In place on the Cowboys’ coaching staff for 13 years, Mike Zimmer was a valued assistant in Dallas over a few HC regimes. The former Vikings leader will join a staff that resides on unstable ground, but familiarity drew the veteran back to Texas.
Zimmer is joining a coaching staff that centers around one of his longtime NFC North rivals. He and Mike McCarthy coached against each other for five seasons while tied to the Vikings and Packers. McCarthy will call on Zimmer to help save his job. Although the Cowboys were believed to want to promote Joe Whitt and interviewed D-line coach Aden Durde, it appears their qualifications did not meet McCarthy’s target. Expected to go into the 2024 season a lame duck, McCarthy said he prioritized a defensive coordinator with HC experience.
“I think the importance of the leadership role on defense, outside of scheme, calling games and coaching players, there is so much more that goes on as far as an assistant coaches,” McCarthy said, via ESPN.com’s Todd Archer. “I think it’s important. Mike’s had experience and success he’s had at every level is what makes this a great fit.”
The Cowboys’ interview list matches up with this preference. The team met with Ron Rivera and Rex Ryan, with the latter drawing some 11th-hour buzz during the process. Zimmer’s deal took a few days to finalize, but he had emerged as the frontrunner. The eight-year Minnesota coach becomes the second former HC McCarthy has hired to run his defense in Dallas, following Dan Quinn. McCarthy went in this direction with two of his DC hires in Green Bay as well, bringing in Dom Capers (2009) and Mike Pettine (2018).
Zimmer, 67, was only connected to the Cowboys this offseason and only mentioned as interviewing with the Broncos in 2023. The longtime NFL staffer, however, said (via Archer) he had options to return to the league since the Vikings fired him in January 2022. Zimmer chose the Cowboys due to trust. Considering how long his first Dallas tenure lasted, it is unsurprising he holds the organization in high regard.
Debuting as an NFL assistant on Barry Switzer‘s first staff back in 1994, Zimmer stayed on through the Chan Gailey, Dave Campo and Bill Parcells regimes. Parcells went as far to leave Zimmer — promoted to defensive coordinator under Campo — in place as his DC throughout his four-year tenure, which ended in 2006. Zimmer left to become Bobby Petrino‘s defensive coordinator in 2007, landing his launching-pad role as Bengals DC following Petrino’s quick Atlanta exit. After the Vikings stay, Zimmer helped ex-Cowboys charge Deion Sanders out at both Jackson State and Colorado. This will be Zimmer’s fourth NFL DC gig.
Unlike Quinn, Zimmer probably will not be a candidate to become a head coach again. As Steve Spagnuolo has shown in Kansas City and as Wade Phillips demonstrated in Denver and Los Angeles, value can come from hiring an accomplished coordinator who is not a true HC candidate. McCarthy will bet on Zimmer to help keep Dallas’ defense among the NFL’s best. Although the bar will be higher for the fifth-year Cowboys HC, given what he has already accomplished in Dallas, Zimmer rolling out a strong defense would certainly help McCarthy’s cause.