SAN JOSE AIRPORT — Let’s get something out of the way: Saturday afternoon was bad. The Minnesota Vikings offense was completely clobbered by the faster, well-rested San Francisco 49ers and the overall offensive performance was nothing short of putrid and everyone is responsible. But that doesn’t mean the Vikings won’t miss Kevin Stefanski now that he’s been named head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
The Vikings’ offensive coordinator was at the center of a massive improvement in both the running and passing game from 2018 to 2019 and repeating those results will be a significant challenge even with likely improvements to personnel.
Stefanski took over an offense that finished 19th in points and played an integral role in the Vikings jumping to eighth in points. Under John DeFilippo, who was fired with three weeks left in the ’18 season, the Vikings had one of the least efficient passing games in the NFL, ranking 23rd in yards per pass attempt. This season with a focus on creating explosive plays they jumped to sixth in yards per attempt.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins set career bests in quarterback rating, yards per attempt adjusted for sacks and interceptions, touchdown percentage, interception percentage and produced the highest grade from PFF of his career, ranking as the fourth best QB in the NFL.
If we take a closer look at the results and how they connect to Stefanski’s process, we can clearly see his contributions to Cousins’s career year. That starts with his understanding that play-action passes are statistically highly effective plays. The Vikings ran the fifth highest percentage of play-actions in the NFL this year only trailing Baltimore, Los Angeles, Kansas City and San Francisco. When running play-fakes, Cousins posted a league-best 129.2 quarterback rating.
Of course it isn’t as simple as running play-action over and over. Stefanski took the principles of Gary Kubiak’s offense and added wrinkles that made his long-proven concepts more effective. One of the biggest wrinkles was the use of big personnel. The Vikings had by far the lowest percentage of three-receiver sets. That forced defenses to adapt to sets with two and three tight ends or a fullback. Opponents were required to either sell out to stop the run or allow Dalvin Cook to trounce them on the ground, as he did in the Vikings’ playoff win against the New Orleans Saints.
Aside from personnel, Stefanski’s offense had all the ear marks of a modern offense. A Sean McVay staple, for example, was sending receivers in “jet” motion as if they were going to get a sweep but instead using it to move a linebacker or make the defense hesitate. It worked several times brilliantly in the Superdome, as did unique formations including one that had receiver Adam Thielen in the backfield.
Speaking of the backfield, the Vikings used one of the more creative running attacks in the NFL to produce the sixth best rushing attack in the NFL (which probably would have ranked higher had Cook not missed the final two weeks of the season).
Run-game coordinator Rick Dennison was behind the mix of zone and power concepts that put Cook in position to succeed but the ability to work closely with Dennison and Kubiak to find the most effective scehemes possible was part of Stefanski’s value. Not all offensive coordinators are open to suggestions, just ask Norv Turner.
The Vikings’ offense got the most out of Cook in the passing game as well, using him on a number of swing and screen passes which resulted in 53 catches for 9.8 yards per catch — a gain of 2.2 yards per grab from the previous season.
Using players to the maximum of their abilities was the calling card in ’19.
Take Stefon Diggs for example. In ’18 he was used on quick passes and averaged just 10.0 yards per reception. With Stefanski at the helm Diggs gained 109 more yards on 55 fewer targets. They knew that Diggs could beat corners deep and make contested catches down the field and that Cousins’s best asset as a quarterback was throwing downfield accurately. Diggs led the NFL in deep receiving yards and Cousins finished with the second best deep passing QB rating in the NFL behind only Patrick Mahomes (per PFF).
When Thielen was out for more than a month with a hamstring injury rookies Irv Smith and Bisi Johnson were able to fill in the gaps and veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph got back to scoring in the red zone after struggling to do so in ’18.
Even Alexander Mattison, the third-round backup running back, was used effectively as a late-game change of pace and picked up a solid 4.6 yards per attempt.
The Vikings offensive line was built for screens and running, which ultimately made them vulnerable to what happened on Saturday but overall they gave up the fifth fewest sacks in the NFL. That speaks to the ability to scheme around shortcomings.
And that’s why it won’t be easy to replicate.
When you have an offensive staff that has chemistry, uniqueness and a focus on strengths of players rather than dedicating to one scheme and making everyone adapt, the results are going to follow. There’s no guarantee the Vikings will be able to find another group that does as much to put Cousins and Co. in a spot to succeed — just like there was no guarantee that DeFilippo was going to fill the shoes of Pat Shurmur in 2018.
So it’s fine to be upset about Saturday’s result but there are now a lot of questions about how the Vikings will be able to sustain what they did on offense in 2018 after losing the key person in the operation.