There’s a debate to be had about the relative attractiveness of the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator job, but make no mistake, Kevin Stefanski was not the team’s only option.
The Vikings could have gone with an experienced play caller or waited to pluck someone young off one of the playoff teams’ coaching staffs like they did last year with Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo.
But it always made more sense to amend a mistake made last offseason in passing over Kevin Stefanski than it did to bring in an outsider.
Aside from his years of experience working with multiple coaching staffs and multiple position groups, the best argument for Stefanski is that he’s had an entire year to figure out what makes quarterback Kirk Cousins tick.
Zimmer can talk about running the ball more often, we can talk about a new offensive line coach and this year’s offensive line crop in the draft until we’re purple in the face, but the reality of the situation is that the Vikings will only go as far as Cousins can take them. So the offensive coordinator has to be the one who can communicate with the franchise quarterback better than anyone else.
How do we know that Cousins could work closely with his quarterbacks coach last year? Aside from Cousins’ own acknowledgement of their relationship, a comment from Zimmer following Stefanski’s appointment as interim OC pointed toward a give and take with OC and QB.
“They have a good working relationship,” Zimmer said. “They sit in meetings all the time and talk a lot, so there’s a lot of back-and-forth with those guys. I feel like Kirk will be open to suggesting things a little bit more.”
Being able to suggest things is key for Cousins. He is a student of the game, so he should naturally be a part of the game planning. Beyond that, there were times last year that he didn’t look comfortable or on the same page with receivers. Having an OC with which he can exchange ideas could be the most valuable thing the Vikings gain this offseason.
“When you carry yourself well and relate to players, that’s a very valuable trait in a coach,” Cousins said via a team release. “Not every coach has that trait.”
Indeed they do not. On the Mackey and Judd Show, former Vikings quarterback Rich Gannon broke down what quarterbacks want from their offensive coordinator.
“I want communication, I want honesty, I want a coach who can be up front and honest with me. Don’t tell me the things I’m doing well, coach me on the things I’m not doing well. I want a coach who is going to put in the time and the effort to put together a great concept and a great plan each week. Someone who’s willing to make adjustments, who’s willing to add different concepts that we see around the National Football League, someone who understands my strengths and someone who has some confidence and who has an aggressive mentality. Someone who’s willing to give me the ball in a critical situation and let me go make a play.”
New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians, who had previous experience working with Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer and Andrew Luck, wrote in his book The Quarterback Whisperer that he always gave the QB the final say.
“Sometimes quarterbacks see ghosts out there on the field. They think they spot a certain coverage when really they don’t. You have to have an open dialogue with them once they get to the sideline. I need to tell my quarterback that a defender is baiting him and tricking him and my quarterback has to trust what I’m saying. They quarterback has to know that his coach isn’t making crap up, that what I see is in fact correct and what he sees on the field is in fact incorrect.
To show my quarterbacks how much I believe in them, I let them pick their favorite plays that we’ll run in the game. On nights before a game we’ll sit down in a hotel conference room and we’ll have ix third-down calls for certain distances. On third-and-five, for example, I’ll ask my quarterback to give me his top three plays that he wants to run in that situation. Then on game day, well do that. Not only does this give ownership of the game plan to my quarterback, it also makes him more accountable for what happens in the game. I want my quarterback to feel like we are tethered at the hip — and at the heart.”
It never seemed that the relationship between DeFilippo and Cousins was tethered at the hip and heart and it’s clear that Zimmer won’t be that close with a QB unless Teddy Bridgewater somehow ends up back in Minnesota, so it’s Stefanski’s responsibility to be that confidant for the Vikings’ QB and get the extra two percent out of Cousins.
“I think it’s important to note that he doesn’t ride the roller coaster emotionally and he does have a consistent demeanor about him,” Cousins said. “He also has a strength of personality that would suggest he’s not a pushover or somebody that players can take advantage of….I go back to, it’s the right balance of personality.”
While there will be plenty of questions about Cousins’ ability to get his team over the top, there have been coaches in the past to build a rapport with the Vikings QB like the one Arians and Gannon described. Cousins’ former play caller Sean McVay, for example. Cousins gave McVay a signed jersey with the inscription, “I owe you my career” when the former Washington OC became head coach of the Los Angeles Rams.
“A lot of the good things that have happened with us kind of coincided together and there was a bond that was shared between us,” McVay told ESPN in 2017. “For him to write that, certainly I know that’s not true because he’s done a lot of that on his own. But to be a part of it and to try to help him is what coaching’s all about. And guys like Kirk are why you get into coaching.”
Funny that teams everywhere are looking for the next McVay in head coaching searches and, in a different way, the Vikings are too. And they very well may have found him in Kevin Stefanski.