The moment seemed at the time like a fleeting interaction between a team that had already traded its top pick for Carson Palmer and a prospect whose NFL potential appeared uncertain.
But in that 2012 exchange in Indianapolis, 33-year-old Raiders quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo matched wits with 23-year-old Michigan State passer Kirk Cousins, and something clicked.
DeFilippo had been impressed by Cousins’ stirring speech at the 2011 Big Ten kickoff luncheon; Cousins was struck by the preparedness of an athletic director’s son who vowed at 10 years old he’d be coaching in the NFL. The meeting yielded no immediate fruit — the Raiders took Utah tackle Tony Bergstrom 95th overall, while the Redskins took Cousins seven picks later to be Robert Griffin III’s backup. But the two men, meticulous types not quick to forget a name, walked away impressed with one another, and made a point to follow the other from a distance.
The Vikings, who’d coached Cousins and Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson at the Senior Bowl that January, were preparing for their second year with Christian Ponder. They couldn’t have known then that the future of their offense — which would culminate six years later with an offensive coordinator job for DeFilippo and a record-breaking contract for Cousins — was being written in some other hotel suite.
That meeting in Indianapolis, though, ultimately sowed the seeds for a partnership between men who appear to be birds of a feather.
“I’ve always been a fan of Kirk’s,” DeFilippo said as he sat in his office May 25, with several neat stacks of papers and a can of Red Bull on his desk. “I don’t know the exact grade I gave him when he was coming out of college, but I know I liked him a lot. I’ll never forget that speech he gave at Michigan State. That was part of the evaluation process, just being like, ‘Wow, this guy’s really impressive.’ … Seeing the way he moves, the way he throws, I’ve always admired him from afar.”
In DeFilippo — the 39-year-old former Eagles quarterbacks coach who accepted the Vikings’ offensive coordinator job hours after the Super Bowl parade in his hometown — the Vikings appear to have a kindred spirit to Cousins. Of all the things working in the team’s favor as it courted Cousins this spring (stable leadership, Midwestern locale, talented roster), the fit with DeFilippo was high on the quarterback’s list.
The partnership was finalized with diligence typically befitting a corporate merger (and let’s be honest, the deal between Cousins and the Vikings carries the financial stakes and a level of attention to rival many such acquisitions). After accepting the Vikings’ job Feb. 8, DeFilippo was on the last flight from Philadelphia to Minneapolis on Feb. 13. He was in the office first thing the next morning, poring over film of the Vikings’ three free agents-to-be (Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum).
Soon after, DeFilippo turned his attention to Cousins, who rented a car to scout the Twin Cities between public appearances during Super Bowl week. Cousins said he respected several coaches who had mentored DeFilippo, Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson among them, and started making calls to players who had worked with DeFilippo, such as Palmer and Eagles quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
DeFilippo called the Vikings’ quarterback search as thorough a process as he’s gone through. He would not name names, but said he evaluated more quarterbacks with coach Mike Zimmer, General Manager Rick Spielman and QB coach Kevin Stefanski than just Cousins and the Vikings’ three free agents.
But eventually, the search zeroed in on Cousins. The QB and the coordinator met at dinner March 14, talked more football the next day and Cousins signed his three-year, $84 million deal that afternoon.
“I have a lot of reps banked in doing things a certain way, so if there’s a lot of change, it’s going to change the way I can play,” Cousins said last week. “I love his intensity, how committed he is to being the best he can be and being on the best team possible.”
Raised to be a coach
DeFilippo lived in six states as a kid while his father, Gene, worked as a college football coach before becoming an administrator at South Carolina, Kentucky, Villanova and Boston College. The younger DeFilippo lingered around Kentucky basketball practices with current Gophers coach Richard Pitino while Pitino’s father, Rick, coached a perennial contender; he observed postgame football locker rooms after big wins and crushing defeats.
“When your dad is totally involved in it, you either go one way or the other,” Gene DeFilippo said. “You’re either all-consumed and you love it, or you go the other way. John could never get enough football. He just loves it.”
DeFilippo played quarterback at James Madison, spending his summers watching Kerry Collins and Peyton Manning during internships with the Panthers and Colts. Before he graduated, he accepted the quarterbacks coach job at Fordham, where Dave Clawson, who’d been Villanova’s offensive coordinator while Gene DeFilippo was the AD, was the head coach.
While there, DeFilippo drew on the people skills he said come from his father and the tenacity he picked up from his mother, Anne.
“John quickly earned my trust,” said Clawson, now the coach at Wake Forest. “It’s very difficult for young coaches to have that balance of coaching, mentoring and establishing a relationship, and John did that extremely well, early. He was hard and demanding with the players — and some of these guys, he was their age, or maybe a year older than them — yet they respected him, and enjoyed their time with him.”
His first job in the NFL, as a Giants offensive quality control assistant, exposed DeFilippo to Tom Coughlin’s exacting style.
“For my personality,” DeFilippo said, “that was by far the best way I could have been brought into the NFL. My personality totally fits that culture he had in New York.”
It probably also endeared DeFilippo to another Bill Parcells disciple in Zimmer. And when Zimmer and Spielman interviewed DeFilippo in Philadelphia, hours after that Super Bowl parade, the three coaches’ sons hit it off.
“All of us grew up in a very similar way. There’s a little bit of an edge to you,” John DeFilippo said. “You can see it in Rick, you can see it in Coach Zim. I think you can see it in me. It’s just the way you grew up.”
‘Wants to be coached hard’
The son of a pastor, Cousins has shown a similar fire; most of America knows him for his meme-worthy “You like that?!” moment during the Redskins’ drive to the playoffs in 2015 after Cousins replaced Griffin as the starter.
The early days of his working relationship with DeFilippo, even in the relative calm of organized team activities, have shown the coordinator and the quarterback that one has what the other needs.
“For a guy that’s had that much success, he wants to be coached hard,” DeFilippo said. “The guys that want to get better all have that trait. He has that quality, and he listens.”
DeFilippo held up his cell phone to show one of his coaching tics: the midnight practice film clips he became famous for sending quarterbacks in Philadelphia. Now, those clips are going to Cousins, backup Trevor Siemian and third-stringer Kyle Sloter.
“The guys in Philly used to make fun of me,” DeFilippo said. “We all need to be pushed, and there’s no pushback from [Cousins]. We’ll be in the film room, and those other guys on offense hear the second-highest-paid player in the league getting his butt chewed a little bit. There’s no prima donnas around here. I think that’s why he and I both made a transition into this culture, because those are qualities he and I both believe in.”
It remains to be seen how successful they will be together. Right now, though, they’re both confident they sized one another up correctly.
“[John] loves that Kirk’s a football junkie,” Gene DeFilippo said. “Just knowing what I’ve read about Kirk, and what I’ve heard, I think he and John are going to be really, really good together.”