Can Dallas Cowboys’ savior be this old-school coach who wants things done his way?

May 18, 2024

Mike Zimmer doesn’t see himself as a savior. Or even the prodigal son returning home save the family.

But there is no other way to look at it after an offseason in which the Dallas Cowboys did next to nothing to improve the roster — signing only one sure starter in linebacker Eric Kendricks in free agency — and are heading into a season in which the future of the franchise hangs in the balance.

Coach Mike McCarthy is in the last year of his contract with a charge of going deep in the playoffs to keep his job. Quarterback Dak Prescott, coming off the finest season of his career, is faced with the prospect of proving himself in the postseason to get a contract extension.

And what everyone is counting on to make the biggest difference on a team that finished a third straight 12-5 season with a unconscionable no-show effort in the playoffs is the addition of Zimmer as defensive coordinator in place of the departed Dan Quinn.

The Cowboys are counting on defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to be a difference maker in 2024. The Cowboys are counting on defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to be a difference maker in 2024.

Zimmer was an assistant coach in Dallas from 1994-2006, including the last seven seasons a defensive coordinator. He has the presence of a hard-nosed, dog-cussing disciplinarian and a much-needed scheme that will focus on stopping the run, fundamentals and accountability.

“I think, first of all, his whole life is football,” owner Jerry Jones said. “You say well, ‘with Dan it’s also football.’ I’d have to go to personality. Both of them are outstanding people and coaches, and both of them professionally have had their ass kicked, professionally, and have lived to tell about it. Who would you want to be in a foxhole with? Both of them do. They do it in a different way. … Boy, he’s straight talking.”

From Jones’ standpoint, a Cowboys team that continues to fail in the biggest moments in the postseason and a franchise that going into its 29th season since its last trip to the Super Bowl needs Zimmer’s no-nonsense approach.

“I think we all need it,” Jones said.

From all accounts, Quinn was a success in Dallas before he was hired as coach of the Washington Commanders.

The Cowboys were a top five defense in 2023, ranking fifth in yards and fifth in points allowed. And they led the NFL in quarterback pressure rate (41.4%), interceptions (59), takeaways (93) and defensive touchdowns (15) during his time in Dallas from 2021-2023.

But Quinn’s unit consistently had trouble stopping the run and was exposed in the Cowboys’ 48-32 wildcard loss to the Green Bay Packers when the Cowboys couldn’t stop a nose bleed.

Quarterback Jordan Love completed 16 of 21 passes for 272 yards for three touchdowns. And running back Aaron Jones ran all over the Cowboys’ defense on 21 carries for 118 yards and three touchdowns.

“It’s like I told the defense the first day I got here,” Zimmer said. “’This is a different deal for me. Usually when I come in, the defense is not good.’ And they’re pretty darn good. … We have to advance some of the things they were doing good and try to improve on the things they weren’t doing as good.

“For the most part, they’ve played pretty darn good, and we’re going to try to accentuate that and maybe be a little bit more technique-oriented, maybe a little bit more disciplined. At the end of the day, we’ve got to do it the way I want it done. I know [when] you try to come in and do somebody else’s thing, it just doesn’t go well.”

And there will be a focus on stopping the run first.

“He’s looks to play more with first, second down scenarios playing with three linebackers,” vice president Stephen Jones said. “That’s a change. I know in general he’s big, big, big on stopping the run. Not that Dan Quinn didn’t either. Everybody wants to stop the run. But, you know, in terms of how you’re prioritizing and doing things that give you an opportunity to achieve what you want to be as a defensive unit.”

The focus on stopping the run starts up front. Coaches will ask their defensive lineman to hold up blockers rather than rushing to the quarterback, a stark contrast to Quinn’s scheme.

It should help 2023 first-round pick Mazi Smith get untracked after a disappointing rookie season when he registered just 13 tackles, made just three starts and lost more than 30 pounds trying to do something that didn’t fit his skills.

“Obviously, he was a high draft pick,” Zimmer said. “I heard that he kind of struggled last year, so we’re going to start with the basics: Get him in a good stance, get him using his hands the right way, getting his footwork the right way and then go from there.”

Most important, Zimmer is going to stress fundamentals and being accountable. The defense may not create as many turnovers as it did under Quinn. But it will be fundamentally sound.

“Obviously, the smart players always are the better players,” Zimmer said. “I always say, ‘Do your job so someone else can have success doing theirs.’ You might have to sit there and take on a double-team. It’s no fun, but you’re doing it so the other guy can make the tackle. Those are the kind of things we stress. Playing good team defense and obviously all the things: be really good on third down, good at stopping the run, being good in the red zone.

“When they get out there on the field, they know what they’re doing and they go out and make plays without risking leaving someone else in a bad spot.”

The penalties and undisciplined play will not be tolerated.

“I don’t like mistakes, no, but these guys have been good so far,” Zimmer said. “There’s different ways to do it. You can yell at them, you can put your arm around them, you can pat them on the butt, whatever. Each guy’s going to be a little bit different. We’ll just see how it goes.”

Zimmer is still going to be old school Zimmer.

And there will be hell to pay during games, as he will be on the sidelines instead of the booth.

“Well, I’ve always been on the sideline, No. 1,” Zimmer said. “No. 2, I want to catch them when they come off so I can talk to them. If there are adjustments that need to be made, then I want to be able to sit down and do it with them. Lot of times I tell them if they mess up, go on the other end, don’t come by me.”