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5/01/2005

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Defensive Mastermind
by Howard Cox

Mike Zimmer made the biggest cut of his career just two years ago. When Bill Parcells took over as Head Coach he cleaned house of the old staff. Gone was most of the supporting cast when Dave Campo was fired. For some reason Parcells felt it a good decision to keep the young Defensive Coordinator on as director of his team’s defense. Why?

He was first hired as a defensive assistant in 1994. His assignment was working with the nickel defense. At the end of the season the Dallas secondary was ranked as the top pass defense in the league. The story begins to unfold for the young coach who previously had no NFL coaching experience. In 1995 he was promoted to being in charge of the entire secondary. From 1995 – 1998 the Dallas secondary excels on the field. Tying the club record of 4 INTs returned for touchdowns. 1996 and 1998 Deion Sanders and Darrell Woodson both earn Pro Bowl honors. In ’97 they really achieved superior marks. Zimmer’s secondary finished #1 in the league in fewest completions allowed, #3 in net yards per pass play and yards per completion. 12 times opposing offenses were held to 200 yards or less, including 5 to 120 yards or less. Easily showing Zimmer had what it takes to coach in the NFL. So the following season he is promoted again to Defensive Assistant Coach. Once again in 1999 Zimmer’s secondary answered the call of their coach. The unit finished 4th in the NFC in passing defense. Tied for 6th in the NFL in interceptions and tying the team record by returning 4 for touchdowns. All this while injuries forced Zimmer into using 5 different starting lineups throughout the season. Looking back over his first 6 years as an NFL defensive coach you can start to see just what Parcells noticed when he arrived in Irving, TX in 2003. We must retrace back to the year 2000 first, so take another ride with me into the career of our Defensive Coordinator.

Dallas then brought in a new Head Coach named Dave Campo. Why is this important? Only because during Zimmer’s time in the secondary his boss as Defensive Coordinator was none other than Dave Campo. With his promotion to Head Coach, Campo knew he needed a solid leader for the entire defense. His choice was to give the position to Mike Zimmer. Now Zimmer controlled not only the Dallas secondary but the front seven as well. A daunting task for any young coach, even more so under the spotlight of “America’s Team” and owner Jerry Jones. A few seasons had passed since Dallas ran among the top teams and the owner was attempting to put the pieces together again to get his team included in “Super Bowl talk” once again.

The 2000 season wasn’t easy for the new defensive coach. Injuries caused 5 starters to miss a total of 33 games. No excuses are allowed though because injuries happen and games must still be played, and won. As a unit, during Zimmer’s “rookie” year, they answered the challenge. Once again the secondary lead the way finished ranked 3rd in the league for yards allowed and overall Dallas’ defense finished ranked 19th in total defense. A decent end to his first season but not enough to come through with playoff level football. So in 2001 all he did was improve the defense from 19th overall to 4th overall in the league. They raised the run defense from 31st the previous year to 13th, showing the biggest turnaround in the league for rushing yards allowed. Continuing to shine the secondary finished 3rd again. In 2002 Zimmer’s secondary sported 2 rookies starters in safety Roy Williams and cornerback Derek Ross. Despite having the youngest secondary in the league the unit still was able to perform solidly. Rankings didn’t look good, being 19th vs. the pass and 15th vs. the run (18th overall), but the defense still showed substantial performances. The two rookies finished with 5 interceptions each, the defense allowed just 32 touchdowns (7th best in the league) with only 10 rushing (5th best in the league). This was the resume Bill Parcells got to read when he became the head coach in 2003. Now you know the answer to the question “Why” from the opening paragraph. Dallas had a solid leader on the defensive side of the ball and Parcells knows – “Defenses Win Championships”.

During Parcells first year the defense ranked overall #1 and #2 in points allowed. He knew he had made the right decision. 2004 saw one injury takes its toll on the secondary when safety Darren Woodson missed the entire season. Other personnel decisions backfired and the defense struggled greatly. Unflinching, Parcells regrouped with signing three key free agents for the defense and also restocking it with solid young draft picks. Zimmer has the goods to put together another solid defense and the league shall not be laughing once they take the field in 2005.
Standing ovation for Mike Zimmer and his Defensive Mastermind!!!

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