Were the Vikings Wise To Wait Brian Flores Out?

Photo Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

On Jan. 31, a local writer was down at the Senior Bowl when he noticed Kwesi Adofo-Mensah speaking to Brian Flores. Such things happen when the football cognoscenti gathers in Mobile, Ala., to see the best college football players compete in drills and a scrimmage. It wouldn’t be unusual for the Minnesota Vikings general manager and the Pittsburgh Steelers senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach to meet. However, the Vikings had made Flores a candidate for their defensive coordinator opening, making the meeting of the minds much more interesting.

Kevin O’Connell needs to get this hire right. Usually, a first-year coach who won 13 games wouldn’t find himself under this kind of pressure. At least, nothing beyond the ordinary pressure that NFL coaches face, which would be enough to give most people the bends. However, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell decided to retain the core of Minnesota’s roster, which went .500 in 2020 and 2021. The decision was justified when they went 13-4 last year, but they have placed themselves firmly in win-now mode.

Furthermore, O’Connell had to ensure that he did not create the same vicious cycle that Mike Zimmer fell into. Zimmer was a defensive mastermind who cycled through offensive coordinators yearly after Norv Turner abruptly left in November 2016. Turnover is often disruptive to players. It also makes it impossible to nurture continuity between the coordinator and the GM in the draft. The GM may draft players for one scheme, only to have a new coordinator bring in a new one the following year.

As an offensive coach, O’Connell had to ensure he had someone he could trust with his defense. Fortunately, Flores is likely the best hire. He’s almost overqualified for the job. Flores led the Miami Dolphins to a 10-6 record in 2020 and 9-8 in 2021, Miami’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 2003. Before coaching the Dolphins, he coached under Bill Belichick from 2008 to 2018. He started his career as the New England Patriots special teams assistant at age 23, then added offensive assistant in 2010. He became a defensive assistant a year later and coached defense since then, first safeties (2012-15) and then linebackers (2016-18).

The Vikings did their due diligence in their search.

  • They interviewed New Orleans Saints co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen on Jan. 23, and the Atlanta Falcons hired him as their DC on Jan. 27.
  • The next day, they interviewed Seattle Seahawks associate head coach and defensive assistant Sean Desai. The Vikings had interviewed Desai, who was with the Chicago Bears from 2013-21, last season before they hired Ed Donatell. He withdrew his name from consideration on Feb. 3 to take the Denver Broncos job.
  • Minnesota also interviewed assistant head coach Mike Pettine, who previously had been the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets (2009-12), Buffalo Bills (2013), and Green Bay Packers (2018-20). He also coached the Cleveland Browns in 2014 and 2015. They have retained him as an assistant head coach.
  • Finally, they asked Denver if they could interview Evero Ejiro, but new Broncos head coach Sean Payton initially said no. Coaches are able to block lateral moves for coordinators under contract. Payton eventually allowed him to interview, but the Carolina Panthers hired him on Feb. 5 before the Vikings could interview him.
  • The Vikings interviewed Flores on Jan. 26 but didn’t hire him until Feb. 6 because Flores was in the running for the Arizona Cardinals job. Arizona interviewed him, but he accepted Minnesota’s DC position before taking the second interview. In the meantime, they interviewed quality candidates. Nielsen, Desei, and Ejiro all got DC jobs; the Vikings retained Pettine.

Flores stood out because he was a head coaching candidate, who teams likely passed on last year because of his ongoing lawsuit against the NFL. Mike Tomlin hired him as a senior defensive assistant, meaning he’s worked for two of the best coaches in the league. Flores has the Belichick pedigree but also knows what it takes to be a successful head coach. He also has coached on both sides of the ball, meaning he may be able to bridge a communication gap with O’Connell. He also has the opposite personality from O’Connell, potentially creating a potentially constructive dichotomy between the coaches. Flores is an authoritarian who joins the sunny O’Connell, wry OC Wes Phillips, and charismatic Matt Daniels (special teams).

Finally, Flores’ defensive philosophy is the exact opposite of Donatell’s. Flores’ defense is an aggressive Cover 1 scheme, using multiple fronts to generate pressure using the blitz. Donatell preferred to keep everything in front of the defense, ceding short yardage to prevent gash plays. Donatell’s defense showed two-high safeties pre-snap, while Flores’ Miami defenses were dead-last in two-high looks.

O’Connell likely hired Donatell to be an elder statesman on his staff. The sexagenarian defensive coordinator often complemented O’Connell’s efforts to instill a positive culture and said O’Connell ran his program effectively. Flores, 41, is more of a peer. Belichick drafted O’Connell, 37, in 2008, the year he hired Flores. O’Connell comes from the Sean McVay coaching tree, but he has spoken highly of Belichick’s influence on him, even though he cut him in 2009. Now he’s merged the McVay and Belichick branches, which feels like something a team with championship standards should do.

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