A few days after the Vikings’ season ended last December with an ugly 24-10 loss to Chicago, Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer met to discuss the future. Less than a month earlier, Zimmer had fired first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, whose pass-happy mentality irked the Vikings’ hard-nosed head coach. Defensive excellence has been a virtual certainty during Zimmer’s six-year tenure, but consistency on offense has been elusive. Even with arguably the top wide receiver tandem in the NFL at its disposal, Minnesota scored just 22.5 points per game in 2018, which ranked a middling 19th in the league.
With that woeful showing fresh in their minds and quarterback Kirk Cousins entering the second year of his three-year, fully guaranteed $84 million contract, the Vikings’ brass knew they needed to fix their rudderless offense—and fast. “As Coach Zim and I sat there and talked about it,” Spielman says, “We asked, ‘What is our identity on offense?’ What is the skill set that we have? What do they do well?’”
In many ways, the Vikings built a recognizable, reliable formula during the Spielman-Zimmer era. Minnesota has finished in the top five in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA the past two seasons, and Spielman—now in his eighth season as the Vikings’ GM—has constructed one of the league’s most talented rosters, loaded with affordable second-contract stars like Adam Thielen, Stefon Diggs, and Danielle Hunter. But unlike the defense, Minnesota’s offense hasn’t been able to find a foothold. “We’ve been through [three] coordinators, and regardless of the reasons, we haven’t solidified that,” Spielman says.
The reasons, for the most part, have been an inability to find common ground with Zimmer’s vision. Tensions between the head coach and Norv Turner pushed the legendary coordinator to leave the Vikings in the middle of the 2016 season. Pat Shurmur replaced him, but then left to take the Giants’ head coaching job after helping guide the Vikings to an NFC championship game. DeFilippo took the reins in 2018 and lasted just 13 games before Zimmer showed him the door.
Minnesota’s 37-year-old quarterbacks coach Kevin Stefanski, who’s been on the coaching staff in various capacities since 2006, stepped in last season and acquiesced to Zimmer’s run-heavy decree. But when it came time to pick the offensive staff for 2019, Zimmer wanted to do more than simply retain Stefanski. He also wanted insight from an offensive coach whose scheme had challenged him for years: Gary Kubiak.
In Zimmer’s 20 years calling defenses, Kubiak’s zone-running, play-action-heavy offenses—first deployed when he was the coordinator for the Elway-era Broncos and later as the Texans’ head coach—had consistently given Zimmer fits. If the Vikings were going to remake their offense, he thought, why not pick the scheme that’s always been a thorn in his side? Not to mention, Zimmer’s pricey QB had played in a similar system with the Redskins and has a reputation for being an excellent play-action passer. “I know a lot of it was, it’s got to be based on what Kirk does well,” Spielman says.
So Zimmer decided to go straight to the source: He reached out to Kubiak around the new year and asked if he had any interest in a return to coaching. Health problems forced Kubiak from the sideline following the 2016 season, and the Vikings knew it would take a creative offer to lure Kubiak back to the field. Luckily, they had one: They asked Kubiak to come to Minnesota as an offensive advisor, leaving most of the heavy lifting to Stefanski. Spielman knows it’s a unique situation; he also thinks it’s the right one for the Vikings. “You start talking about your vision for the team,” Stefanski says of the staff’s early meetings. “And I will tell you, in particular with Gary and I, our visions aligned.”
With their Super Bowl window shrinking, Minnesota’s decision-makers know how crucial this season will be. The Vikings are projected to be nearly $12 million over the cap in 2020, and the bean counters have already been forced into risky cap-management decisions that the franchise has avoided in the past. Now, fueled by a dynamic coaching partnership and armed with a system perfectly tailored to their expensive quarterback, the Vikings finally think they have an offensive identity that can put them over the top—and not a moment too soon. “If you talk to our players, there’s no secret about what we’re trying to do here,” Stefanski says. “In our building, in our coaches meetings, in our offensive meeting rooms, we know exactly what we want to be and how we’re going to do it. I think that’s half the battle.”
Unlike most coaches around the NFL, Stefanski doesn’t come from a particular tree. Following an All-Ivy League career as a defensive back at Penn, he was hired by Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress as an intern in 2005. When Childress was named the Vikings head coach in 2006, Stefanski followed him to the Twin Cities. Minnesota went through three different head coaches in the next decade, but Stefanski managed to hang around and take on a variety of roles including running backs coach, tight ends coach, and assistant QBs coach. Cycling between different bosses and offensive systems meant that schematically, Stefanski was a man without a country. But over the years, he consistently gravitated to one particular philosophy.
Stefanski remembers a moment following the 2009 season, when some of the Vikings staffers were studying cut-ups of the Texans’ roll outs and QB keepers designed by Kubiak. “I was just so impressed at how often the quarterback got the edge and the defense just sold out for the run,” Stefanski says. “I can remember watching those and wondering, ‘What is the secret to this thing?’” Watching Kubiak’s scheme bewilder defenders, a light went on in Stefanski’s mind: This is it. “As a young coach, I looked at that offense and thought, ‘That’s what I want it to be whenever I get my chance.’”
Plenty of decision-makers around the NFL seem to agree. Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan are both—directly or indirectly—members of the Kubiak coaching tree. And as teams seek to replicate the successes they’ve had with the Rams and 49ers, respectively, Kubiak’s basic offensive system has spread. Different personnel and packaging preferences cause each iteration to look unique on the surface, but the bones of the scheme are the same: marrying the run and pass together seamlessly to the point that the initial movements of any play—whether it’s a hand-off or play-action fake—look identical. “Think about what it looks like as a defender,” Stefanski says. “When you’re staring at that offense, and you’re watching the play unfold, you’re not quite sure what’s about to happen. That’s ultimately what we’re charged to do.” All that confusion often leads to massive passing windows and chunk gains, but Spielman says the benefits go beyond the on-field results.
After six seasons with Zimmer, the Vikings front office knows precisely what it’s looking for as they scout defensive players. They know the traits that Zimmer wants in a safety, a defensive end, and a linebacker. Without that same identity on offense, though, the process had been more difficult. Now, Spielman is able to consult with Kubiak and longtime offensive line coach (and run-game coordinator) Rick Dennison—who helped create this scheme—as he tries to pick the right players to run it. Spielman points specifically to the offensive line as an area where their knowledge helped in his evaluations. Minnesota drafted Garrett Bradbury in the first round in large part because he has the ideal movement skills to play center in Kubiak’s zone-running system. “They were very specific,” Spielman says. “Especially up front: What are the physical traits that these guys have to have? When we went through the draft, it felt like we knew it like we do our defensive personnel.”
As the Vikings’ offensive coaches went through Kubiak’s standard nine-day installation period in January, they realized that the basic schematics of the system dovetailed nicely with their own ideas. Those fundamentals, such as a baseline zone-running scheme and the West Coast passing concepts that complement it, have remained steady for decades, but the coach knows that the Vikings would be well served by incorporating some of the NFL’s recent offensive trends. Kubiak has been out of coaching for two seasons, but he says that during those years—which he spent as a personnel advisor for the Broncos—he was able to examine the game in a way he never could as a coach. “I was adding to my collection on a daily basis,” Kubiak says. “Stepping away and doing that, I probably watched more damn ball than I’d watched in a lot of years.” In the past, Kubiak’s scheme never involved RPOs, but they’ve been a focus for Minnesota this preseason. The Vikings’ passing game will always revolve around Thielen and Stefon Diggs, but Kubiak also predicts that they’ll try to spread the field by throwing to running backs more than his offenses have in the past.
Getting the backs more involved is partially about schematic innovation, but it’s also motivated by Minnesota’s players. Both Dalvin Cook and fullback C.J. Ham are talented receivers, and that should lead to plenty of creative two-back concepts. Kubiak also mentions that the Vikings’ tight end pairing of Kyle Rudolph and rookie Irv Smith Jr. has factored heavily into the personnel-specific system.
Stefanski’s brief time calling plays last season didn’t exactly go smoothly. He attempted to alter aspects of the Vikings’ approach to fit Zimmer’s run-heavy, play-action preferences, which was a challenge without a menu of plays that deftly blended the run and pass. But even that small bit of experience game planning and synthesizing the information from his staff during the week has given him a head start to this season. “It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I’m glad that I had those three games,” Stefanski says. “As a play-caller, you get a lot of credit. Hey, that’s a great call. But in my mind, hey, that’s a great play design. I should be congratulating the coach who came up with that on Tuesday.”
Outside observers may look at the strange structure of the Vikings’ offensive staff and picture the godfather of an offensive system hovering over the young play-caller tasked with running it. But Stefanski says the opposite is true. Klint Kubiak, Gary’s son and the Vikings’ QBs coach, has been one of Stefanski’s best friends for years. His relationship with Gary goes back a long time, and he says their interplay can be only a positive moving forward. “I’m so happy to have Gary helping put this thing together,” Stefanski says. “Because there’s this treasure trove of information, sitting right next to me. I’m mining him for everything he’s got. I’m sure he’s probably pretty tired of me coming into his office, drawing something on his board, and saying, ‘Have you ever tried this?’ Because the answer is always yes, and that leads to a dialogue that I think ultimately leads to some really cool stuff.”
Just before leaving for his Memorial Day break this spring, Cousins sent a text to Klint Kubiak asking for some offseason homework. Cousins became interested in the analytics surrounding play-action after Kubiak mentioned them in a meeting earlier that month. Wanting to know more, the quarterback reached out to Vikings director of analytics Scott Kuhn, who sent him a packet of information to peruse over vacation. The results were more convincing than Cousins could have imagined. “Even if you’re not running the ball effectively, even if it’s an obvious passing situation, the analytics would say that running play-action is still extremely successful,” Cousins says. As the 31-year-old quarterback enters his eighth season in the NFL, he’s started to lean on the analytics staff to gain a new edge. “Statistics can lie,” Cousins says. “You’ve got to be careful. But that’s why those guys are there, to discern them and say, ‘These statistics aren’t lying. Here’s the number behind the number that tells you the real story.’”
The league’s most progressive teams are embracing play-action more than ever. Among qualified QBs, the Rams’ Jared Goff used play-action on a league-leading 35.8 percent of dropbacks. Carson Wentz ranked second at 32.1 percent. Patrick Mahomes finished tied for fifth at 30.8 percent. Cousins used it on just 20.8 percent of dropbacks last season, which ranked 17th. “I think the nature of play-action lends itself well to it being effective,” Cousins says. “And if that’s the case, why not do it more? I think coaches think it’s something to sprinkle in. And I think what our analytics department is saying to me, and to us, is really it can be a steady diet. It can be the identity because the numbers suggest that even if teams know it’s coming, it’s still effective.”
Play-action carries benefits for nearly every quarterback, but Cousins might profit from it the most. Each season since he became a starter in 2014, Cousins has finished in the top 11 in difference between his yards per attempt with and without play-action and averaged at least two more YPA when using a play fake. In 2018, Cousins completed 8.9 percent more passes with play-action, the fourth-highest mark in the NFL. Some have said that his history with Shanahan and McVay in Washington means Cousins should be comfortable in this scheme, but he points out that he spent only two seasons as a backup under Shanahan, and the system in his final season in Washington was a combination of Shanahan’s scheme and Jay Gruden’s version of the West Coast offense. More than past experience, his confidence in the Vikings’ current scheme stems from his steadfast belief in play-action as a concept. “The bigger question is, do I feel this system is a really good scheme that puts quarterbacks and offensive players in a position to be successful?” Cousins says. “And yeah, I think it does.”
When asked what makes Cousins such an efficient play-action passer, Stefanski points to the way he commits to each fake. Kubiak brings up how well Cousins throws on the move, which is a necessity in this offense. But the quarterback’s own explanation is far more cerebral: The mechanics of play-action slow down his mind. “Take a basic read, like a curl-flat,” Cousins says. “You’re going to read the curl-flat defender, but you really can’t make a decision until you hit your fifth step” of the dropback. Dropping back and keeping his eyes on a defender throughout a play may allow Cousins to gather more information, but that information isn’t useful until a certain point. Faking a hand-off ensures that he’ll digest the details of a play at the right pace. “With play-action, you don’t even have your eyes on the defense until your fourth or fifth step,” Cousins says. “So it prevents you from being ahead of the play and trying to scramble to make a decision quicker than you need to.”
This spring, his embrace of analytics transitioned Cousins from a play-action enthusiast into a full-scale evangelist. And now he’s playing for two offensive minds who’ve felt that way for some time. Stefanski raised Cousins’s use of play-action to 28 percent of his passes during the final three weeks of the season. Kubiak declines to mention specifics for how much the team will use it this season, but he says there’s a number that the Vikings are aiming for. And if Stefanski’s attitude is any indication, that figure will be much higher than 28 percent. “In regard to play-action, ultimately, if it looks like a run, I don’t care how many times you [use] it. It’ll work,” Stefanski says.
Stefanski may see the benefits of that philosophy, but he’ll have to reconcile those views with the values of one of the most conservative head coaches in the league. Zimmer and Spielman have both stressed that the best teams in the NFL are typically ones that rely heavily on the running game. “Our philosophy is that we’re not going to spread it out and throw the ball 40, 50 times a game,” Spielman says. “We want to run the ball, do play-action stuff. We got a little bit away from that last year—a lot away from that. We lost what we thought Coach Zim wanted our identity to be on offense.” Current analytics—numbers supported by the Vikings’ starting quarterback—contend that play-action effectiveness isn’t tied into a team’s rushing attempts or rushing success. How those ideals mesh together may ultimately determine Stefanski’s future as Minnesota’s play-caller—and whether the Vikings can truly pry all they can from Cousins.
For now, though, Stefanski is just thrilled to have an offensive system and an identity of his own choosing. It may be Gary Kubiak’s scheme, but this is Kevin Stefanski’s offense. And he couldn’t be happier about it. “I know it may seem unique to the outside, what we’re doing here, but for the two of us, it’s been really fun,” Stefanski says. “There’s a mutual respect between the two of us. I’ve long admired his scheme. But I’ve also gotten to know the person. And it’s as good as advertised.”