There's no doubt who Cowboys want to see win Sunday: Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer, who spent several years with the Cowboys in various coaching roles, had a strong impact on many players there. "He's special to me," said Darren Woodson. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

FRISCO, Texas -- Greg Ellis promises to be on his couch, watching Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.

“Eating something good,” Ellis said. “My feet reclined.”

Darren Woodson will be watching, too, and not just because he's an ESPN analyst.

Woodson and Ellis will be watching not because they want to see one of their old NFC East rivals lose, though that might be part of it. Woodson and Ellis, as well as just about anybody else associated with the Dallas Cowboys, will be watching and rooting for the Vikings because of head coach Mike Zimmer.

From 1994 to 2006, Zimmer was a Cowboys assistant coach. In 2004, he was a defensive assistant. From 1995 to 1999, he was the defensive backs coach. From 2000 to 2006, he was their defensive coordinator.

“All of the guys, all the players that played for Zim, not the guys with short careers here for a year or two, but guys like myself, Dexter Coakley, Darren, those kinds of guys, Deion [Sanders], too, have a tremendous amount of respect for Zim," Woodson said. "Here’s the reason why, in my opinion: because game recognizes game. NFL players, especially the ones that have long, successful careers, we recognize and have respect for coaches that have that understanding of the game.

"Not just calling plays, but the ones that break down and they’re not going to be politically correct all the time. It’s, ‘Look, you messed up here.’ Now Zim would say other words not that nice, but we all knew he knew.”

Woodson was in his third year with the Cowboys when Zimmer arrived. He credits Zimmer and Dave Campo for the career he had that has him in the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor.

“He’s special to me,” Woodson said. “When I go in the Hall of Fame, he’s the one putting me in. He might be 95 when it happens but he’s the one. He’ll have some dip on his cheek, ready to go.”

In 1996, the Cowboys were getting ready to play the New England Patriots and Pro Bowl tight end Ben Coates, who would be mostly Woodson’s responsibility.

“Zim is really good at pushing your buttons as far as matchups,” Woodson said. “Coates was like the [Rob Gronkowski] of the Patriots back then. He was dominating guys week in, week out. So they’re coming to town and every day he was one me, ‘He is going to f---ing kill you. He’s going to embarrass you. I don’t give a f--- all of this All-Pro stuff and you can do this and you can do that; this guy’s going to kill you.’ Every single day.”

Two days before the game, Zimmer called Woodson at home.

“He was like, ‘I just got off the phone with Coates. That guy can’t wait for you,’” Woodson remembered.

Woodson intercepted two passes, and Coates did not have a catch in the game.

When Zimmer was the Cincinnati Bengals' defensive coordinator, he would have Ellis visit in the spring or during training camp to help teach pass-rush moves. But one time, Zimmer could not wait for Ellis to get to Cincinnati.

“Zim knew that I did a lot of stuff with martial arts and related it to football, and I was good with my hands,” Ellis said. “He would always tell me, ‘Greg, you need to coach or at least work with guys because you know so much about hand-eye and pass rush. One day he called me and I said, ‘Zim, what’s going on?’ and he’s like, ‘Do you remember you said you’d show me some basic hand techniques for my guys?’ ‘Yeah, I can help. When?’ He said, ‘What about right now? I’m actually in front of your house.’ We walked through my house to my backyard and we worked on pass-rush moves.”

In Zimmer’s first two years with the Vikings, Ellis spent time with the team’s pass-rushers helping with hand techniques. His schedule prevented him from getting up there before this season. Woodson has become a mentor of sorts to Harrison Smith, the Vikings’ safety.

“Zim asked me to have conversations with him over the years, and Harrison and I text back and forth every once in a while,” Woodson said. “Zim loves the kid, and he has since the day he had him.”

It took Zimmer a long time to get a head-coaching job. Jerry Jones interviewed 10 coaches after Bill Parcells left the Cowboys following the 2006 season, and Zimmer was not one of them. Zimmer’s brutal honesty might have hurt his chances in landing jobs because general managers and owners don’t always want to hear the truth.

Woodson said Zimmer is the reason he did not go into coaching. He knew Zimmer was at the office before the sun was up and did not leave until well after it went down. But the lessons he learned from Zimmer have carried over to his work in commercial real estate.

“Just the grind,” Woodson said. “There’s no such thing as a gimme. There are no gimmes in life. There are no gimmes in the game of football. It’s not just show up and you’re given something. You’ve got to earn it. Everything you do is a grind. I’m the same with my kids. Everything you get is from the work you put in. There’s no such thing as gimmes. I apply that to my daily life. Zim used to say, ‘I ain’t the prettiest guy in the world, but I can outwork you any day of the week.' That’s Zim. Just a great mentality and a great approach to life.”