Kevin Stefanski’s 13th Vikings season ascended in “a blur.”
He exited the team’s flight from Seattle near dawn Tuesday morning as the quarterbacks coach. A few hours later, Stefanski got word he’d grip the play-calling sheet for the first time in his NFL coaching career when head coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in an effort to resurrect this Vikings season.
“That’s the tough part,” said Stefanski, who was named interim coordinator. “These are not ideal circumstances to do this. I’m ready for the challenge.”
His preparation for this audition, the 36-year-old Stefanski said, is more than a decade of NFL seasons in the making under six offensive-minded bosses. Taking the lead on this week’s game plan and calling the shots against Miami on Sunday will be new, but he said he’s called plays in his head for years while working under coach Brad Childress and coordinators Darrell Bevell, Bill Musgrave, Norv Turner, Pat Shurmur and DeFilippo.
“You’re always thinking about what you may be calling in that situation,” said Stefanski, who started with the Vikings as an aide to Childress in 2006. “I’ve tried to do that since day one as a coach. I think that’s incumbent upon you to take yourself through what you may do here.”
The Vikings have groomed Stefanski for this opportunity, with Zimmer blocking him last spring from interviewing for the Giants offensive coordinator job when Shurmur took over as head coach in New York. Stefanski survived two head coaching changes in Minnesota — a rare feat for an NFL assistant. Zimmer kept three offensive coaches on staff when he was hired in 2014 as head coach; only Stefanski remains.
He’s since coached tight ends (2014-2015) and running backs (2016), but most years were dedicated to quarterbacks where he was the assistant position coach for five seasons (2009-2013) before Shurmur returned him to the QB room as its leader in 2017.
A well-established relationship with quarterback Kirk Cousins can’t hurt. Stefanski said he’s encouraged Cousins to speak his mind about what direction the 20th-ranked scoring offense needs moving forward.
“To steal a line from Pat Shurmur,” Stefanski said, “‘It’s about the players and not the plays.’ So, it’s something that we’re going to work on Sunday and let it go.
The offense can’t be “reinvented,” Cousins said, with just six days between games this week. Changes are aimed at simplifying the game plan, according to Vikings players, which is no coincidence after Zimmer publicly questioned last month whether the offense had “too much volume” under DeFilippo for players to properly execute.
“He’s a guy who knows what works and what doesn’t work,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “I think it’s been good over these last two days getting back to things we did earlier in the season that made us successful.”
Zimmer’s involvement with the offense has increased gradually throughout this season, and especially this week with the coordinator change. Zimmer begins every game calling defensive plays, but during stretches of games this season he has delegated those duties to coordinator George Edwards.
Zimmer has said he’s trying to do a better job of managing the entire team on Sundays, and not just his fifth-ranked defense, but he’s publicly declined to get into specifics. Zimmer said he met with the offense this week while grasping a bigger role on that side of the ball.
“I think Coach Zim has been pretty clear about what he wants in his offense,” Stefanski said. “At this point, we’re all hands on deck because we’re shorthanded. So, Coach is really helping us out.”
What does that look like?
“Maybe there’s a little more simplicity,” running back Latavius Murray said. “Doing what we do best. We tightened some things down a little bit. We’re communicating. I think that’s what’s most important for us, to just go out there and do the things we can do. Simplify it and do it really well.”
It’s no secret Zimmer wants to run the ball more. The Vikings rank 31st in rushing attempts, a year after running the ball more than any NFL team not named the Jaguars in 2017.
How the remaining three games — and potential playoff run — go can carry weight in determining whether Stefanski will remain a 14th season in Minnesota, minus the interim tag at coordinator.
“I look at it as it’s in our best interest to play really good, complementary football on Sunday,” Stefanski said. “And not worry about anything else.”