The History of Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coordinators

The Cowboys had a big shakeup today with announcement that defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has been fired. There may be other changes in store as some reports indicate that the Rams are ready to name Jason Garrett as their head coach.

Neither items are shocking, given the statement about change around Valley Ranch. This would mark only the third time in team history that the Cowboys have had to replace both coordinators (or analogous titles) in the same season, though it will be the second time in three years that this has happened. Besides 2007, when Dallas hired Garrett and Stewart, the only other time that Dallas hired both coaches was 1989 after Tom Landry had been fired along with most of his assistants.

For the most part, the Cowboys have had stability in their coordinators throughout the team’s history. Tom Landry oversaw both the offense and defense during the 1960s and early 1970s with a staff that was tiny compared to today’s standards. The title of offensive or defensive coordinator in general was relatively rare. The Giants of the 1950s famously employed both Landry and Vince Lombardi, and both are now often labeled as having been coordinators with that team. However, neither held that specific title, as both were merely listed as assistant coaches. Moreover, in the NFL’s Official Encyclopedic History of Professional Football, the term is not used at all, for most assistant coaches were assigned to specific positions, such as the line.

Landry started to delegate more authority during the 1970s, and the coordinator titles first appeared during that time. However, Landry never gave up playcalling privileges easily, especially on offense, and so the title hardly had the same meaning as it does today.

The next two posts here will feature a summary of the defensive and offensive coordinators in team history. Given Stewart’s dismissal, we’ll begin with the defensive coordinators.

Defensive Coordinators

Tom Landry: Head Coach (1960-1988)

The Cowboys hired Landry as a defensive expert, and he brought to Dallas his version of the 4-3 defense. The early years were tough, as he struggled to put the pieces in place. During these struggles, his inside and outside 4-3 schemes were replaced with the flex defense, which became the staple of the Dallas defense.

Ernie Stautner: Defensive Line (1966-72); Defensive Coordinator (1973-74); Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line (1975-88)

Stautner was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and a future hall-of-famer with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He joined the Dallas coaching staff in 1966 and became defensive coordinator in 1973. Unlike the offense, Landry reportedly was more willing to concede playcalling duties on defense, and Stautner had more control of the defense than his counterparts on offense. Most expected that Stautner would someday replace Landry as head coach, but with Landry’s firing in 1989, Stautner never coached in the NFL again.

Dave Wannstedt: Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers (1989-92)

Wannstedt came to Dallas from the University of Miami when Jimmy Johnson arrived in 1989. The defensive philosophy of Johnson and Wannstedt relied on speed and quickness rather than size. The system worked in the NFL, as the Cowboys improved from 20th in the league in yards allowed to first by 1992, which was Wannstedt’s last season in Dallas.

Butch Davis: Defensive Line (1989-92); Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers (1993); Defensive Coordinator (1994)

Wannstedt’s replacement was also a former Miami coach in Butch Davis, who continued to employ the same system. In 1994, Dallas again had the top-ranked defense in the league.

Dave Campo: Defensive Assistant (1989-90); Defensive Backs (1991-94); Defensive Coordinator (1995-99); Secondary (2008-present)

Campo rose through the ranks to take over as defensive coordinator in 1995. Although Dallas lost a ton of the team’s most talented defensive players during Campo’s tenure, his defensive units constantly ranked in the top 10 in yards and points allowed.

Mike Zimmer: Defensive Assistant (1994); Defensive Backs (1995-99); Defensive Coordinator (2000-2006)

When the Cowboys hired Campo as head coach, former defensive backs coach Mike Zimmer was elevated to the defensive coordinator position. Zimmer’s defense was often the lone bright spot on the team during the early 2000s, though the team struggled in giving up points. His defense led the league in yards allowed in 2003, but Bill Parcells’ arrival that season had marked the beginning of the team’s transition to the 3-4 defense. He remained as coach in 2005 and 2006, but the defense struggled after the transition.

Brian Stewart: Defensive Coordinator (2007-2008)

Dallas hired Wade Phillips in 2007 due to his defensive coaching experience, and Phillips brough Stewart along as the new defensive coordinator. The new coaching staff brought promises of more elaborate blitz schemes, which would create more pressure on the quarterback. However, during 2007 and part of 2008, the team often struggled to generate this pressure. Phillips took over the playcalling duties from Stewart, and the defense appeared to improve after the move as the Cowboys led the league in sacks. Many have called for Stewart’s removal as defensive coordinator, especially after Phillips started taking over the playcalling.

Who was the Best?

Who was the Worst?