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Vikings' defensive mastermind Brian Flores is making a statement

Vikings DC has been a revelation, which isn't a surprise when you understand how he got here

EAGAN — When Scott Pioli worked as the vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots in the early 2000s, he would occasionally make the half hour drive from the Patriots’ facility to the Boston College campus in Chestnut Hill. He would meet up with BC head football coach Tom O’Brien and watch tape. Things were a little different technologically then so it was a resource to get a look at BC’s players and the other teams in the ACC.

In 2003, Pioli told O’Brien that the Patriots were looking for someone to join the organization as a scouting assistant. He had a specific criteria for the type of person he was looking for. They had to be able to handle the demanding Bill Belichick-led environment, they had to be smart, love football and they couldn’t be too sensitive. The perfect candidate wouldn’t be about the things that come along with football like money and fame, rather they would have a deep-rooted joy and respect for the game.

“I have the perfect guy for you,” O’Brien told Pioli.

That perfect guy was Brian Flores.

Pioli interviewed him while Flores was still an undergrad at BC and offered him the job immediately. What Pioli saw in Flores was someone who could handle their culture.

“It’s a very high standard and it’s relentless,” Pioli said over the phone this week. “I could tell he was fine with it.”

In the interview, Flores talked about himself as a player at BC. He told Pioli that he wasn’t a particularly gifted physically defensive back, which meant he had to study more tape and work harder in order to get the same results as other D-1 players. Pioli loved that.

“If you look around the National Football League and whether it’s coaches or evaluators, there are a lot of people like that because they had to be self trained at a young age to be film people and to understand not only the game but the people who play it and their strengths and limitations,” Pioli said.

Eventually Flores would become a Patriots pro scout and then work his way onto Belichick’s coaching staff and continue his rise through the ranks until he was hired as head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2019.

The long road to the pinnacle started with magnets.

Pioli’s office in New England did not have pictures or trophies on the walls, instead it had magnets. Before everything in the world went digital, personnel people used to keep track of NFL rosters by putting players’ names on magnets. Every team, every player on every roster. The boards had to be updated constantly. When the league sent out the waiver wire, it was Flores’ job to come into Pioli’s office and make all the changes.

It was the same job that Pioli had when he first entered the league in the early ‘90s with Belichick in Cleveland.

“It’s a mundane job and duty, however, it’s like any job when you are in the entry level where you can get an assignment and complain about it because you think you’re better than the job that needs to be done or you can find ways to be optimistic and learn from every single thing that you do,” Pioli said.

Flores’ attention to detail with the magnets stood out to Pioli. He became familiar with a Bill Parcells saying when it came to getting it right. When Pioli worked for the Jets in the late ‘90s, Parcells used to walk into his office and look at the rosters and if there was one magnet that was wrong he would throw it on the floor and say, “one wrong, all wrong.”

If you say the words, “one wrong” to Flores to this day, he will complete the phrase and laugh. He must have heard it a thousand times. But some really important things happened as he was grinding away keeping the rosters right. Flores ended up having a lot of conversations with Pioli. They became close after spending many hours talking about life, their families, Flores’ background growing up in the hardnosed Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and their football philosophies.

Brian Flores

Brian Flores

Flores also quickly developed a desire to learn about the names on the magnets.

“He memorized rosters and players,” Pioli said. “He wanted to get to know the players. He wanted to get to know the player behind the tag.”

As he grew in the scouting department, Flores heard another mantra over and over that still sticks with him today: Tell me what they can do, not what they can’t do.

“B-Flo has learned since the beginning to identify what people do well and accentuate the positives and limit the limitations,” Pioli said. “B-Flo knew that he had limitations [as a player] but he was able to play because he was able to accentuate his positives — he gets it.”

Flores had plenty of good examples from which to build his player evaluation philosophy. Piloi said that the Patriots focused on smarts, aggressiveness and toughness, which shined through in the early Belichick Patriots days with players like Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Larry Izzo, Richard Seymour, Rodney Harrison — and, of course, Tom Brady.

“That was what we built our success on,” Pioli said. “You can’t be aggressive and not smart. B-Flo saw how our personnel department went after good players that were tough that had the physical profile of what we wanted but they had the intellectual profile.”

When Flores was bumped up to the coaching staff as a special teams assistant in 2008 and began working his way up the coaching ladder, his scouting background played a role in helping him evaluate and maximize the talent that he was given, whether that was coaching special teams or the secondary or linebackers.

“Those things work hand in hand,” Pioli said. “In terms of coaching, if you understand what a player can do and can’t do and what they are capable of then you can teach them better. Not everyone learns the same. That background in evaluating, you spend time getting to know how people tick. Those things genuinely compliment one another.”

Twenty years after Pioli hired Flores, the long-time NFL executive now watches from afar happily as Flores has turned around the Vikings defense. Their families are still close and it’s not a coincidence that Pioli’s daughter ended up attending Boston College, where she is currently a junior.

He has enjoyed seeing Flores take a Vikings defense that ranked 28th in points allowed and 31st in yards allowed last season turn into a unit that has led the charge during the team’s comeback from an 0-3 start to currently sitting in a playoff spot as they get set to face the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. Overall they are 14th in points allowed and 12th in yards but that doesn’t begin to sum up how Flores’ defense has played since the early part of the year. Since Week 3 they have only allowed more than 21 points twice and over 333 yards once and have forced 12 turnovers.

Along the way Flores has been at the helm for massive leaps in development by numerous young players who took over for veterans who exited last offseason i.e. Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Eric Kendricks and Za’Darius Smith. He has also facilitated better seasons than 2022 from stars Harrison Smith and Danielle Hunter.

“He has surpassed what even I thought could be possible in year one,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said.

This week O’Connell was asked about the difference Flores has made by getting the most out of his players and the second-year HC ran down the long list of players who have been impacted by Flores’ coaching.

“I think all Vikings fans were excited to see 22 down around the line of scrimmage pressuring again, being a part of some of those things – as was I,” O’Connell said. “You look at some of the young players that have developed, like an IP [Ivan Pace, Jr.] at the linebacker position. Mekhi [Blackmon] and Akayleb [Evans] and then, we are very deep at the safety spot, so the smart coach that he is, he has found a way to maximize Josh Metellus for the great player that he is, while still allowing Cam Bynum and Harry [Harrison Smith] to really thrive in their roles. Getting guys like Harrison Phillips and Jonathan Bullard and [Khyiris] Tonga, maximizing their ability to impact the game as well. It still all comes with an all 11 feel where it feels like they are all working together.”

Of all those examples, hybrid safety/linebacker Josh Metellus may be the best of Flores accentuating what a player can do. Before this season the former Michigan standout had been almost exclusively a special teamer. This year Metellus has played 669 snaps and ranks in the top 25 among safeties by PFF grade. He’s No. 1 in QB pressures among safeties with 17 and ranks third in run stuffs.

Metellus said that Flores saw something in him before they hit the field for training camp — even if there wasn’t much previous tape to work with.

“He watched a couple preseason games from last year when I was playing safety and one of the first things he told me was that he thought I should have been playing more last year,” Metellus said on Saturday. “I’m like, ‘damn I don’t know what he’s seeing but it must have been good.’ He has a knack for it and he’s bringing out the best in all of our guys.”

As training camp went on, Flores kept finding new ways to use Metellus until he eventually became an every-down player.

“We have the trust that he puts us in positions to be great,” Metellus said. “He’s been around a lot of great defenses so when a guy like that tells you that you have what it takes it gives you extra motivation.”

Flores and Metellus have built a relationship. The defensive coordinator sees his versatile defender as a player who could someday be in his shoes.

“He jokes with me, ‘when you coach one day you’re going to do this, you’re going to do this,’ that’s his thing when it comes to talking about the game and scheme and what we’re doing,” Metellus said. “If I do coach a lot of it is going to translate, I can tell you that. He’s a great guy man, we’re lucky to have him.”

Cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. who signed in Minnesota as a free agent this offseason, also made an immediate connection with Flores.

“When he first got here we had dinner at his house and met his family and his kids and everything,” Murphy Jr. said. “For him to come do that right away shows what type of coaches we have here and building trust with each other. Dinner at his house, we do stuff as a defense on Thursdays so that builds character and confidence in each other.”

Murphy Jr., whose role changed numerous times when he was with the Cardinals organization, noted that there is a psychological effect when a coach finds ways to use players to their strengths.

“That’s a confidence builder as a DB knowing that he has that faith and trust in you to move around the field like that,” Murphy Jr. said.

The Vikings’ turnaround on defense combined with the ways in which players and O’Connell have reacted to Flores’ coaching has put Flores’ name in the discussion to land a head coaching job next offseason.

O’Connell isn’t shocked to hear that his DC’s name is coming up for those opportunities. His previous experience in the HC spot played a role in O’Connell hiring him last spring and he anticipated that Flores’ tenure might only last one year.

“He is incredibly bright, he is somebody that I trust completely,” O’Connell said. “That does not surprise me [that he is getting head coaching buzz]. That was my expectation when I brought him in here, that he would do what he has done with our defense… not a surprise to me that the league is taking notice with the quality of a coach and man that he is.”

You won’t find anyone disputing that Flores’ work in Minnesota has been enough to put him on the radar for head coaching jobs. The elephant in the room is his lawsuit against the NFL in which he stated the league is “rife with racism” when it comes to its hiring and promotion of Black coaches. The suit also claimed that the Dolphins’ owner offered him money for every loss as Miami was looking to rebuild its roster around a highly-drafted quarterback. In July, a judge ruled that the lawsuit will be allowed to proceed.

Until this week there hadn’t been any reporting on the impact the lawsuit might have on his chances of getting head coaching consideration. On Saturday, however, NFL Insider Jason La Canfora reported in the Washington Post that people around the league do not expect the lawsuit to lower his odds. La Canfora wrote:

“That shouldn’t prevent the former Dolphins coach from getting another shot. He has done stellar work with the Vikings as they have adapted to his heavy blitzing preferences, Minnesota pass rusher Danielle Hunter is wrecking games again, and that unit has gotten consistently better. Flores surely learned from some of his missteps with the Dolphins, and if the Vikings make the playoffs, his work will be impossible to ignore.”

“Let’s say there are seven or eight jobs,” an agent who does not represent Flores told La Canfora. “You’re telling me there are seven or eight coaches with a better résumé than his? He’s doing a great job there.”

Pioli hopes that’s the case.

“He should be a head coach in the NFL again,” he said. “I pray that he is. He’s a heck of a coach.”

Pioli points out that plenty of head coaches thrive when they get a second chance — look no farther than Belichick. Not that Flores did poorly in Miami, going 10-7 and 9-8 in 2020 and 2021, respectively, and operating top-notch defenses.

Whether the head coaching part comes Flores’ way or not is yet to be seen. For now the team has a chance to control their own destiny down the stretch toward the postseason despite the adversity they have faced along the way, whether it was the slow start or losing quarterback Kirk Cousins to injury.

“I have really admired [Flores] taking something and making it better,” O’Connell said. “Not just relying on what maybe last Sunday looked like, but how can we make this more and continue to grow and be the 2023 Vikings defense…it has made me a better coach and he has certainly helped a lot of our players, which is the most important thing.”