Despite his curt, at times cranky rapport with the media, Mike Zimmer is often about as honest as it gets among NFL coaches. The last calendar year has seen many instances of Zimmer exposing his feelings with the Vikings offensive staff, from his demands for loyalty to criticism of John DeFilippo’s play-calling, to outright condemnation of DeFilippo’s tenure as offensive coordinator. The overall theme of these revelations is simple: get on board and stay on board.
That may sound like a hard-nosed philosophy, but that does not make it unreasonable. True, in today’s NFL, coaches frequently will cede control of entire swaths of their team to their coordinators, while sticking to their preferred side of the ball. But a laissez-faire approach is not Zimmer’s style. Even as a defense-first coach, he has a certain philosophy of how an offense should be run. Pat Shurmur fell in line with this philosophy and found tremendous success. DeFilippo veered away from it, and is now without a job.
Zimmer put it as succinctly as possible when asked about why new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski is a better fit than DeFilippo. “I felt like I don’t want the season to be wasted.”
With that in mind, when Stefanski takes over play-calling duties Sunday, one would assume there will be a clear difference in offensive direction. Primarily, the Vikings will run the ball more, taking considerable pressure off of Kirk Cousins‘ shoulders. All season, this had been Zimmer’s biggest gripe with DeFilippo. He too often chose long-developing passing plays when Zimmer wanted more runs.
Zimmer has been coy with regards to how Stefanski will fit into his new role. He fell short of even committing to him as play-caller on Wednesday. But given Stefanski’s official title as “interim offensive coordinator” and Zimmer’s words regarding Stefanski, it is safe to say that the job will be his for the time being. In the offseason, former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur needed a play-caller to bring along to the Giants. He wanted Stefanski. Zimmer blocked the offer.
“I come in here four years ago and the offense is 29, 27th, 26th,” Zimmer said in the wake of that decision. “But I keep them. So the first time our offense is pretty good, then I’m supposed to let all my coaches leave? I don’t think that’s right. If I’m going to be loyal to them and not fire them after they don’t have good years, then I don’t think they should not be loyal to me.”
So he clearly valued Stefanski on his staff then, and he clearly values him now. Perhaps his most ardent praise for Stefanski, and his most damning criticism for DeFilippo, was when Zimmer said that “[Cousins] will be open to suggesting things more.” With Zimmer also saying he himself will be more involved with the offense moving forward, it is clear that an open line of communication between parties is something DeFilippo lacked and Stefanski will add.
As for schemes, it is tough to diagnose where Stefanski’s falls with regards to coaching trees. With DeFilippo, it seemed clear: he worked under Doug Pederson, who came from Andy Reid, who came from Mike Holmgren, a direct descendant of the Bill Walsh West Coast offense. Stefanski, who has been with the Vikings since 2006, is a different story. He has seen a wide array of play-callers come through in his time, from Brad Childress and Darrell Bevell to Bill Musgrave to Shurmur, coaching almost every position group along the way.
If one had to guess, the most likely influence on Stefanski’s play-calling would be Childress. He brought Stefanski in to Minnesota at age 24 as an assistant. He also had the longest tenure as Vikings coach during Stefanski’s 13-year run. Childress, like Pederson and DeFilippo, is a product of Andy Reid and the West Coast style, having spent many years alongside Reid in both Philadelphia and Kansas City. As such, expect Stefanski to continue to employ quick and play action passing in abundance. But of course, he will not neglect the running game.
Cousins and Trevor Siemian both complimented Stefanski’s intelligence and demeanor this week. His alma mater lends credence to this, as he graduated from Pennsylvania in 2005. Of course, Ivy League grads do not automatically make good coordinators. But his brains, varied experience and willingness to listen all point to him having upside as a play-caller.
He has the endorsements, he has the job. Now he has to manage the responsibility of saving the Vikings’ season.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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