Asked on Friday about provisions he had made during the week for Kevin Stefanski, who will call plays for the first time in a game Sunday, coach Mike Zimmer said he’d given the Vikings interim offensive coordinator some wisdom he had learned from his own initial play-calling experience.
“I gave him a few tips on my first game, when I was a coordinator 100 years ago — how I kind of prepare for the game and things that I do,” Zimmer said. “He appreciated that.
“It’s a little different when you’re reading it off a script in practice, and you go out to the game, and there’s 70,000 people yelling, and they’ve got a different personnel group. You’ve got 25 seconds to do it, and the [headset] cuts off at 15 [seconds], so now you’ve got 10, a lot of times. It can be a bit [daunting], but it’s practice and getting used to it. I’m sure he’ll do a good job.”
As the Vikings try to lift themselves out of a situation mostly of their own making, they have precious little time for practice.
They are guaranteed only three more games in a season that began with Super Bowl aspirations and now finds the Vikings battling for their playoff lives, a half-game ahead of their closest pursuers for the NFC’s final playoff spot and with little chance of lifting themselves from the bottom rung of the conference’s seeding order.
The three-game stretch starts on friendlier terms than the one the Vikings just finished, which included three night games in four weeks and road losses to the Bears, Patriots and Seahawks. Sunday’s game against the Dolphins will be the Vikings’ first at home since their Nov. 25 victory over the Packers, and their first noon kickoff since Nov. 4.
But with three teams only a half-game behind them, the Vikings might only be assured of retaining control of their playoff fate if they win, which means putting together their first three-game win streak since October while trying to sort out the offensive identity crisis that came about during their slide after that win streak.
In recent weeks, sources have described a mandate from Zimmer to run the ball more often that began around midseason, weeks before the coach talked publicly about the need for a greater commitment to the ground game after the Vikings’ loss to the Bears. After scoring a season-high 37 points during an Oct. 21 road win over the Jets to improve to 4-2-1, the Vikings have averaged only 17.5 per game since then, while dropping from eighth in the league in total yards to 20th.
Even as Stefanski talked last week about his own clarity in what the team’s identity should be on offense — echoing familiar Zimmer themes about toughness and physicality — players admitted there’s simply not time to make major alterations.
“I don’t expect it to change,” running back Dalvin Cook said. “We’re so deep in the season, and the terminology is key. There’s nothing you can change. We’ve got to execute.”
To get Stefanski ready, Zimmer said the Vikings spent some time in practice working through gamelike situations, looking to simulate how quickly things can change during a game and how play-callers have to react.
“We did the best we could,” Zimmer said.
Given the Vikings’ schedule this past week — Zimmer fired DeFilippo in a short Tuesday morning meeting hours after returning from a Monday night loss to Seattle — and Zimmer’s saying after the Bears loss there was too much volume in the offense, it’s reasonable to think they might take a simpler approach against Miami with Stefanski, who had a front-row seat as Vikings quarterbacks coach last year to Pat Shurmur’s work coordinating the NFL’s 10th-best offense.
Stefanski referenced a saying of Shurmur’s this past week — “It’s about the players, not the plays” — and as he is thrust into the offensive coordinator job, he could opt to pare back the number of concepts the Vikings implement.
“He’s a guy who has been around a lot of offenses. 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, trying to get back to things we did earlier in the year that made us successful.”
Said wide receiver Stefon Diggs: “We’re trying to right the ship right now. We’re trying to make some plays, fly around and get back to being us.”
The alternatives, should the Vikings fail to make the playoffs, could be more complex.
Multiple sources have said both Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman are entering the final years of their respective contracts in 2019, meaning the Vikings could have to make a decision this offseason about whether they want to pursue contract extensions for one or both men or plot a different direction.
The narrative around the partnership’s progress could swing dramatically over the next three weeks: A winning streak would cement the Vikings’ third playoff berth in four years, while multiple losses would likely mark the second time in three years the team went from an October NFC North lead to a missed playoff spot.
Stefanski’s contract is also believed to be up after the season; the Vikings will have to make a decision on his status after seeing him call plays for just three games. He was thought to be the front-runner for offensive coordinator until the team hired DeFilippo, and could be in line to get the permanent title after what amounts to a dress rehearsal the next three weeks.
The 36-year-old, who has been with the organization since 2006, demurred this week when asked about his future with the team and his emotions when the Vikings blocked him from taking the Giants offensive coordinator job after hiring DeFilippo over him last winter.
“We’ve asked the players and I’ve asked the players to be committed to this week, so I am doing no different,” he said. “ I am so committed to what we are doing against the Dolphins, that’s a really good team that just beat the New England Patriots, who we know is a good team. So, it’d be foolish of me to look back or look too far ahead.”
The Vikings, indeed, must deal with what’s in front of them for now. The timing of their offensive coordinator change, and the stakes riding upon their ability to handle the final three games of their season, mean anything else could spell the end of a season that began with such lofty goals.
“We’ve got a three-game season, and we control our own destiny,” Rudolph said. “We don’t need any help from anyone else; we go out and win football games, and we’ll get in the dance. And if you get in the dance, you have a chance to win it all.”