Why Mike Zimmer is back in his element as the Cowboys' DC

Why Stephen A. says Cowboys fans shouldn't be confident (1:47)

Stephen A. Smith tells Cowboys fans that they shouldn't be confident going into the NFL season and predicts that the Eagles will win the NFC East. (1:47)

FRISCO, Texas -- It was only a rookie minicamp in early May without any pads or even any full-team drills, but Mike Zimmer could not help but smile.

After two years away from the game, he was in his element again, on a field coaching football early in his second stint as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator.

"This last couple weeks when we go out here and we're doing the (Phase 2 of the offseason program) stuff, it's been a lot of fun to get out with the players and start to understand them and try to teach them as much as I can about not just the position but the other positions and why we do certain things," Zimmer said. "I think that's been the best part."

Zimmer is back in a familiar place, if not the same facility. The Cowboys moved from Valley Ranch, where Zimmer worked from 1994 to 2006 as a Cowboys assistant, to The Star, which the Cowboys have called home since 2016. Some of the faces remain the same, like the Jones family and other members of the front office and personnel staff.

For the past two years, following an eight-year run as the Minnesota Viking' head coach, he stayed around the game, doing a podcast for The 33rd Team website with former Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whom he worked under from 2008-13 as defensive coordinator.

They would be given topics to discuss and each would do his own prep work and just talk ball, as coaches like to do. They studied trends in the game, such as teams matching up against bigger personnel groups with five defensive backs versus staying with a base defense against three wide receiver sets.

"You miss that kind of detail, the preparation and everything that goes into it [when not coaching]," said Lewis, who is now the assistant head coach with the Las Vegas Raiders under head coach Antonio Pierce.

Greg Ellis was a defensive end for the Cowboys when Zimmer was named defensive coordinator in 2000. He now works for Zimmer as an assistant defensive line coach.

"I have tremendous respect for him, as when I played for him, because he's a tremendous teacher of the game," Ellis said. "He taught me a lot about the game. So to be on the other side of it with him, it's something different for me."

So Zimmer doesn't yell at him as a coach.

"See, you said that; I didn't," Ellis said. "But I agree with you."

Not that Zimmer is easy on his coaches. He has had to teach what he wants in his new scheme to a staff that includes a number of holdovers from former DC Dan Quinn, who left Dallas in February to become the head coach of the Washington Commanders.

"He holds coaches to be responsible," Ellis said of Zimmer. "I've been around him long enough to know whatever you tell him you're going to do, he's going to hold you to it. He's not going to forget it."

Zimmer is not inheriting a reclamation program on defense. The Cowboys were No. 5 in yards and points allowed last season. In three years with Quinn, the Cowboys led the NFL in takeaways with 93 (59 interceptions, 34 fumble recoveries). In 2021, cornerback Trevon Diggs led the NFL with 11 interceptions. Last season, cornerback DaRon Bland led the NFL with nine interceptions and set an NFL record with five returns for touchdowns. Then there's pass-rusher Micah Parsons, who has 40.5 sacks in his first three seasons and has finished second twice and third once in Defensive Player of the Year voting.

In 2007, the Bengals' defense ranked 24th and 27th in points and yards allowed per game before Zimmer joined Lewis in Cincinnati. In 2008, they finished 19th and 12th with five new starters. In 2013, the year before he became the Vikings' head coach, Minnesota's defense finished last in points allowed and second to last in yards allowed per game. In Zimmer's first year, they finished 11th and 14th, respectively, with nine new starters.

With the Cowboys, he is looking at using at least four new starters compared to 2023.

"It's like I told the defense the first day I got here. I said, this is a different deal for me. Usually when I come in, the defense is not good. You know? They're pretty darn good," Zimmer said. "So it's a little different for me because we have to advance some of the things they were doing good and try to improve on the things they weren't doing as good. But for the most part they've played pretty darn good, and we're going to try to accentuate that and maybe be a little bit more technique-oriented, maybe a little bit more disciplined. Some of those things.

"At the end of the day, we've got to do it the way I want it done. I know if you try to come in and do somebody else's thing, it just doesn't go well."

This week, the Cowboys have their first organized team activities that can feature 11-on-11 work. Parsons is expected to be in attendance at some point after spending the early part of the offseason program working out on his own. Defensive tackle Mazi Smith, their 2023 first-rounder, is also expected to be around. But how much Smith participates due to offseason shoulder surgery, for which he has spent most of his time rehabbing in Michigan, is up in the air.

For Zimmer, it will be another step in his return, doing what he has missed. The players better be ready.

"He's demanding," Lewis said. "That was the thing when people talked to me about him before he became a head coach. They were inquiring, 'Was he ready?' and so forth. And they said, 'Well, people say he's abrasive.'

"He's not abrasive. He's demanding. He wants things done the right way, and he understands how it should be done from front to back. That's a great skill, a great gift."