For the first time since 2012-13, the Minnesota Vikings hope to have the same Week 1 starting quarterback for two consecutive years. That is, assuming Kirk Cousins can avoid the injury bug that’s befallen quarterbacks before him.
Coinciding with their quarterback unrest has been a revolving door at offensive coordinator, where Minnesota is set to unveil its fourth different offense in four seasons. Kevin Stefanski, who replaced John DeFilippo in Week 15 last season, is the fourth offensive coordinator since 2016 and has watched from the background as a versatile position coach while the rest of the offense existed in a constant state of flux for a variety of reasons: Norv Turner quit, Pat Shurmur got a head coaching job and DeFilippo got fired.
Stefanski’s impact late in 2018 was limited. Given only three games at the helm, the former quarterbacks coach went 2-1. Though the one loss came in a win-or-go-home situation in Week 17, Stefanski found enough favor in the organization to see his interim label removed in the offseason. He’ll team up with adviser Gary Kubiak and a coaching room full of Kubiak’s hand-picked assistants to craft the latest iteration of the Vikings offense.
“Honestly, it’s kind of a part of the NFL, and it happens almost everywhere, every year,” Stefanski said on Wednesday at Vikings mini-camp, referring to the turnover on staff. “That’s why it’s so important when we add the players that we add to this team, that we add guys that are pretty smart. Luckily we have a really good group. It is challenging, and I’m glad that it’s challenged them.”
Stefanski, Kubiak and Cousins freely admit the offense is behind the defense after four weeks of spring practices. Stefanski told reporters that the terminology is completely new from previous years, the team’s gaggle of young receivers has needed help learning where to line up, and the play-action is still a work in progress.
Cousins has routinely been under pressure in practice as the Vikings defense — once again barely changed from its dominant state of the last four or so years — has shown exotic looks and taken advantage of a young offensive line. Backups Sean Mannion and Jake Browning have a mounting interception count. And the red zone simulations have resulted in far more field goal attempts than touchdowns.
It’s not as if this is a new observation. For years now the Zimmer-led defense and its long-intact staff have toyed with raw Vikings offense in May, June, July and August. But the head coach sees the shadow of an offense that, when matured, can be more balanced and explosive.
“Right now the defense is ahead of the offense because they’ve been together for so long, and we have good players as well,” Zimmer said. “I think I have a good feel of who we can be offensively and the strengths that we have with personnel, and also some of the weaknesses that we may happen to try to avoid.”
There is a learning curve for each player in the new scheme. On one hand, it prevents Cousins from developing the same chemistry he might have had with his teammates in Year 2 of the same system. On the other hand, it forces players to become familiar with new concepts and widen their repertoire with different play calls and concepts.
“Yeah, it actually does [get easier],” said Stefon Diggs, who has thrived with each coordinator under which he’s played. “Since I’ve been here I’ve had like three or four (offensive coordinators) so as far as like having new guys and adjusting on the fly, it’s the same routes. It’s just new terminology and new language. We have run the same route a million times. Just because it has a new name doesn’t mean we can’t run it. Just being around for a little while now has made it a little easier.”
“Study habits still the same,” said running back Dalvin Cook, who hasn’t had the same coordinators since his junior and senior years at Florida State. “Everything’s still the same. When you change your offensive coordinators you can’t change your preparation of how you learn, how you get things done. It’s the same thing. Loving the system.”
The hierarchy seems to be coming into focus. At practice, Stefanski does the play-calling near the line of scrimmage on a walkie talkie while Kubiak observes either behind the offensive line or deep in the defensive backfield. They’ve said they often meet before or after practice to prepare or rehash what they’ve observed and where they could improve. Then Stefanski does most of the teaching in the meeting room.
“Basically, I’m just with him every day, every minute, in meetings with the coaches,” Kubiak said of Stefanski. “We go in, he teaches. I’m in there watching him teach what we do and then we sit down and talk. He’s doing things I’ve done for a long, long time.”
Cousins was meant to represent continuity at quarterback because of his talent and durability, but that ideal got pushed toward the back-burner when DeFilippo couldn’t pull the offense out of last year’s mid-season funk and lost his job. The quarterback’s coaches have almost unanimously voiced a belief that Cousins will be better in his second year with the team, even though the offense had to hit the reset button. For what it’s worth, the Vikings offense in recent years was much more successful in Year 2 under Turner and Shurmur than it was in Year 1.
But Cousins cites his comfort level with teammates and fewer external distractions as reasoning for how he’ll take the next step.
“I think it’s helped to understand my teammates,” he said. “It does feel like I’m starting over a little bit every year, because you have new teammates, a new system in this case. In some ways it does feel a little new, but more outside of football, things have settled down which is a really good thing. Consistency really helps.”
Things are harmonious thus far, despite some faulty offensive play in the early scrimmages.
But as Diggs pointed out, it’s hard to see cracks right away. Having been part of many changes during his five years with the club, the wide receiver knows he can only do his work, and in that way, help the offense realize its potential.
“You never know how it’s going to go with different coaches,” he said. “Like, some older coaches don’t really like younger guys, so it’s about understanding the process and learning new offenses and taking the classroom to the field. That kind of thing.”
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