FRISCO, Texas — There’s no coach Darren Woodson has had in his career that he respects more than Mike Zimmer.
They were together from 1994 to 2003 with the Dallas Cowboys. Woodson earned all five of his Pro Bowl appearances after Zimmer arrived in Dallas as a defensive assistant in 1994. Zimmer was his defensive backs coach for five seasons before becoming his coordinator for four seasons in a career that saw Woodson become the Cowboys’ all-time coach. first tackler.
“He doesn’t have any backup in him,” Woodson said of Zimmer, who replaces Dan Quinn as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator. “He’s going to put his feet down. He’s going to fight tooth and nail, kind of like Bill Parcells. You’re going to do it his way. He may not be your best friend. It’s not going to be cuddly and kumbaya. It won’t It doesn’t happen. It’s going to test your courage.
Zimmer’s return to the Cowboys comes at a time when the organization is coming off one of the most disappointing outings in franchise history. A third straight 12-5 finish and an NFC East championship that led to a No. 2 seed were accomplished by an embarrassing 48-32 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the wild-card round at the AT&T Stadium.
Quinn left to become head coach of the Washington Commanders. Secondary coach/defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. left with him to become defensive coordinator after being replaced by Quinn in Dallas. Defensive line coach Aden Durde has been named defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks.
After Dallas finished fifth in the NFL in yards (299.7) and points (18.5) per game, Zimmer brings a change in scheme, to some extent, but perhaps more in temperament.
He will have talent. Edge Micah Parsons and cornerback DaRon Bland finished third and fifth, respectively, in the voting for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Cornerback Trevon Diggs, a Pro Bowler in 2021 and 2022 after totaling 14 interceptions, is returning from a torn left ACL. DeMarcus Lawrence was added to the Pro Bowl.
“He’s a great man and a phenomenal football coach,” said former Cowboys defensive end and current ESPN analyst Marcus Spears, who played for Zimmer for two seasons. “Tough but fair and he cares about his guys. It was great playing for Zim even when he cursed me.”
Bill Parcells didn’t know Zimmer when he took over as Cowboys head coach in 2003, but it didn’t take him long to like him. A lot.
“He’s a coach’s son, and I always loved that because they lived it at the dinner table when they were young,” Parcells said. “(Bill) Belichick was the same. That’s the kind of guy they were. But I gotta like Mike and we became good friends.”
They continue to talk frequently and Parcells takes credit for getting Zimmer involved in horse racing. But their bond came in football. Parcells favored the 3-4 scheme, but when he arrived in Dallas, they were manned for a 4-3 defense and finished first in the NFL in 2003.
In 2005, Parcells took the defense to 3-4, and in that draft the Cowboys selected future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware, Spears, linebacker Kevin Burnett, defensive end Chris Canty and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff.
Zimmer had no experience in this area.
“Technically speaking, it was relatively simple, so it was just about the linebacker game and how to coordinate that, and it involved some new things for him,” Parcells said. “But he picked it up easily and he started to understand what type of personnel we were looking for in this area. It wasn’t difficult. He’s a football guy. He loves the game. He’s committed to doing good job. He’s not lazy at all. That’s good.
In his stops since — as coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals and seven years as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings — Zimmer has mixed up his schemes, but mostly a 4-3. His versatility and ability to mix man-to-man and zone coverage was a draw for his return to Dallas.
“Here’s what I like, and a lot of people wouldn’t have done it, but we’re the Super Bowl champions and I’m at the peak of my career, and he shows me all my bad plays,” Woodson said. . “I’m like holy shit, but that’s all I can work on, and he breaks it all down with me. It brought us even closer because I wanted to be better. Again, it wasn’t just cuddly. It was, “This is who you are. Let’s see how we can improve.”
Woodson liked Zimmer’s directness. Spears too. This is also the case for many of the players he coached.
“He’s himself,” Parcells said. “That’s what he does. That’s what people are like who get along with the players. They don’t say we have to get along, but the players respect people who get to the point and who are trying to help them improve. He is best with them. And those who don’t like the truth are probably going to have a problem.
Woodson has some advice for the players Zimmer is about to coach.
“I’d say, ‘Man, give it time,’” Woodson said. “He’s going to be callous when he comes in. Don’t be touchy. The guy wants to win. He wants to win at all costs. He’s the most competitive pinnacle I’ve ever met. Give him time and you’ll You’ll get it. You’ll understand. You’re going to have to be ready. And you’re going to bite him too. He’s looking for a fight too. Don’t back down because he’s okay with it. But just have a thick skin.
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