New Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer returns to Dallas with more than just his trademark intensity

FRISCO, Texas — Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s reputation is that of a stereotypical old school, no-nonsense, football-obsessed coach. It’s an image forged through 28 seasons coaching in the NFL that include three different DC stints — with the Cowboys (2000-2006), Atlanta Falcons (2007) and Cincinnati Bengals (2008-2013) — and eight seasons as the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings (2014-2021).

“It’s not relaxing in the coach’s room. He [Zimmer] holds coaches to be responsible. I’ve been around him long enough to know that whatever you tell him you’re going to do, he’s going to hold you to it and he’s not going to forget it,” said Cowboys assistant defensive line coach Greg Ellis, who played nine seasons under Zimmer in Dallas from 1998-2006 — a stretch in which Zimmer was both an assistant and the team’s DC. “That’s the good thing about him. … I really couldn’t think of a better coach to be under to be honest with you.”

He’s no longer yelling at Ellis, Dallas’ eighth overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, quite as much, something the former player-turned-coach is relieved about. 

“I have tremendous respect for him when I played for him because he’s a tremendous teacher of the game,” Ellis said. “He taught me a lot about the game. To be on the other side of it with him is something different for me.”

Some of the Cowboys’ defensive staff who are working alongside Zimmer for the first time in 2024 and haven’t yet experienced being on the receiving end of his trademark intensity know it’s only a matter of time. 

“I haven’t caught the wrath yet, but I know it’s coming,” Cowboys defensive line coach Jeff Zgonina said. “I’m fine with that. It makes you a better coach and a better player when you get the wrath. He just wants to win like all of us. That’s the passion that drives him.”

“You feel that (intensity) when you first meet him,” Dallas assistant head coach/defensive backs coach Al Harris said. “I think people kind of misperceive [him] because he’s a good dude. If you’re really sensitive, he probably might rub you the wrong way, but if you know it’s coming from a good place, hey man, he’s just coaching ball.”

Zimmer acknowledged his own reputation at his introductory press conference back in February while making the point that his fire and brimstone hasn’t prevented him from building meaningful relationships with fellow staffers and players. 

“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.”  

One of those former players Zimmer has maintained a longstanding relationship over the decades with is Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders. He served as Sanders’ defensive backs coach during “Prime Time’s” five seasons with the Cowboys from 1995-1999, a stretch of Sanders’ career in which he earned four Pro Bowl selections and three first-team All-Pro nods. Sanders’ flair and swagger is a complete juxtaposition of who Zimmer is, yet Sanders has hired him to be a defensive analyst/consultant during both of his stops as a college football head coach at Jackson State (2022) and Colorado (2023) after Zimmer’s eight-year tenure (2014-2021) as the Minnesota Vikings head coach came to an end. 

Mike Zimmer was the exact coach we needed when we hired him in Minnesota,” former Vikings general manager and current CBS Sports HQ NFL analyst Rick Spielman said. “There’s no question about his toughness, his ability to instill discipline and accountability, which I think is a big strength of his, and he still has the ability to know when to pull that toughness or that edge back. Go all the way back to how close him and Deion Sanders became which are probably the polar opposites. I think the players had so much respect for him because demanding as he was as a coach, he also could do it with a tough love approach. Players knew that they were going to get better getting coached by him.”

Respect for Zimmer played a driving role in the Cowboys’ ability to persuade former Pro Bowl linebacker Eric Kendricks, a nine-year veteran Zimmer and Spielman drafted 45th overall (second round) in the 2015 NFL Draft, to spurn the NFC champion San Francisco 49ers in free agency to come to Dallas instead. 

“I think I would’ve taken more of a reserve role [in San Francisco], where as I feel I have a lot left to give and I wanted to be here and be middle linebacker,” Kendricks said. “I wanted to share my experience with the team, share my leadership abilities and command that huddle. I feel like I have a lot left to give, and I want to be here and with Mike [Zimmer]. … I’ve been in this system for seven years. It’s something I’m very familiar with. We’re going to be doing different things here and there, especially with the personnel that we have here.”

Zimmer lauded the early impact Kendricks has had during Dallas’ offseason program. As a Cowboy, the 32-year-old will be tasked with leading the entire unit as a central figure in Dallas’ front seven.

“(During) the walk-through today, I gave them a bunch of hard things, and he’s [Kendricks] quick,” Zimmer said back in May. “He’s said it before, done it before. We were just talking about that today, how if he wasn’t here how much different it would be, so really glad that we have him. He was an All-Pro player for me a while ago. Obviously, a really good player, so hopefully he can keep going that way and help the guys around him.”

Zimmer’s softer side 

Kendricks also possesses experience with Zimmer’s more personable and caring side, thanks to the equity the two have in their football relationship. A specific conversation between the two from over six years ago stood out in the linebacker’s mind. 

“The way he kind of plays it, especially with the young guys, he kind of plays it at a little bit of a distance. He coaches you hard, he wants to see you have success. He wants you to do the right thing, and he wants you to earn his trust,” Kendricks said. “I remember when I signed that new deal [a five-year, $50 million extension in 2018], we didn’t really communicate a lot, but he brought me to the side and told me how I deserved it. As a young guy, I think I was going into my fourth year, that meant a lot at the time. I was making that transition from having a little bit of experience to now I was kind of being a vet.”

Spielman also experienced the analytical Zimmer, the one who sat back and listened before delivering a nuanced argument about why his defense needed a particular player or two. The first offseason Zimmer spent with his general manager as the Vikings head coach back in 2014 was one in which Minnesota possessed the ninth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Zimmer coveted UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr with that pick despite him not being a fit with the defensive scheme previously run under Zimmer’s predecessor, Leslie Frazier. He convinced Spielman that Barr was the move, and the end result was the linebacker earning four Pro Bowl selections under his tutelage. 

“Our first draft [together] we drafted Anthony Barr, who may not have fit the scheme that we had ran in the past, but Coach Zimmer got up there and talked about ‘this is what the Barr’s strength is. This is what I know how I can utilize him in the scheme, and this is why he’s going to be a really good player in this scheme because we’re gonna do X Y and Z with him.’ … That was an example of a very clear vision of how he was going to use Anthony Barr, how he’s gonna use him to try to create mismatches and protections where he would end up on a running back trying to block him instead of an offensive lineman. So, that’s why I’m extremely excited to see what he comes up with and how he’s going to use Micah Parsons down there in Dallas.”

The Zimmer-Parsons partnership

Parsons, a three-time All-Pro edge rusher who is one of only five players to have at least 40 sacks (40.5) in his first three NFL seasons since the sack became an official statistic in 1982, is excited about getting to know his new DC in training camp and during the season after missing most of the Cowboys’ offseason program

“Honestly, me and Zim have probably said a total of 20 words together,” Parsons said at Dallas’ mandatory minicamp on June 4. “He’s a very quiet person. All I keep hearing from the coaches, ‘Zim likes it this way.’ Well, I like it this way. So I can’t wait to sit down with him because that would be pretty cool. Obviously, old school mindset, old school mentality. You know I think he’s had a lot of great players but he ain’t ever had a Micah before. So it’ll be fun. I think it’s going to be unique. There’s a lot of similarities in things how he uses me with how [former Cowboys DC] Dan [Quinn] used me in his system. He has more tweaks and turns of how he’s going to set things up. There’s some things I’ve got to get used to too. Obviously, some things I’ve got to get used to, too. You know it’s going to be a compromising relationship.”  

Parsons’ career defensive snap alignment

Defensive Line








Defensive Back




*Data according to Pro Football Focus

“He’s [Parsons] such a dynamic player that I said this the other day: ‘Offenses are always going to know where he’s at.’ They’re going to turn protections to him, have the back help chip no matter what it is,” Zimmer said. “In a lot of the games he played last year that I watched, the offenses had a good scheme where they get two tight ends on him and all those things. So, we’re going to obviously move him around, do different things with him, but we’re going to use him some ways where we’re getting the protection turned the way we want it turned and able to win on the other side. Sometimes, we’re going to try to overload a protection where he gets a one-on-one.”    

There is no doubt Zimmer will spend the five-to-six-week break between the Cowboys’ minicamp and training camp daydreaming about the best utilization of Parsons and the rest of his personnel in Dallas’ defense. 

“When I think of Zim, I don’t think about anything besides being out here on the grass and playing football. That guy’s a true football guy, through and through,” Kendricks said. “He watches film on his off days. He really enjoys it. It’s good to be back with him.”

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