Fortunes can change in a hurry during the course of an NFL season. Back in mid-October, the Vikings were on a three-game winning streak and relying on their offense to carry them. John DeFilippo, the team’s offensive coordinator, was finding great success with his unit, and he became one of the hottest head coaching candidates in the NFL. Now, less than two months later, the first-year coordinator is out of a job — relieved of his duties on Tuesday following a gruesome offensive performance in Monday night’s 21-7 loss to Seattle — and he’ll likely be off most teams’ lists when the search for new head coaches begins this offseason.
DeFilippo’s precipitous fall is a prime example of how quickly an assistant coach’s standing can change in the NFL, and he’s not the only one who’s seen his stock drop dramatically this season. Along with DeFilippo, former Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley and former Bengals defensive coordinator Teryl Austin were also fired after being touted as assistants worth watching this season. Their fates have served as proof that the life cycle between coordinator de jour and afterthought is getting shorter and shorter in the NFL.
Minnesota came into the 2018 offseason in need of an offensive coordinator after Pat Shurmur was hired as the Giants head coach. DeFilippo was high on the team’s priority list for a couple of reasons. First, as the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach, he helped Carson Wentz become the MVP favorite before guiding backup Nick Foles through the playoffs. Second, he was a member of the three-man braintrust that, along with offensive coordinator Frank Reich and head coach Doug Pederson, orchestrated the run to Philadelphia’s first Super Bowl win. That run included a blowout victory over the Vikings in the NFC championship game, a decimation that was fresh in Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer’s mind when decided to hire DeFilippo in February.
The plan coming into the season was that DeFilippo would introduce some of the concepts from the Eagles’ offense — namely, more run-pass options — to the Vikings, but that the core principles of Shurmur’s scheme from 2017 would carry over. The running game would have similar designs and terminology, and play-action passes would form the foundation of Minnesota’s passing game. But that’s not quite how things went. After finishing fifth in rushing percentage last season (45.9 percent of plays), Minnesota ranks 31st this year (33.0 percent). Cousins has used play-action on just 18.6 percent of his dropbacks, which puts him tied for 30th out of 36 qualified quarterbacks. Last year, Case Keenum finished fifth in that metric (27.2 percent). DeFilippo’s departure from the run-heavy formula that his head coach prefers irked Zimmer to the point that he began tossing barbs in press conferences about the team’s lack of rushing attempts. Monday night’s debacle (which featured only 13 carries from running back Dalvin Cook) appeared to be the final straw.
But digging into the details of Minnesota’s offense reveals that DeFilippo’s approach may not have been the central problem. The Vikings currently rank 31st in rushing DVOA on the season, and injuries have sabotaged their offensive line. Slamming Cook into the line of scrimmage to gain three yards isn’t what Minnesota has been missing. The Vikings offense found success earlier in the year thanks to a creative passing design that allowed their receivers to work open from different tight and stack alignments. Adam Thielen was phenomenal through the first half of the season, recording over 100 receiving yards in eight straight games, and Cousins consistently made high-level throws even when pressured. The problems arose when those elements began to disappear. On Monday night, Seattle devoted a ton of resources and attention to Thielen on seemingly every play. After negotiating pressure well early in the season, lately the wheels have been falling off for Cousins any time the pocket gets crowded. According to ESPN’s Courtney Cronin, Cousins was 1-of-7 passing when a defender was within two yards of him against Seattle, and even on plays without much traffic, he was often forced from the pocket early in downs.
Minnesota’s crumbling infrastructure, Cousins’s bizarre backslide, and the team’s inability to manufacture offense without Thielen was enough to cost DeFilippo his job. In his case, it’s easy to argue that outside factors were as influential to the Vikings’ decline as his play calling. In Haley’s case, though, there’s no such argument to be made.
Haley came to the Browns after six seasons as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator. Reported tensions within the organization led to him leaving after the 2017 season, but the tumultuous end to his Steelers tenure did little to dampen the enthusiasm in Cleveland when he was hired by the Browns. Haley was viewed as an accomplished play caller who could bring competency to an organization that needed to nurture its Heisman-winning rookie quarterback. Instead, the Browns’ offense sputtered along for the first two months of the season, Haley was fired (along with head coach Hue Jackson) at the end of October, and his replacement has been the one to ignite Baker Mayfield.
Freddie Kitchens, the team’s former running backs coach, was elevated to the play-calling role after Haley’s ousting, and the results have been marvelous. Over his past four games, Mayfield has completed 74.8 percent of his passes and averaged at least 9.23 yards per attempt. He’s looked like an entirely different quarterback, and Kitchens’s play calling and designing has directly led to Mayfield’s surge. After his work in the second half of this season, Kitchens will almost certainly be in line for a permanent play-calling job this offseason.
Kitchens’s quick ascension and DeFilippo’s short tenure with the Vikings show both sides of the coin when it comes to coordinators’ statures in the NFL. After his success in Philadelphia, DeFilippo likely could have had his choice of open coordinator jobs. He came into this season with a lot of hype, and in a league that has started to put such a premium on finding the next great offensive mind, many were wondering if he could become the next Sean McVay or Kyle Shanahan. The problem with that, though, is that there aren’t 32 McVays or Andy Reids floating around the league, and DeFilippo’s failures in Minnesota will likely become a cautionary tale about the dangers of falling in love with the trendy coach of the moment. Now, his path back through the ranks may even include another short stint as a position coach before working his way back into a coordinator role. In only a few months, his station has slipped two full levels.
On the flip side, though, Kitchens’s near-immediate success indicates that there’s still a lot of unearthed coaching talent lurking around the league. Along with Kitchens, other unheralded coordinators like Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale have dramatically grown their profiles over the course of the season. The list of desirable candidates looks very different than it did even six months ago.
It’s easy to say that the Vikings offense could have picked up where it left off a year ago with a full embrace of Shurmur’s concepts (and maybe even choosing to keep Keenum rather than go after Cousins in free agency), but circumstances rarely stay the same from season to season in this league. Minnesota attempted to get over the hump by not sticking with the status quo, and this offseason, a team will likely attempt to do the same by giving Kitchens his first full-fledged play-calling job. If that goes well, he could find himself on the short list for head-coaching gigs as early as 2020. In a way, his potential rise from position coach to head-coaching candidate is the inverse of DeFilippo’s fall. The lifespan of the popular coordinator may be shorter than ever, but as long as there’s proven value in what new blood can provide, teams are going to keep getting enchanted by the hot new thing.