Mike Zimmer smirks now, when told Darren Woodson has brought out the Michael Irvin story again — “He likes to tell that story all the time,” Zimmer said this week — and the details have gotten a little fuzzy in Woodson’s many recollections of it.
The impression Zimmer made on Woodson that day in Candlestick Park is as sharp now, almost 25 years later, as the day Zimmer went toe-to-toe with Irvin.
The Cowboys and 49ers were playing during the peak of their rivalry in 1994; Woodson believes (though not with complete certainty) it was during their regular-season game that November rather than the NFC Championship Game. Jerry Rice caught a long pass over Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown, and Irvin stormed down the sideline arguing Dallas needed to double-cover Rice.
Irvin was quickly told by a first-year assistant defensive backs coach where he could stick it.
“[Mike] and Michael Irvin got into the biggest argument — like, fisticuffs,” said former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, who made five Pro Bowls in his 13 seasons with the team. “This speaks directly to who he is: This is his first year. We’re a team that’s gone back-to-back Super Bowls. One of the best wide receivers in the history of the game is upset about something, and Zim is not backing down. The youngest guy on the coaching staff. That was the type of thing that earned so much respect from the players: You knew he was going to go to war for you — period.”
As much as Zimmer’s 13 years in Dallas molded him into a future NFL head coach, the impression he left on the Cowboys still lingers at the highest levels of the organization. Luminaries from the Super Bowl teams of the 1990s, such as Woodson and Deion Sanders, still revere Zimmer for the ways his candor and attention to detail made them better. Former coach Bill Parcells remains one of Zimmer’s closest confidants from their four seasons working together.
Zimmer and his son Adam (the Vikings’ linebackers coach) have gone on hunting excursions for years on Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ land, and Jones said this week Mike Zimmer maintains “as good and close a friendship as anybody I know of” with his son Stephen, who runs much of the Cowboys’ football operation as their CEO.
“I enjoy the fact he’s got football in his blood and hunting in his heart,” Jerry Jones said. “That’s created quite a kinship.”
At the start of a phone interview about Zimmer’s time in Dallas this week, Jones cheerily greeted a reporter by saying, “You’re calling about one of my favorite people.” He later said, “I don’t have anyone — whether it be the NFL or other relationships that I have in other things outside the NFL — I have no one that stands any higher than Mike Zimmer.”
Not hiring Zimmer as the Cowboys’ coach when he had the chance, Jones says now, “was a miss on my part.”
Sunday night will be just the third time Zimmer has coached in Dallas since he left the Cowboys, following a 2008 trip to Texas Stadium as the Bengals’ defensive coordinator and a preseason game as Vikings head coach in 2015. It will be his first chance to face them as a head coach, after he was forced to miss the 2016 matchup against the Cowboys in Minnesota because of emergency eye surgery.
Zimmer has now been gone from Dallas as long as he coached there, and this week cited the length of his absence as the reason for his lukewarm interest in revisiting his time with the Cowboys. His tenure allowed him to raise his family largely in one place — something of a luxury for an NFL coach — and he won his only Super Bowl ring in 1995 with the Cowboys.
“I was with a lot of really, really good coaches — not just defensive coaches, but offensive coaches; Joe Avezzano, the special teams coach,” he said. “And obviously, we had a lot of great players. But Butch Davis, Dave Campo, you can go on and on about all the coaches we had there that taught me a lot about football.”
He will try to bring all of it to bear on Sunday night and beat the Cowboys with an approach that hasn’t changed much from the one that endeared him to the team years ago.
“I think that Mike is so genuine in his approach with people — not just players, but with his fellow coaches as well as the people he’s working with,” Jones said. “He’s, of course, extremely intelligent, and I underline that word ‘intelligent.’ He has an approach that I really admire. As he would use in defensive football vernacular, he never runs around the block. He goes straight through it. That’s the way he approaches solving problems and creating opportunity: Just meet it head-on and work through it. Incorporated in that work ethic, incorporated in that certain amount of understanding that football is meant to impose your will, so to speak, is his intelligence. And I think the combination of the two is what’s made him outstanding — and he is an outstanding coach in my mind.”
Candor played well with alpha males
Zimmer’s first job in Dallas thrust him into a constellation of big personalities and outsize expectations, in the middle of the Cowboys’ run of three Super Bowls in four years. “You had to earn their respect,” he said. “But you know, I was pretty much a know-it-all at that point, too — maybe more so then than now.”
Did it occur to him as a young coach he was challenging one of the premier stars in the NFL when he stood up to Irvin?
“After I did it, probably,” he said with a chuckle. “But hey, Michael and I, we’re good. I mean, they had a lot of personalities there, you know? Charles Haley, Deion, Woody [Darren Woodson].”
It turned out to be the perfect place for Zimmer, whose candor quickly endeared him to the alpha males in his secondary.
“He would call you in before the season and say, ‘Hey, look, these are some of the weaknesses I see,’ and just be real about it,” Woodson said. “I think a lot of guys really appreciated the honesty. You had certain guys that didn’t want to hear it, but guys that really wanted to be good football players wanted to be critiqued on certain things. We had an offseason where I gave up a touchdown against Philadelphia based on, I couldn’t track the ball. It would have never been a weakness, but it felt like it was becoming a weakness. He had me catching punts from a JUGS machine, just to see the ball in the air, and we worked on it consistently.
“He gave you a complete understanding of the strengths and weaknesses within a defense. I’ve never been around a coach [like him] that said, ‘Hey, we’re going to play this coverage, and this is how we’re going to run it, and in the second half, this is probably how they’re going to attack us. If we run this blitz, this is probably what we’re going to see.’ ... And lo and behold, I’m telling you, we would see it at some point. That’s one of the things that really helped me when I went to ESPN as an analyst, to be able to break down film [like that]. And Zim taught me those things.”
A different style
Zimmer’s fiery approach led to a fair share of nose-to-nose shouting matches with Woodson, too, but when Parcells started grooming Zimmer for his eventual turn as a head coach, Woodson could see a change in the way Zimmer would motivate players.
“Parcells would play this game a little differently,” Woodson said. “He would say things like, ‘You’ve got Tony Gonzalez this week — he’s going to kill you. You ain’t ready for this.’ It was like these little subtle mind games. That’s how Parcells played it. Zim was the opposite; he had nothing but faith in you. But you started to see how Zim would take some of [Parcells’ approach] and apply it with his players later on.”
Harrison Smith — perhaps the closest thing to an heir apparent to Woodson that Zimmer’s had — still sees the same tactics.
“He’ll still slide in a little slick comment every now and then, just to keep you on your toes,” Smith said. “There’s a reason why all the guys that have played for him have a tremendous amount of respect for him. And it’s not because he’s soft.”
Nor did he give much ground when it came to Parcells himself.
“Mike really is a strong-willed person, and he pushes back,” Jones said. “Bill came from a family where his father was a labor negotiator. ... For Bill being the head coach and Mike being the coordinator, it shows you what Mike’s made of, to sit there and basically advance his ideas, and Bill certainly has great ideas and is a great coach. That’s an exhausting time, but it’s a productive time. It was an intense time of advancing his career, but it was probably one of the best things that’s happened for him. He really did expend huge amounts of energy to come up with mutual things that would work with Bill, and we benefited from it.”
Moving on from Dallas
By the time Parcells left Dallas after the 2006 season, some thought Zimmer would be in line to replace him. He didn’t get an interview, though Jones said this week “I never had to have an interview to understand” Zimmer’s attributes. The job went to Wade Phillips, who’d spent his career working in the 3-4 scheme the Cowboys wanted to continue using from Parcells’ days.
After they fired Phillips in November 2010, the Cowboys made Jason Garrett the interim coach, quickly removing the interim tag from his title following the season rather than pursuing an external search.
“The timing just hadn’t fit,” Jones said this week. “And that’s very impactful, just timing, relative to where we were going at the time. Now, you say, ‘Well, he was available for a couple of the hires that you made,’ and I would have to say, without doing it negatively toward who I did hire, that’s the only miss I’ve made — I’m joking, I’m joking. But as it turns out, looking back on it, when the timing was there, I missed it.”
Being passed over for the Cowboys job, Woodson said, has to lend Zimmer some extra motivation this week. “There’s some good, and there’s probably some resentment, as well. This is a guy who could have been, or should have been, the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach — and he was right under their nose.”
Only looking ahead
Defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who spent three years with Zimmer in Dallas, recalled no extra edge from the coach before the 2016 game against the Cowboys at U.S. Bank Stadium. Coaches, Patterson said, don’t think about facing their old teams the way players do.
“Me knowing him, it’s been a long time. It’s over and done with,” Patterson said. “I don’t think there’s any nostalgia. We’ve all been in a lot of different places. I don’t think you look at it like your high school days, or your college days. It’s a job, and you’re doing your job. Once you leave, you leave. You have memories of the good and the bad that went on there, but I don’t think you hold it. You just move on.”
His memories, and his relationships, remain from his days in Dallas. They will mean little to Zimmer’s approach Sunday night. His former boss wouldn’t expect otherwise.
“This business needs some of the edge, it needs some of the challenges that Mike is outstanding at creating with his relationships,” Jones said. “This game needs that. For him to have had this long run here [in Minnesota] says everything about the quality of the individual.”