EAGAN, Minn. -- Former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur wanted to bring a critical asset with him to the New York Giants as he filled out his coaching staff.
But Minnesota blocked Kevin Stefanski, the quarterbacks coach under Shurmur and then John DeFilippo, from interviewing to become the Giants' offensive coordinator earlier this year. Loyalty was the reason coach Mike Zimmer cited behind wanting to keep Stefanski on staff.
Stefanski was considered a frontrunner at one point during the offseason to replace Shurmur as Vikings offensive coordinator. Instead, they hired DeFilippo from Philadelphia, but his run lasted 13 games before he was fired on Tuesday.
Now with three pivotal games remaining as the Vikings (6-6-1) aim to reach the postseason in consecutive seasons, Stefanski will get the chance to fulfill the role he wanted all along and become a playcaller for the first time.
He takes the reins of an offense in a free fall. In four of its past five games, Minnesota hasn’t been able to muster 300 yards of offense. The seven points the Vikings scored in Seattle, sparked by a garbage-time TD to avoid being shut out, was their second-lowest total of the season behind the six points they scored in a Week 3 loss to Buffalo. In 2017, the Vikings ranked sixth in offensive efficiency. Going into Week 15, they’re 24th.
Zimmer was adamant Tuesday that the obstacles that led to an identity crisis on offense can’t be pinned on one person alone. But with pressure amounting in all areas, including his own leadership being scrutinized, Zimmer felt he needed to shake things up on staff before it’s too late.
"I felt like I don’t want the season to be wasted," Zimmer said. "Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, but these three games to me are very, very critical and we need to play good."
Stefanski, who started on Brad Childress' staff in 2006, is the longest tenured member of the Vikings coaching staff. He’s been involved all across the offense, having coached quarterbacks, tight ends and running backs. That familiarity was a key factor for Zimmer, backing his belief that Stefanski can turn things around.
The time Stefanski spent working under Shurmur could mean he decides to implement more of the concepts that made the Vikings successful in 2017. They were committed to running the ball under Shurmur, with the second-highest designed rush percentage (45) in the NFL.
"That’s a possibility," Zimmer said. I’m not going to get into it, because I don’t want to say what we’re going to do moving forward, but I think when guys get a chance to do their thing they take little pieces and bits of everything they’ve felt was good, whether it’s from John or Pat or anybody else."
Since the middle of this season, Zimmer has decried the Vikings straying from the run. Falling back on what made Minnesota successful a year ago would undoubtedly make the head coach satisfied.
Zimmer said his own involvement with the offense will increase over these final three games.
DeFilippo’s firing was the second time in three seasons that the Vikings have lost an offensive coordinator in the middle of the year. In Nov. 2016, Norv Turner resigned amidst the Vikings skidding to an 8-8 finish after a 5-0 start.
Stefanski will be the fourth OC to serve under Zimmer since 2016. While Zimmer wouldn’t say whether the Vikings will open up a national search after the season to find its next offensive coordinator, Stefanski can put himself in good position to remove that interim tag from his title based on what he does the next three games and possibly in January.
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Stefanski’s first task is in fixing what’s been ailing the Vikings' offense, revolving around planning for the Miami Dolphins, who rank 29th in total defense.
That’s no small feat for someone who’s never called plays in the NFL. But the enormity of the responsibility rests heaviest on Zimmer, who ultimately may be judged the harshest for the way things unfold.
We’ll soon find out whether a change at offensive coordinator is what this team needs to salvage its season. It’s hard to say whether one person will be able to overcome the issues of an offensive line that has given up a league-high 190 pressures and the effect that’s had with Kirk Cousins, who has fallen short in games that matter most.
If the same issues on offense continue to arise and haunt the Vikings into the offseason, then who’s designing and calling plays might not have been the issue at all.
But Zimmer wasn’t going to wait much longer to find out.