Changing offensive coordinators during the regular season smacks of desperation but can be as effective as laser surgery.
When Vikings coach Mike Zimmer fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, the move may have felt like scapegoating. It may even have felt personal. That doesn’t mean it won’t work.
In his first game as an offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski guided the offense to a season-best 41-point performance and a victory. There are precedents for this kind of success, and this change occurs at a fascinating juncture of the 2018 season. While the NFL’s best offenses are hitting speed bumps, the Vikings may be pulling into the left lane.
As the Vikings prepare to play the Lions in Detroit on Sunday, the history of both franchises offers reason to believe Stefanski could wind up being one of the Vikings’ most valuable employees.
When Denny Green became the Vikings’ head coach in 1992, he built one of the great coaching staffs in league history. He hired Tony Dungy, Monte Kiffin, Willie Shaw, Ty Willingham, Tom Moore, Tom Batta, John Michels, Brian Billick and John Teerlink. He also hired Jack Burns from Washington to be his offensive coordinator.
Green hired Burns to teach him Joe Gibbs’ offense but when the Vikings began the ’93 season by scoring 17 points over two games, Green fired him and promoted Billick, his tight ends coach, to run the offense.
The results weren’t spectacular, but the Vikings offense improved and the team made the playoffs, losing in the first round to the Giants. Billick would go on to become a renowned coordinator and would win a Super Bowl as head coach of the Ravens.
This is where the connections get interesting, in light of Sunday’s matchup. In 2012, the Ravens were 9-2, then lost two straight. Head coach John Harbaugh fired Cam Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator.
The Ravens lost two of their last three games of the regular season but won the Super Bowl. Two years later, the Lions hired Caldwell as their head coach, and he would build a record of 36-28 before being fired and replaced by Matt Patricia, who is 5-9 in his first season and will coach against the Vikings on Sunday.
In 2015, Caldwell fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi in late October and promoted Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator after the Lions lost 28-19 to the Vikings, to fall to 1-6.
With Cooter calling plays, the Lions would win six of their last nine games, and win their last three by producing 35, 32 and 24 points.
If you listen to NFL coaches talk about the complexity of their game, you’d assume that changing offensive coordinators during a season would be impossible.
It’s not. Usually the person being promoted has a good relationship with the quarterback, a firm grasp of the schemes, and has been calling plays in his head for years.
Stefanski attended Penn and has been coaching in the NFL since 2006. He’s highly regarded as a person and coach within the organization. After the Vikings beat Miami last Sunday, offensive players raved about his approach and demeanor, strongly hinting that they preferred him to DeFilippo.
“I think the thing he does best is his calm demeanor,” receiver Adam Thielen said of Stefanski. “He’s the same guy every single day. He’s the same guy throughout the game.”
In the past three weeks, the Saints, Chiefs and Rams, the three most explosive and successful offenses this season, have run into brick walls. It would not be surprising to see the Vikings enter the playoffs with one of the hottest offenses.
While the Vikings are unveiling an unpredictable new coordinator, NFL defenses may be catching up with this season’s trendiest offenses.
“It shows how tough it is to win, to move the ball, in this league,” Thielen said. “There are so many good teams and great defenses that you have to bring it every week. You can’t get complacent in this league, otherwise teams will figure out what you do and take it away.”