New Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer looking for respect over love while ‘on the cusp’ of Super Bowl

New Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer looking for respect over love while ‘on the cusp’ of Super Bowl

FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys defense loved playing for former defensive coordinator and new Washington Commanders head coach Dan Quinn.

Literally. Three-time All-Pro edge rusher Micah Parsons described some of his conversations with Quinn as having a similar dynamic to those had between a father and son.

“That’s like my OG, for real,” Parsons said of Quinn back on January 11. “He means a lot to me, not only because it’s just about football….It doesn’t always have to be hard-nosed, ‘I’m the coach.’ It’s more of a friendship. We go through what I don’t like, what I do like. He doesn’t just treat me like a player, he treats me like a friend. He’s always there when I need him and we’re not afraid to have those hard conversations whether it’s father to son or player to coach. We have them no matter what.”

The results bore that out. Last season, the Cowboys allowed 18.5 points per game and 299.7 total yards per game, which were both fifth-best in the NFL. The club also had 26 total takeaways. Dallas led the league in quarterback pressure rate (41.4%), interceptions (59), takeaways (93) and defensive touchdowns (15) under Quinn from 2021-2023 rank as the most in the NFL.

With Quinn now in Washington, the Cowboys officially introduced new defensive play caller Mike Zimmer as their defensive coordinator on Wednesday, opening the door for strong juxtaposition of personalities between Zimmer and his predecessor. He had an inside track for the vacancy as his hiring allows the 67-year-old to return where his NFL coaching career began. His first NFL shot came back in 1994, and remained in Dallas through the 2006 season. He started out as a general assistant coach before spending five seasons as their defensive backs coach from 1995-1999. The final seven seasons of Zimmer’s tenure with the Cowboys (2000-2006) came in his once again current role as the defensive coordinator.

“It feels outstanding. I’ve got two grandkids, twins, excited to be around them more. I’ve always loved Dallas, I’ve always loved the Cowboys,” Zimmer said. … I knew right away it was the right opportunity. There was another club talking to me. This was where I wanted to come. Mike and I had some great conversations on the phone. We had some great conversations since I’ve been here. I’ve always been comfortable with Stephen and Jerry [Jones]. They’ve been outstanding to my family, ever since I was here way back when. There was never a question of whether or not I wanted to be here at all.”

Zimmer last coached in the league in the 2021 season when he was the head coach with the Vikings. His Minnesota squads compiled a 74-59-1 record (2-3 in the playoffs). His best year in 2017 ended with an NFC Championship game loss against the eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. Zimmer has been a defensive coordinator with two other franchises: the Atlanta Falcons (2007) and Cincinnati Bengals (2008-2013). More recently, Zimmer was an analyst and consultant for Jackson State in 2022, a role he said he held for two days.

However, the warm and fuzzy grandpa who spent a good portion of his press conference gushing about his family and how great the opportunity is for him to return the Cowboys as their defensive playcaller likely isn’t going to be the version of Zimmer that the Dallas defensive players will be interacting with on a regular basis. The football lifer has a notorious reputation around the NFL for being an in-your-face, hard-nosed, old-school football coach. That vibe will be different from the familial vibe Quinn brought to the defense unit in Dallas.

“There’s a reputation out there that I’m a jerk or something like that,” Zimmer said. “It is what it is I guess. But you know, since it was announced I was going to be here, I’ve heard from so many players that played for me. Players here, not just defensive backs, the linebackers and defensive linemen have texted me and said how happy they were for me. I think if I was such a jerk I wouldn’t be hearing from those guys.”

Zimmer then preached the importance of player development over building a friendship when it comes to coaching priorities.

“The reason why you coach is to try to develop players and then develop a relationship with them,” Zimmer said. “Hopefully someday they appreciate what you what you’ve helped them do. Coaching, you can’t play for them obviously. Maybe you can help them get a little bit better….When you hear it from these guys, and they call you you know. I’ve had several Minnesota players call me as well. It makes you feel good because they think about you and they appreciate you.”

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy sees Zimmer’s intensity as one of his new defensive coordinator’s best attributes while preaching his football program’s one rule: no disrespect.

“Mike brings so much to the table, and I think the fact that he’s older than me is probably number one,” McCarthy, age 60, said with a laugh. “I think as a coach you clearly have to decide is it most important to be loved or respected? I’ve always taken the approach that it is important to be respected before love. I think love comes later because I found that in my career that guys probably don’t appreciate me until after the fact, and that’s fine. It’s life. We’re all here to win a championship, do our job and so forth and so forth….It’s nice to be loved all the time, but at the end of the day, respect has to be first. We have one rule in our football operations: that’s no disrespect. That covers everything. Be on time. Talk to people the way you want to be talked to. Treat others the way you want to be treated. That’s just something I have always tried to live, especially as a coach.”

Zimmer then provided another specific example of a player he used to grill on a regular basis, and how the success they had together helped develop a relationship that exists to this day in former Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes. The 25th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft earned three Pro Bowl selections and was named a First-Team All-Pro in 2017 under Zimmer’s guidance.

“Xavier Rhodes called me probably five months ago,” Zimmer said. “I was on his rear end every day about being disciplined, getting the right footwork, all this stuff. He became a terrific player, and he called me and he just said, ‘Coach, I know how hard you were on me, but I appreciate what you’ve done for me and the family’ and things like that. You hear that. I was probably too hard on a lot of players, but I’ve heard it several times. It makes you feel good that they understand that you’re just trying to help them. You’re not just out to be a mean guy or something like that.”

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