He hasn’t even been on the job a week and already the hyperbole flows. But given the situation in Dallas these days, maybe head coach isn’t such a distant thought for the Cowboys’ newly minted defensive coordinator.
When the Cowboys announced Mike Zimmer to be their next defensive coordinator, they generally received positive reviews for the hire. Zimmer, the former head coach of the Vikings, has always been seen as a top NFL mind around the league. And his willingness to adapt and update his defense has allowed him stay on the right side of relevant for roughly 30 years.
Zimmer, who’s ties run deep with the Cowboys, returns to Dallas as a familiar face. Jerry and Stephen Jones are accustomed to working with him and more importantly, he’s accustomed to working with the Joneses. Given his familiarity and his vast defensive success, he represents a low risk hire for a team claiming to be “all in” in 2024.
After seeing a list of candidates, many agree he was the best of the bunch being considered, marking a big win for Dallas. But one has to wonder what made the Cowboys attractive to Zimmer?
Obviously, there are only 32 DC positions in the NFL and when one of those teams offers a job, that coach is going to have an awfully difficult time turning it down. And obviously Zimmer’s ties to Dallas make the transition an easy one from a comfort perspective.
There is also the specific situation that must be considered in Dallas. The Cowboys aren’t exactly the most stable climate in the NFL these days. McCarthy is playing out the final year of his contract as head coach and there’s no telling what things will look like 11 months from now.
Maybe that’s what makes the Cowboys attractive to Zimmer.
Zimmer, 67, may see running the defense in 2024 as giving him the inside track on the head coaching position in 2025 if McCarthy leaves. He would most likely be staring at his last shot at being an NFL head coach, so it would be tough to blame him.
The Cowboys, like most progressive teams in the league today, tend to prefer offensive coaches over defensive coaches. It would be difficult seeing them hand the keys over to Zimmer in 2025 but that doesn’t mean they didn’t dangle the carrot in their sales pitch.
The Wade Phillips route
Maybe Zimmer doesn’t have his eyes on the big chair. Maybe he sees the situation for what it is and is perfectly content sticking to his forte of just being a defensive coach. It wouldn’t be the first time a 67-year-old former head coach embraced his situation as a defense coordinator and thrived.
In 2015, Wade Phillips, then 67, moved to Denver and happily took the reins of the Broncos defense. He served as DC in the NFL for the next five seasons: two with the Broncos and three with the Rams. He proved the game had not passed him by and he was still one of the best defensive minds in the league. Getting a coach of his quality to lead a defense was like hitting the lottery for those franchises.
Time will tell
For obvious reasons, Zimmer isn’t going to let on that he’s eyeballing McCarthy’s job. McCarthy’s feeling the heat from his seat enough, he doesn’t need a usurper on his staff adding to the situation.
Given Brian Schottenheimer’s small role as McCarthy’s offensive coordinator, he’s unlikely to challenge the seat when or if that fateful day arrives, meaning whether Zimmer has his sights on it or not, he’s likely the top internal candidate to be the next head coach of the Cowboys.