The Vikings Continue to Blunder the Offensive Coordinator Position under Mike Zimmer

The potential loss of Kevin Stefanski highlights the Minnesota Vikings’ management at their worst. It is concerning to see how this position has been handled over recent years. In the Mike Zimmer era, the Offensive Coordinator (OC) in Minnesota is given an exceptional amount of control and power over the team. While Zimmer rules over the defense, the OC often not only gets to coach his players, but also calls plays and has a firm say in roster management, powers not present in teams led by offensively-minded head coaches. Given the amount of independence and control given to the position, by virtue of Zimmer’s style, it seems curious that this position has been marred by instability during his tenure.

Pat Shurmur is perhaps the best OC the Vikings have had in the Zimmer era. During the 2017 campaign, Shurmur led a Case Keenum centric offense to 23.9 points per game, a top ten performance that year. Keenum threw for 3,547 yards, with 22 passing touchdowns to only 7 interceptions. The three-headed rushing attack of Latavius Murray, Jerrick McKinnon, and Dalvin Cook, who was injured in week 4, combined for 1,766 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Combined with a stellar defense, The Vikings went 13-3 that year. But, it is important to remember that Shurmur was a hold-over from 2016, where he was previously a Tight Ends coach under Norv Turner. Turner was the handpicked OC of the Vikings in 2016, who shockingly resigned after a 5-2 start. Vikings fans do not give him too much grief for the decision because, to his credit, he was right about the offense under Bradford. The roster wasn’t deserving of high praise. Despite starting with a winning record under Turner, the offense was 2nd worst in the league in terms of yards per game by the time of his departure. The Vikings would finish the season 8-8 and out of the postseason because of it.

Still, questions remain as to how this resignation took place. Turner was clear that he wasn’t retiring after his resignation. In fact, he is currently the OC for the Carolina Panthers. He was not looking to end his NFL coaching career, just his career with the Vikings and with Mike Zimmer. This leaves fans wondering what it is like to operate as an OC on this team, and what level of independence and trust is truly given to these coaches. In Turner’s place, Pat Shurmur emerged as interim OC. Sure, the Vikings deserve some credit for sticking with him as full-time OC going into the following season, but it is naive to act like Shurmur was originally part of the grand plan. For better or worse, the Minnesota Vikings lucked into a great OC due to the unprecedented departure of a failing OC that they picked.

Pat Shurmur, after his standout performance as Vikings’ OC, was hired as Head Coach of the New York Giants the following year. To be clear, this is not a fault of the Minnesota front office. A head coaching position is a clear promotion from an OC gig, and it should be expected that Shurmur would accept the promotion in New York when it was offered to him. When Shurmur left, he wanted to bring his Quarterbacks Coach, Kevin Stefanski, with him to serve as his OC for the Giants. Stefanski was still under contract with the Minnesota Vikings at the time, which means that the Vikings could deny him the opportunity to interview with other teams if he was offered a similar position. Due to arcane NFL laws, every coaching position under Head Coach is considered a lateral hire. Thus, despite the change from Quarterbacks Coach to Offensive Coordinator being a seemingly huge promotion for Stefanski, the Giants’ request could legally be blocked, and the Vikings did just that. While the Vikings suffer no legal ramifications for blocking Stefanski from advancing his career, it has surely damaged the relationship between Stefanski and the team he works for.

To add insult to injury, the Vikings had their own need for an OC with Shurmur leaving. Instead of turning to the in-house option of Kevin Stefanski, who had experience working with the highly successful Shurmur, the Vikings instead turned to John DeFilippo. Not only did the Vikings deny Stefanski the opportunity at taking the OC job in New York, they also denied him a chance at the OC job in Minnesota, a job which he was clearly qualified for. Stefanski is Minnesota’s longest tenured coach, employed by the Vikings for longer than even head coach Mike Zimmer, and has worked with Tight Ends, Running Backs, and Quarterbacks. Instead, the Vikings elected to roll with DeFilippo after his time as Quarterbacks Coach for the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Even looking outside of how the front office treated Stefanski, this was a horrendous decision from a football perspective.

DeFilippo’s offense was inept. Despite having perhaps the best Wide Receiver duo in the league, a healthy Dalvin Cook, and a new $84 million Quarterback in Kirk Cousins, the Vikings only scored 21.7 points per game, a regression from the previous year. Two embarrassing performances against the Patriots and Seahawks doomed the Vikings playoff chances and lead to DeFilippo’s firing late in the season. The offense was extremely predictable. In Seattle, the Monday Night Football broadcasting team was even predicting the Vikings playcall before the snap, a sign that something was desperately wrong. No offense can find success when the opposing defense knows exactly what you are doing, and that was the case with the 2018 Vikings team. Furthermore, DeFilippo completely underutilized Dalvin Cook as a running back and Kirk Cousins as a play-action passer, instead continuing an unsuccessful traditional passing attack which resulted in Cousins getting hit or sacked on seemingly every dropback. The offensive line performed drastically worse under DeFilippo as well. Some of this could be attributed to the tragic passing of Offensive Line Coach Tony Sparano in the offseason, but some blame also lies on DeFilippo’s obvious gameplan that defenders could key into. While Shurmur used an established run game, quick passes, and innovative play design to neutralize the pass rush, DeFilippo did not.

John DeFilippo was hired as the offensive mind who helped the Eagles, and backup quarterback Nick Foles, win a Super Bowl. Why then, was he so bad at running an offense with the Minnesota Vikings? In retrospect, it is clear that DeFilippo had little to do with the offensive success in Philadelphia. First, the Eagles Head Coach, Doug Pederson, is himself an offensive-minded head coach. He has proved that his coaching is what makes the Eagles offense run. The Eagles, again playing with quarterback Nick Foles, are competing in the divisional round of the playoffs this weekend after a victory in Chicago. Second, former Eagles OC Frank Reich has also proven himself as an offensive guru. He is the Indianapolis Colts’ Head Coach this season, where he has helped Quarterback Andrew Luck have an outstanding year of his own. The Colts are also competing in the divisional round of the playoffs after a victory over Houston. So, the Vikings opted for the third-tier coach in Philadelphia instead of their own experienced coach in Kevin Stefanski, who helped them get to the NFC Championship game with Case Keenum starting nearly the entire season. The Minnesota Vikings are not competing in the divisional round of the playoffs this weekend.

Lastly, Head Coach Mike Zimmer is seemingly angry about the DeFilippo experiment in Minnesota. All season, he badgered his OC about not running the ball more, about offensive failures that put too much pressure on the defense, and lamented about how a team cannot win games without putting up points. These are all fair arguments, but perhaps the worst consequence of the DeFilippo year is how badly it soured Zimmer and the front office on potential OCs in the future. Instead of chasing the next great coordinator, the Vikings are instead looking to older, boring, unsuccessful coaches who have little to show for themselves beyond an ability to call running plays. Rumors have been floating around about the potential hiring of Hue Jackson (11-41–1 record as a Head Coach), Mike Mularkey (36-53), and Dirk Koetter (19-29). On a team that gives its OC nearly full control of the offense, with similar powers to what a Head Coach might receive on other teams, the Vikings should not be hiring failed former head coaches, even if they do have experience.

Just as the decision to hire Chip Kelly did not stop the Eagles from hiring Doug Pederson, the decision to hire John DeFilippo should not stop Mike Zimmer and the Vikings from hiring Kevin Stefanski. That is, if Stefanski even wants to coach for the Vikings, which is not an assured fact based on how they treated him last offseason. The Vikings have continually blundered the OC position, with one good season seemingly occurring by accident. Let us hope they have not burned themselves for another season.