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."

Rhodes was a central figure during the time Zimmer developed a familiarity with McCarthy. They faced one another twice a year for five seasons in the NFC North when McCarthy was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers and Zimmer was the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings concurrently from 2014-2018. Zimmer's Vikings earned a narrow edge over McCarthy's Packers across their 10 head-to-head contests. Minnesota won five matchups, Green Bay won four matchups and one game played in Week 2 of the 2018 season ended a in 29-29 tie. 

"You remember plays and games, and I think, if you ask anybody, during my time in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers, the whole staff and so forth, Mike was always the toughest to play against," McCarthy said. "The division games are the hardest, clearly. But they were extra tough against Mike, particularly just the way he would lay out the defense, the change up calls and a lot of things in football that everybody has a menu of things to look at. He has a great fastball. A great curveball and a sweet changeup that's the way I look at it."

Development in Dallas

The defensive coordinator job with the Cowboys is arguably one of the most attractive non-head coaching jobs in the entire league considering the talent Dallas has on that side of the ball. Headlined by the likes of Parsons, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Trevon Diggs, 2023 First-Team All-Pro cornerback DaRon Bland and others, this defense has the ability to be the top unit in the NFL. 

Parsons remains far and away the Dallas defense's top gamebreaker. He is one of only five players to total at least 40 sacks (40.5) within his first three seasons. Parsons took his game to new heights in 2023, leading the NFL in quarterback pressures (103), quarterback pressure rate (21.8%) and pass rush win rate (35.3%), which is when a defender beats his block in less than 2.5 seconds. He remained the league's most disruptive pass-rusher despite being double-teamed on 35% of his pass rush plays in 2023, the most in the NFL among edge players, per the NFL's Next Gen Stats. No other edge rusher was double-teamed at a 30% or higher rate like Parsons. Quinn liked to move the dynamic defensive dynamo all around the line of scrimmage. Zimmer is still in the early stages of figuring out how to deploy Parsons. 

"Yeah obviously he's a terrific player," Zimmer said. "You watch him on tape, and he makes some unbelievably athletic plays. At this point, I'm trying to figure out how to get the coaches in here and then we can sit down … I think one of the strengths that I've always had is to look at players and kind of have a vision for each player and then try to figure out how we can use them in the best way. One of the things I would hate to do right now is to tell you how I'm thinking about playing him without talking to him and letting him think, 'Ok, this is what we're thinking about doing with you, Micah.' I don't think should tell you guys first before I tell him."

Micah Parsons' career defensive snap alignment


Defensive Line








Defensive Back




*Data according to Pro Football Focus

Bland did a lot last season, making NFL history while filling in at outside corner for Diggs, who tore his ACL in Week 3 in practice in 2023. He totaled an NFL single-season record five interception return touchdowns en route to also leading the league with nine interceptions. Bland's 14 career interceptions since entering the league as a fifth-round pick in 2022 are the most in the NFL in the span of his career. 

"I'm always excited to coach good players, and good defensive backs, it was kind of my baby coming up," Zimmer said when asked about coaching Diggs and Bland. "I love the technical aspect of that position and know you guys were here 18 years ago, saw some of that stuff when I was here. Footwork, technique, hand placement, getting out of the breaks, shoulder level all those things. Those two guys, I've never worked with them, so I've only seen them on tape. Hopefully, we can continue to get better."

Zimmer doesn't have a worry in the world about coaching those three Dallas defensive headliners and others on his new defense regardless of how they may or may not adjust to his personality. 

"The ones who want to be great, they want to be coached," Zimmer said. "There's a lot more social media. There's a lot more of the outside stuff going on. The ones I have been around, the young guys, the ones that want to be great: they want to be coached, they want to study. They want to understand, you know how they can get better. Most all the great players they want know how can you make me better. Y'all had  [former Vikings and Cowboys linebacker] Anthony Barr here. He was hurt when he was playing here, but he was a young guy, and he was terrific, a great leader. Studied, did all the things. We had a lot of guys like that come in there [Minnesota]. I coached the Polynesian Football High School All Star game a couple of weeks ago. Now those guys were dancing between plays, and they had the attention span of about two seconds. I think great players want to be great."

Given the Cowboys have been a top-five scoring defense the last few years, Zimmer doesn't envision making wholesale schematic changes in Dallas. 

"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel here," Zimmer said. "They've been pretty good. I've been in some situations where things that haven't happened, but that happens in coaching. It happens a lot. We're going to look at the players, try to figure out the best way to use them, put the scheme together, and again, we want to take the good things that they've done and maybe add a few more other things we've done good in the past, will try to make this thing manageable where we're disciplined, well-coached, where we're playing together as a team. Try to make sure everybody understands their roles so that other people on the field can have success doing their job."

Zimmer himself has changed with the times, leaning even more into technology. He wore an Apple Watch to his press conference on Wednesday, and when it rang with a phone call, the 67-year-old quickly silenced the call while in the middle of answering a question. He even revealed the person on the other line was reaching out about being one of his assistant coaches in Dallas. 

"Whoops sorry, someone calling for a job," Zimmer said. "It really was."

However, the new DC promised a few qualities from his first tour of duty with the Cowboys remain. 

"Competitiveness and being technique oriented," Zimmer said. "Being fundamental. Disciplined. Those are the kinds of things that kind of get me grouchy."

He was on the most recent Dallas Super Bowl-winning staff as the defensive backs coach when the team won Super Bowl XXX in 1995 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cowboys have not reached the conference championship game round since then with an NFL record 13 consecutive playoff trips without getting to round three in the postseason. That's despite winning 12 games three seasons in a row since 2021 for the first time since those 1990's glory years. However, the legitimate opportunity to chase a Super Bowl is exactly why Zimmer accepted the Cowboys' defensive coordinator vacancy.

"There is no other reason," Zimmer said of the shot to win a Super Bowl in Dallas now. "My grandkids are fine and all that, but I can see them any time. I didn't come here to do all the work that we need to do if we're not trying to win a championship. They have won 12 games in three straight years, right on the cusp. I think they have done a great job with the personnel on the team, good coaching staff. I'm just hoping that I can help a little bit, and we can get the players better. That's the number one goal. I didn't come to be average this year."