dallas, but his defense regressed sharply over the last month or so of the 2023 season and was especially terrible in the Cowboys’ embarrassing Wild Card round loss to the Packers.
When thinking about what comes next, the Cowboys have to feel conflicted. Many of the things Quinn did in Dallas were very positive, and are aspects that ought to be continued next year, but there are also some glaring issues as well. The biggest weakness, by far, was Quinn’s noted struggles against the Shanahan style of offenses.
Since Dan Quinn was made #Cowboys DC in 2021:— John Owning (@JohnOwning) January 16, 2024
Vs. Shanahan coaching tree teams
35.8% success rate allowed
0.045 EPA per play against
5.5 yards allowed per play
Vs. non-SCT teams
32.7% success rate allowed
-0.094 EPA per play allowed
5.0 yards per play allowed
This became a glaring problem for the Cowboys, as 15 of the 32 teams in the NFL this past season ran an offense that could be described as belonging to the Shanahan coaching tree. That number is only going up, too, with more and more teams looking to hire a coordinator from that schematic background. In fact, we already know that the number has gone up to 18 for next season, with some coordinator vacancies still open.
In short, an inability to stop the Shanahan offense is becoming a death sentence for defenses in today’s league. Quinn had built some truly impressive defenses in Dallas, but his continued struggles against the scheme that’s taken the league by storm was problematic. And in the case of the last two teams to knock Dallas out of the playoffs, it was the scheme that ended their season three straight years in a row.
So why would Zimmer, who hasn’t coached full time since his firing as the Vikings head coach in 2021, be the answer? Well, for starters, he brings a similar coaching profile to that of Quinn. Both were former head coaches who enjoyed some levels of success but ultimately fizzled out, and both have long been respected for their defensive prowess.
Like Quinn, Zimmer has had great success on defense for quite some time. As the Vikings head coach, Zimmer called plays on defense and consistently had Minnesota ranked near the top in defensive efficiency. In fact, over the span of his eight years as head coach, Zimmer’s Vikings were fourth in EPA/play allowed.
Not only has Zimmer had success on defense across the board, but he’s also been able to post overwhelmingly positive results against a very specific and (now) very popular offensive scheme.
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
It has to be noted that Zimmer hasn’t coached in the last two years, during which time the Shanahan offense has exploded in popularity, so his sample size is considerably smaller than others. Still, his final three seasons in Minnesota saw him square off against Matt LaFleur’s Packers twice a year, and he faced Shanahan and Sean McVay five times throughout his head coaching career.
It might not be enough of a sample to truly be predictive, especially after all the tweaks to the offense over the last two years, but Zimmer is certainly battle tested against this type of offense. Not only does he have positive experience against this scheme, but he’s apparently pulled a Mike McCarthy and been studying game film and analytics from a barn over the last two years.
“I was waiting for him to get out instead of me.”— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) December 26, 2023
Former #Vikings coach Mike Zimmer joined The Insiders to discuss the post-Aaron Rodgers NFC North, his MVP pick … and preparing to return to coaching in 2024.
Full episode on #NFLPlus: https://t.co/fbXWNzJoL4 pic.twitter.com/49rpRJvDQ3
One major difference between Quinn and Zimmer, though, is their long-term career outlooks. When Quinn came to Dallas, he was just 50 years old and many expected him to become a head coaching candidate again if he enjoyed success with the Cowboys. That’s exactly what happened, though it occurred a lot faster than anyone anticipated.
Zimmer, on the other hand, will turn 68 this summer. In a world where 71-year old Bill Belichick couldn’t land a job with eight openings, it seems unlikely that Zimmer would find himself doing the rounds of head coaching interviews each year the way Quinn has done every offseason since coming to Dallas.
Calling Zimmer a sure thing is definitely a stretch, just because a lot has changed since he last coached football. But Zimmer’s downfall in Minnesota had more to do with his micromanagement of the offense than his ability to call great defenses, and his lengthy résumé on defense is an overwhelmingly positive one. Combine that with the likelihood that Dallas wouldn’t really have to worry about him leaving for a better job if he has success, and there’s a lot to like about this potential hire.