EAGAN — Until the end of time assistant coaches whose units overachieve will jump to the front of the line for head coaching positions.
With the Minnesota Vikings entering the bye week with the fourth most yards on offense and eighth best points per game mark, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski’s name will be on the radar as we head into coaching change season.
Assistant head coach/offensive advisor Gary Kubiak offered his take on Stefanski’s potential as a head coach during a bye-week media session.
“I’m sure they don’t want to lose him around here,” Kubiak said. “Kevin’s got a bright future. He’s very young, very smart. There’s a couple qualities… being able to be demanding but being very composed. Those are two things that I looked for in young coaches when, I know for me as a head coach, when I was looking for guys to come work for me, and those are two things that Kevin does extremely well.”
But how can we separate Stefanski from his roster talent? The Vikings have an $84 million quarterback, MVP-caliber running back, two of the top 20 receivers in the game, two very good tight ends and an offensive line built to the exact specs of the scheme. Any offensive coordinator would be expected to produce big numbers with this much talent.
So let’s have a look at the things that the Vikings’ offensive staff, led by Stefanski, have done to put these gifted players in position to succeed…
Scheming (and screening?) for Kirk
On Tuesday Kubiak was asked why Kirk Cousins has career-high numbers in nearly every category, from yards per attempt to PFF grade to QB rating and so on. He credited Stefanski’s approach.
“I think as coaches, you’re always trying to find out what your guy does best, how you help him play at his best,” Kubiak said. “Making quick decisions, getting rid of the football initially, you can’t talk about that enough because it’s a game where if you hold the ball, bad things happen. We just try to put a big point of emphasis on that and the way Kevin has called games, I think, has been the most important thing with how Kirk has been able to translate that to Sundays.”
Interestingly Cousins is dead last in the NFL in time holding the ball at 2.98 seconds per throw. His offensive line ranks 22nd in pass blocking by PFF standards, which sounds like a recipe for disaster but Cousins has only been sacked 22 times this year, on pace to come well short of his sack totals from 2017 and 2018.
It might not seem to add up until you look closer. Cousins is fourth in the NFL in play-action percentage (up from 17th last year) and has the second best QB rating in the NFL when running play-action (134.5). ESPN’s Courtney Cronin noted that Cousins has seven passing touchdowns on designed rollouts to the left while the rest of the NFL has just one.
It’s clear that the offensive staff’s goal in using a Kubiak-style offense was to use bootlegs, play-actions and rollouts to give Cousins extra time in the pocket since he struggled at times to get rid of the ball in John DeFilippo’s shotgun offense last year.
According to Pro-Football Reference, Cousins had a 95.5 rating out of the shotgun in 2018 and 114.6 under center, yet he threw four times as many passes out of shotgun. The Vikings have turned those numbers on their head this year with a 50-50 split between shotgun and under center snaps.
Running play-action at a higher rate is an earmark of a coach who pays close attention to what’s working in the NFL. Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes is currently No. 1 in play-action percentage with Jacoby Brissett second, Lamar Jackson third and Jimmy Garoppolo fifth just behind Cousins.
What do all of those quarterbacks have in common? They have proven offensive minds calling the shots in Andy Reid, Frank Reich, Greg Roman and Kyle Shanahan — all of whom have been to the Super Bowl as an OC or head coach. Last year Jared Goff and the Rams were No. 1 in play-action percentage and ended up representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.
These coaches have another thing in common: They tend to excel in drawing up screen passes. Cousins averages 8.5 yards per attempt on throws behind the line of scrimmage through 11 games, up from 5.6 yards per attempt in 2018.
The combination of easy screens and play-action throws that open up holes in the secondary is that only 10.6% of Cousins’ throws are into tight windows, according to NFL NextGEN stats. That’s the second fewest in the NFL behind Drew Brees (Mahomes ranks third).
When you account for an offensive scheme creating more space for a quarterback who isn’t mobile in the pocket, using play-actions to confuse defenses and screens to bust off big plays on throws that any quarterback can execute, you can clearly see the tangible impact that Stefanski and Co. have had on Cousins and in turn the offense as a whole.
It says something about Stefon Diggs as a receiver that his role can be flipped four times in four years and he’s repeatedly among the best players in the NFL. He’s gone from a slot receiver in 2016 to outside receiver in 2017 to quick-pass receiver in 2018 to DeSean Jackson clone in 2019.
He’s currently averaging 19.1 yards per reception, a massive jump from 10.0 per grab last year. The average throw going his way per NFL NextGEN is traveling 14.9 yards, which is up from 8.9 air yards in ’18.
Throughout their careers both Diggs and Cousins have had a lot of success on balls thrown downfield, so Stefanski’s offense has simply played to that strength with tremendous results. In ’17 with Case Keenum throwing downfield, Diggs had the seventh best deep ball catch percentage (per PFF). He tied for 11th in 2016 but only saw six deep catches in all of 2018. This year he has an NFL-best 12 receptions that traveled over 20 yards.
The reasoning is simple: The more interesting you can be on offense, the more difficult you are for defenses. Out of 32 teams, 27 use three-receiver sets 55% of the time or more. The teams that use it less than 55% are (per SharpFootballStats):
By PFF’s play calling analysis, Stefanski is the third best play caller in the NFL this year behind only Andy Reid and Greg Roman. Their formula is based on player performance versus output. The Vikings wouldn’t have consistently strong production without the ability to make tweaks to the scheme.
Last week against the Denver Broncos, Cousins and the offense flipped a switch in the second half to their two-minute offense in order to spark a 20-point comeback.
That might not even be the most impressive mid-game change of the year. Against Kansas City the Vikings’ O-line was being beaten routinely by KC’s defensive line, so with the Vikings trailing early in the fourth, Stefanski hit the Chiefs with four straight runs including an end around and then a 22-yard screen pass to Dalvin Cook which set up the go-ahead score.
The following week, the Vikings sensed that the Cowboys’ defense was wearing down, so they ran 10 straight times on a touchdown drive.
When franchises go out looking for their next head coach, the starting point, especially in the do-you-know-McVay era is usually which offensive minds have recently put up big numbers offensively. That’s enough to get Stefanski on the list. Aside from his ability to manage a unique situation with a head coach who wanted to be more run-heavy and an adviser with Super Bowl rings in Kubiak (and Kubiak’s long-time OL coach and his son as the QBs coach), all the numbers point toward Stefanski being the definition of a modern head coach. Add that with his previous experience coaching multiple positions and it seems like a foregone conclusion that a team will give him an offer. When we separate the talent from the scheme and execution, we can see that he’s deserving of an opportunity.