The Minnesota Vikings’ new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, will be critical in defining the future of the franchise even if he only stays with the team for one year. His input on how the team should prioritize offensive roster-building, including signing a starting quarterback for the 2018 season, will have ramifications for years to come as the Vikings’ window potentially closes.
Those long-term effects will be difficult to parse until they come to pass, but what DeFilippo does in the short term will have huge ramifications as well—the Vikings are poised for another playoff run, and an upgrade on offense could make them Super Bowl-worthy.
What DeFilippo does to craft an effective offense remains a mystery for outside observers because his role as a quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia may not translate directly to what he does in Minnesota. When the Vikings hired “quarterback guru” Brad Childress from the Andy Reid-led Philadelphia Eagles, they didn’t get Reid’s offense. When they hired quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave from the Atlanta Falcons, he didn’t install Mike Mularkey’s offense.
DeFilippo did coordinate the Browns offense in 2015, but it may not provide many clues. Their starting quarterback, Josh McCown, went down halfway through the year and they had to install a clearly unready Johnny Manziel. At the same time, they lost Josh Gordon the offseason prior to suspension, and so had to rely on Travis Benjamin, Andrew Hawkins and Gary Barnidge to catch the ball.
Ranking 32nd in total points that year — 30th in points per drive, 27th in DVOA — isn’t encouraging, but it is explicable. To counterbalance that, there are really positive signs. McCown had the second-best statistical season in his career — falling second to his incredible 2013 campaign with the Chicago Bears — Barnidge made the Pro Bowl and Benjamin grabbed 978 yards from scrimmage.
Duke Johnson and Isaiah Crowell both put together 850-plus yard seasons, while Joe Thomas and Mitchell Schwartz, already Pro Football Focus favorites, both had their best-graded years with DeFilippo calling the shots.
The Browns ranked 19th in points scored through the first eight weeks, a testament to what DeFilippo but together before McCown’s injury and the Browns fell apart.
“that’s what we are as coaches, we’re teachers”
The fact that a few players found their career bests with DeFilippo is encouraging, and many people who follow the Cleveland Browns are happy with his tenure there.
It’s not just his tenure with the Browns that Vikings fans can draw upon when evaluating how DeFilippo will impact the offense; his time with the Eagles included a heavy hand in designing and coaching their red zone offense, acting as a de facto red zone coordinator for a team that ranked second overall in touchdown percentage in red zone situations.
The lectures that DeFilippo gives in his video breakdowns for the Eagles official website are brilliant. They provide detailed information, but even more than that, they provide insights into his thought process as a coach.
In one breakdown, he talks about how a progression is designed to preserve the footwork of the quarterback so that they don’t have to adjust as they go through their reads, maintaining their accuracy as they scan the field.
Those nuggets are informative and illustrative of how he thinks — phrases like “The least defended part of the field is the back of the end zone” let us know where he wants to attack — but they only give us part of the picture of him as a coach.
What’s more appealing about DeFilippo is his ability to teach.
Head coach Mike Zimmer consistently stresses how central the element of “teaching” is to coaching, and it has formed the core of his team-building strategy. In his first press conference with the Vikings, Zimmer isolated the ability to teach — not innovation, not pedigree, not total football knowledge — when looking for a football coach.
“One of the things about being a coach: #1 you’re a teacher. You’re trying to teach them about techniques, trying to teach them about all the different aspects of the game of football – not just offense and defense, but what the other side of the ball is thinking.”
In response to a question about what single element Zimmer looked for in coaches, he reiterated that the ability to teach came before anything else. “I want teachers,” he said. “I want leaders, and I want guys that will convey the message that I am trying to convey. They don’t all have to be like me. That is hard to do anyway. I want guys to be themselves but most importantly I want guys to be great teachers, great motivators, great leaders, and, obviously, great technicians and football coaches.”
DeFilippo is on the same page.
When asked about how he measures his success as a coach while with the Eagles, DeFilippo recentered the statement around what it means to be a coach, arguing, “When I get to watch Carson Wentz on tape take something from the meeting room to the field that we had talked about, that gives you as a teacher — that’s what we are as coaches, we’re teachers — that gives you a lot of sense of pride in terms of what you’re doing.”
And for him, it seems to be more than lip service.
In his introductory press conference as the offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns, DeFilippo was asked quite a few questions about how he would handle the volatile Browns quarterback room. His answer, naturally, was diplomatic — but it also gave us insight into the fact that he knows that teaching isn’t as simple as conveying a piece of information to a student.
“I want teachers. I want leaders, and I want guys that will convey the message that I am trying to convey.”
Specifically, he was asked how he could connect to a quarterback room that included a number of different personalities.
“Well, I think the first thing you need to do is get a personal connection and see how they learn. I spend a lot of time on development, how guys learn… and some guys are visual guys, some guys need to be coddled a little bit, some guys need to be ripped. So, I think you find that connection on how a guy learns best, and you go with that route and I think that I’ve done a fairly decent job of finding that out with the different quarterbacks I’ve coached.”
Acknowledging that different players come to the same conclusions in different ways is a big part of learning to teach, and it’s something that teams can know but not implement. It’s good that DeFilippo started off with that information, and so is the fact that researching player development has been a big part of what he’s done.
It’s something that carries over into the real world as well. I’ve talked to people who have attended coaching clinics in the Bay Area when DeFilippo was a quarterbacks coach with the Oakland Raiders, and they’ve all argued that DeFilippo does an astounding job of conveying his ideas to his audience – more so than many of the other coaches who present at these clinics.
He’s extremely serious about his role as a teacher, too. The Athletic shared a few anecdotes about how he taught his quarterbacks, some of which are standard throughout the league and some of which stand out.
“Coach DeFilippo would get on the board and install four or five plays out of our offense,” Pederson says. “Then basically erase the board. We would put the video on and start talking about his offense and go about another 30 minutes and then go, ‘Hey, Carson, get on the board and tell me those five plays again.’ You can test the recall and you can test memory and get a good feel for how a guy retains information that way.”
Every Friday, DeFilippo hands his quarterbacks a test that also serves as a tip sheet. It’s 20 to 30 pages and about 55 questions with photos and text containing information about the upcoming opponent. If the defense is showing a certain look pre-snap, how should they adjust the protection? If Wentz reads zone coverage on a specific passing concept, where should he go with the ball? If a cornerback is playing a specific leverage, how is the receiver supposed to adjust his route?
The quarterbacks fill out the test — which always ends with five random trivia questions — individually and then go over it on Saturday nights before games.
That commitment to teaching also led to intense 45-minute sessions for his third quarterback, Nate Sudfeld, on gamedays that he wouldn’t be active for.
DeFilippo has made clear that teaching is a two-way street, too. He’s been very open to back-and-forth from his players, and considers the fact that Wentz would argue with his offensive coordinator at North Dakota State a positive sign.
“I love that. Because, number one, it’s fun to talk football in a serious matter. It’s fun. That’s what we do for a living, we talk football. And there’s a lot of ways to do things. So if there’s healthy debate on the best way to do something and we all, at the end of the day, come to a consensus and we’re all on board, we say ‘hey we decided this is the best way to do things,’ I think that’s healthy.”
“Usually when that happens and everyone’s on board, usually you are going to have success whether it’s that play, that protection, the route concept, whatever. I think when there’s healthy debate and a lot of smart guys that have a lot of football experience in the room do that, that’s good.”
Getting feedback from players on what works for them has been essential to his process. In his conference call with Twin Cities media shortly after being announced the offensive coordinator for the Vikings, he described the process he and Nick Foles took to changing the offense once Foles had to take over.
“I sat him down and made him list me, with our coaching staff, what are your best concepts, what do you see yourself do well? Because I’m not, myself, Frank Reich, Doug Pederson are not throwing the ball. He is. And so, we really sat down and spent some time with Nick and formulated game plans based on what he felt comfortable doing. And to me that’s coaching. Why would you ask your player to do something that he’s not comfortable with? Nick was open and honest about things that we wasn’t comfortable with and things that he was comfortable with and we’re very fortunate as a team, it wasn’t all just Nick. Nick played a very big part in it, but as a team obviously we went on to win the super Bowl.”
The give-and-take dynamic that he and the quarterbacks have had has been so ingrained that it allowed Wentz to install a play from his NDSU playbook that wasn’t even in the Eagles offense when the year started. Foles did the same, even when it seemed likely that he wouldn’t get a snap all season — and that atmosphere may be what helped Foles confidently call the “Philly Special,” the play that defines Super Bowl LII.
What’s telling about these stories of the dynamic nature of the Eagles offense is that it isn’t just unique to former offensive coordinator Frank Reich or head coach Doug Pederson, but that it started in the quarterbacks room that DeFilippo ran, a room that Pederson and Reich left to DeFilippo for most of the week.
Not all coaches have done that; many coaches throughout the league — and in Vikings history — have been adamant that the flow of information or ideas is one-way — that they would dictate while players listened.
That intractability consistently puts players in uncomfortable situations and kills their ability to succeed.
Reflexive adaptation is good, but so is proactive flexibility. Understanding what players do well and implementing that to maximize their capabilities should be the mark of any good coordinator, but it’s fairly rare.
The biggest criticism of Norv Turner’s tenure in Minnesota was his commitment to an ideal style of play that emphasized deep dropbacks, deep-to-intermediate throwing depths and a predictable playcalling pattern, with too many runs inside the 10-yard line as well as on first down.
This is slavishness to “system” over an evolving process ultimately doomed the Vikings offense over those years. There are good signs that DeFilippo is a different breed. The first question he answered to Minnesota reporters concerned which offense he might be implementing, and in his response he made sure to emphasize that the offense would be composed of parts from many teams.
“At a very young age in the coaching world, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different offenses,” he told reporters on a team conference call. “The first thing we are going to do is sit down and see what the Minnesota Vikings did well last year. If they did something really, really well and their players are good at it, there is no reason to change it.
“We are going to take pieces from other places I’ve been, then take pieces from Philadelphia. At the same time, obviously, there are a lot of good things that the Minnesota Vikings did that we are going to continue to do. We are going to mesh a bunch of different ideas and things that the players will be comfortable with, number one and things the coaching staff will be comfortable with, number two.”
“I think when there’s healthy debate and a lot of smart guys that have a lot of football experience in the room that’s good.”
This echoes what he said in Cleveland three years ago. “We’re going to very flexible here on offense,” he said back in 2015. “There was a very similar situation [to having Manziel and McCown] two years ago when we had Matt McGloin and Terrelle Pryor [with the Oakland Raiders]. I mean, you have certain plays that both guys can run, you have certain plays that Terrelle could run, you have certain plays that Matt could run.
“Obviously you dictate on that who the starting quarterback’s going to be, obviously where you overload certain plays, but, no, you can’t get into [having two playbooks] because it’s unfair to the other ten guys on offense. So, we’re going to have a plan, we’re going to be very flexible with our plan, and obviously, our plan’s going to revolve around who our starting quarterback is and what his skill set is.”
He made it clear that offenses, to him, are vehicles to get in the end zone, and that anything that enables players to perform their best is good for an offense. In Cleveland, he talked a lot about what that meant.
“We’re going to put our playmakers in a lot of different spots. I’m a big believer in that. We were very fortunate in Oakland to have a guy, (Raiders FB) Marcel Reece, we put in a bunch of different spots.”
“There are some good, young tight ends here, some good, young backs that we’re looking to get matchups. Are they going to line up in the backfield all the time? No. We’re going to try to exploit those matchups as much as we can, whether that be from shifting and motioning out of the backfield, whether that be to try to outflank people with motion, whether that be to just run somebody out and snap the ball on first sound and try to out-leverage the defense.”
“We’re going to have a combination of those things and find out what our playmakers do well, and do those things over and over and over again so they can get great at them. No matter what the coverage is, they’re going to know how to run the route or block a play.”
He drew on that experience with Pryor more than once in that presser, mentioning that in order to get him comfortable in Oakland, they implemented some of the offensive concepts he was comfortable with from his time at Ohio State. “You can’t just have a playbook and say, ‘Hey, here’s the playbook,'” the coach explained. “That’s not the case. You’ve got to expose your best players’ skillsets.”
Many times, that means keeping many of the plays and concepts that worked for the team last year — even while, at the same time, implementing his own vision for what he thinks the best version of the offense will be. He already mentioned that for the Vikings, and it’s something he has experience doing for the Browns.
“As much crossover as they’ve done last year, we’re going to incorporate those things. Will there be some new concepts? Absolutely. Will there be a new way of delivering it? Absolutely. No two guys are the same when they deliver an offense, when they present in front of the team. You can’t be the same to somebody else. There’s going to be change.”
The offense implemented when Foles went down was very similar to the one in place for Wentz, but there were clear differences in what each was asked to do. One example of the differences comes in play-action rate.
Wentz was a play-action heavy quarterback — ranking fourth in total attempt percentage rate among all quarterbacks in 2017 — but the offense with Foles was downright reliant on it, passing off of play action more than any other quarterback in the NFL.
“The first thing we are going to do is sit down and see what the Minnesota Vikings did well last year. If they did something really, really well and their players are good at it, there is no reason to change it.”
Wentz was play-action heavy with a quarter of all of his passing attempts coming from run fakes, but Foles needed to work off of that run action on a third of his dropbacks.
For the transition from McCown to Manziel, DeFilippo spread the field out more to more closely resemble the spread-out Air Raid offense that Manziel came from, and when they weren’t in empty shotgun sets — something else that cropped up a bit more with Manziel throwing the ball — they would implement play-action and read-option concepts more often.
That should translate to what the Vikings will get from DeFilippo, who isn’t wedded to any particular system but devoted to the idea of changing what works and what doesn’t work based on personnel, a much more difficult task than appears at first glance.
Having a deep-threat receiver and a quarterback with a good arm with solid downfield accuracy might move one to a deep passing game, but a poor offensive line and iffy play-action mechanics may restrict that. With all that in mind, DeFilippo has done a good job managing the multiple elements that inform offensive play and still generates aggressive, effective play.
How can one install and teach an offense if one isn’t even sure which players he’ll adapt the offense to? DeFilippo had to deal with a quarterback competition in Cleveland and has had to quickly change offenses several times, from McCown to Manziel, from Manziel to Austin Davis, from Sam Bradford to Wentz and from Wentz to Foles. Each quarterback transition occurred at different parts of the season, but the offense, generally, stayed on course.
For all the talk of flexibility and adaptation, DeFilippo has also recognized the importance of having a base offense to work from. He mentioned in Cleveland the importance of having only one playbook so that the other players would be on board, but even more than that, he — like most coaches in the NFL — believes in having a core offensive strategy.
You’re always going to have your core. You don’t have an offense unless you have a core. You’re going to have your five or six core runs. You’re going to have your 12 or 15 core passes and build off that. Your formations obviously stay the same, but if you’re going to be a great offense in this league, you’ve got to have some core values to it.
This core set always allows a team to get back to what it has practiced most often, with the understanding that the other elements to the offense are constraint plays designed to punish a defense for overcommitting to one element of an offense. Offenses in the NFL are generally not built around quarterback option runs — instead, they add those elements to an already existing running game.
That allows the offensive linemen to maintain the footwork they normally use on an outside zone play for the zone read without skipping a beat. It also takes advantage of the same looks and formations that typically come from running a bread-and-butter play.
“If you don’t have great character at the quarterback position, then you have no chance to succeed. It doesn’t give you a one hundred percent chance of success, but it gives you a chance”
What DeFilippo chooses to use as his core pass concepts aren’t known yet, but there’s a good chance that they’ll include typical NFL passing plays like the levels and mesh concepts in every NFL playbook that, last year, the Eagles used on a consistent basis. There will probably be a core deep passing play like four verticals or ‘999’ (three verts).
He has consistently talked about how much he likes “displacing” defenders in his breakdowns, which means there will be a good mix of bunch formations and rub routes designed to “pick” defenders when they see man coverage as well as concepts that put zone defenders in conflict, like corner-smash and snag.
All of those fit under what he considers to be the three styles of progression that he outlined when he broke down some of Wentz’s play for PhiladelphiaEagles.com:
We have three types of reads for the quarterback. We have pure progression reads, which are literally, no matter what the coverage is, 1-to-2-to-3. We have a single-high/two-high reads. Literally, we’re reading one side of the field if it’s two-high [safeties] another side of the field if it’s single-safety middle. And then we have what we call “levels” throws … We’re going to have a man high, a man middle and a man low.
None of this is new to DeFilippo but it does mean that there will always be a core set of plays for the offense to return to when they need something, an issue that plagued Tony Sparano in 2008 when the Miami Dolphins Wildcat started to fizzle out.
DeFilippo is a quarterbacks coach and has been for years. As a former quarterback himself, he has strong feelings on what makes a quarterback successful in the NFL. Much has been made about what DeFilippo said to gathered media in his conference call with Twin Cities beat writers, but it’s nothing new. In fact, it’s almost verbatim what he said elsewhere.
When joining the Vikings, DeFilippo said that the priority when finding a quarterback is character. “I said this in my interview and I say this all the time,” he prefaced. “I said this in my media sessions in Minneapolis at the Super Bowl. Character is number one for me. If you have character at that position, you have a chance to succeed. If you don’t have it, you have zero chance to succeed. So number one, we are going to look for a person that is going to represent our football team and conduct himself the way we want him on and off the football field. That is very, very important.”
As he already alluded to, that’s no different than what he’s said in the past. For the Eagles last year, he said nearly the same thing word for word. “I think the first thing you need is character,” he explained in a coaching profile for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. “Character doesn’t assure you of success in the league, but it gives you a chance. If you don’t have great character playing the quarterback position in the NFL, you have no chance for success.”
And once more for ClevelandBrowns.com, where he said, “If you don’t have great character at the quarterback position, then you have no chance to succeed. It doesn’t give you a one hundred percent chance of success, but it gives you a chance.”
There was some speculation among fans and media that prioritizing character in his conference call for Twin Cities media inadvertently revealed who he favored among Vikings quarterbacks when it comes to their upcoming decision — and which quarterback that meant depended on the person speculating.
The second priority for DeFilippo was what he called the “three most important attributes” for playing quarterback: decision-making, timing and accuracy. That also showed up in his interview for the Browns’ official website, though didn’t make its way into his coaching profile for the Eagles.
The final priority when talking to Vikings writers was leadership. “You don’t need to be a rah-rah guy all the time, but you need to show some form of leadership so other guys will follow you, look up to you and when times get tough, will play for you. All of those things I just mentioned are very important components for the quarterback position.”
He said virtually identical things in Philadelphia. It was his second priority when talking to Eagles media, where he said, “I think you need to show leadership in some sort of way. You don’t need to be a rah-rah guy, but you need to show leadership by example.”
Again, the de-emphasis on more obvious forms of leadership pointed some fans and media to one quarterback or the other, but it’s been a consistent drum-beat for DeFilippo throughout his years.
It’s not even particularly interesting to look at what he mentioned in his other stops but omitted when outlining his top three quarterback traits with the Vikings. For the Eagles, he said his third priority when looking for a quarterback was preparation. “I think you need to show the team and the offense that you’re prepared; that you know what you need to do on every play and if someone has a question in the huddle, you can answer it and you can fix problems.”
It’s probably not the case that preparation became less important for DeFilippo, it’s more likely that he folded in “preparation” and “character” into the same category.
When it comes to character, there’s not really an argument that the quarterbacks in question have it. Both Teddy Bridgewater and Case Keenum have been lauded throughout their careers as exceptionally high character quarterbacks. Kirk Cousins, the free-agent quarterback most associated with the Vikings, has also been praised for his character — especially in the particular way DeFilippo talks about quarterbacks.
Described as a football nerd, Cousins may have the passion that DeFilippo harps on consistently when talking about what kind of team and football environment he looks for. When going through DeFilippo’s public statements, he constantly mentions how much he loves people who love talking about football, including in statements already quoted above. He said something very similar when talking to Vikings reporters as well, saying that it’s “a good thing when your general manager, your head coach, and your offensive coordinator are sitting there and talking football and all three love the game and love to talk football, there’s just a lot good things that can happen out of that.”
“It’s fun to talk football in a serious matter. It’s fun. That’s what we do for a living, we talk football.”
Not only that, Keenum and Bridgewater have both demonstrated extraordinary leadership, and have commanded the loyalty of their locker rooms in a big way. The same might be said of Cousins, though that’s more difficult for Minnesota beat writers to speculate on.
DeFilippo’s decision will come down to traditional, essential quarterback traits like timing, accuracy and decision-making. Given that many fans and media personalities have already determined which quarterback they think has advantages in those traits, attempting to divine it any further is really not that useful.
Regardless, it should be a tense, if exciting process for Vikings fans when they finally do make a decision at quarterback.
Philosophy, Not Systems
What will drive DeFilippo’s success in Minnesota won’t be the fact that he’s a West Coast coordinator with long playcalling terminology, or that he’s liked to throw the ball off play-action. It won’t be that he’s featured tight ends in his offenses previously or uses pass-catch running backs with regularity.
It will be the way he thinks about designing offenses in general, not the offenses he’s designed in the past.
To that end, we’ll see him draw on the general philosophies he’s stuck to as a coach: a commitment to teaching, a love of learning, the flexibility to adapt and the conviction to craft a core offense.
We won’t know if it’s a good hire for some time, but we will know what principles drove it.