A day after flying to Cleveland for a second interview with the Browns for their head coaching position, Kevin Stefanski returned to Minnesota to accept the job he missed out on a year ago.
Stefanski will be the Vikings’ permanent offensive coordinator in 2019, the team announced, after the Browns chose offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens as their next head coach. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, sources said, had offered the permanent job to Stefanski last week, before his contract expired Tuesday, and Stefanski was waiting to see how things played out between him and the Browns before accepting.
Stefanski, 36, was the interim offensive coordinator for the final three games of the season, after the team fired John DeFilippo on Dec. 11. He has been with the Vikings since 2006 and is the longest-tenured assistant coach on the team’s staff. He first interviewed for the Vikings’ coordinator position last year, and was thought to be the favorite until the team hired DeFilippo.
After doing so, the Vikings blocked Stefanski from joining Pat Shurmur in New York and becoming the Giants’ offensive coordinator, keeping him as their quarterbacks coach before promoting him in the wake of DeFilippo’s dismissal.
The Vikings ran for 220 yards in a 41-17 victory over the Dolphins in Stefanski’s first game as a play-caller, but got off to slow starts in a 27-9 Dec. 23 victory in Detroit and a 24-10 Dec. 30 loss to the Bears that cost them a playoff spot. In his postseason news conference Jan. 3, Zimmer praised the job Stefanski had done in DeFilippo’s stead.
“I thought he did a good job for the three weeks that we were in a tough situation that we had to do,” Zimmer said. “It’s fair to the organization, to myself, to the fans, that we look at everybody.”
Vikings players spoke highly of Stefanski and the work he’d done to simplify the team’s offense in the final weeks of the season. Now that Stefanski permanently has the job, it bears watching how he shapes the offense, in light of the mandate from Zimmer to run the ball more frequently that ultimately exposed the philosophical rift between him and DeFilippo.
He will also be tasked with overseeing the Vikings’ ongoing efforts to rework an offensive line that made things difficult for them on offense once again in 2018. And Stefanski will return for a second year with quarterback Kirk Cousins, whose relationship with the former quarterbacks coach was thought to be one of the reasons Stefanski would stay on in 2019.
Cousins was on the North team at the 2012 Senior Bowl, when former Vikings coach Leslie Frazier led the group. Stefanski, then an assistant QB coach with the Vikings, made an early impression on Cousins as he was coming out of Michigan State.
“I don’t know what the personality trait is, but when you carry yourself well and relate well to players, that’s a very valuable trait in a coach — and not every coach has that trait,” Cousins said in a news release. “I first met Kevin and saw that he had that trait back at the Senior Bowl in 2012, and ever since then I’ve really followed his path and really felt that he’d be a coach I’d enjoy working with because of the experience I had at the Senior Bowl. I always felt like he was an up-and-coming coach in the league. I’m sure, I know that his interview with Cleveland went as far as it did for good reason, and I think that he’ll have other opportunities like that in the future, especially if we as an offense are able to do the job we’re expecting to do this next fall.”
Stefanski, who first came to Minnesota as a student of Brad Childress, impressed the Browns enough in his first interview last week to return as one of their finalists for the head coaching job early this week. With Stefanski moving up to the offensive coordinator job, assistant QB coach Drew Petzing could be promoted to the permanent role, though tight ends coach Todd Downing also worked closely with Cousins in the final weeks of the season after Stefanski took over play-calling duties.
The Vikings will make Stefanski available at a Friday news conference. They released statements from several players.
“He’s not a big rah-rah guy, he just wants us to have fun and play at a high level, and he knows we can,” running back Dalvin Cook said.
Said wideout Stefon Diggs: “Buying in won’t be hard because we’ve seen him do it. … He’s not scared of anything and believes we can do anything.”
The status of special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, whose contract expired Tuesday, remained unknown.