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Why the Zimmer-DeFilippo Marriage Was Never Going to Work in Minnesota

A head coach who wants to run it despite a shaky O-line. A new coordinator with a playbook full of innovative passing designs, a newly minted franchise QB and two star receivers. A bad ending had become inevitable for the Vikings.

It was just a bad marriage, and as is so often the case, it was no one’s fault, really. Mike Zimmer, a defensive-minded head coach, wanted to run the ball. His new offensive coordinator, John DeFilippo, a young and innovative aerial designer, wanted to throw it. This appeared to create at least a subtle tension early in the season, which grew and became public as losses piled up.

DeFilippo’s reasoning for a pass-heavy approach made sense. Minnesota’s weak interior O-line struggles to get movement on the ground. Instead of ramming it inside, why not feature quicker throws underneath and to the perimeter, where star receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, and even tailback Dalvin Cook, thrive?

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The problem is Zimmer’s desires also made sense. Last season the Vikings ran the ball 31.3 times a game, second-most in the league only to Jacksonville. They weren’t particularly good at running—with a middling O-line and unimaginative Latavius Murray they averaged 3.9 yards per attempt, 23rd in the league—but to a coach like Zimmer, that’s not necessarily the point. It’s about controlling the game’s flow.

Still, in today’s NFL, your running game is only as effective as the passing game you build off it. A complaint you could issue about DeFilippo is that not enough of the Vikings’ aerial concepts derived from their ground concepts, especially given how quarterback Kirk Cousins thrived with run-and-pass integration in Washington. DeFilippo’s counter-argument, if he could issue one unfiltered, would be something along the lines of, I’m one of football’s more innovative route combination designers, this team spent a ton of money on a starting quarterback and has two superstar receivers. Let’s feature THAT first and foremost.

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Replacing DeFilippo is Kevin Stefanski, which is where this gets interesting. The 36-year-old quarterbacks coach had a chance to follow Pat Shurmur to New York and become the Giants’ offensive coordinator, but Zimmer wouldn’t let Stefanski out of his contract. Stefanski has never called plays, but he has worked with quarterbacks, tight ends and running backs under multiple Vikings coaching staffs. More importantly, it is believed by some around the NFL that Stefanski, not Shurmur, was behind many of the details of Minnesota’s passing game last year. That passing game saw more explosive plays from Diggs and Thielen than the Vikings have generated this season. Zimmer might love running the ball, but it’s still a refined passing game that will make Minnesota’s offense go. Stefanski is tasked with building one in a more balanced offense.

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A strong late-season run by Minnesota could catapult Stefanski into the growing pantheon of young offensive gurus in the league today. That’s a pantheon DeFilippo, a trendy head-coaching candidate prior to 2018, was part of early this season. The now-unemployed 40-year-old can still remain there, but his next job must be for a head coach with similar core beliefs.

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