New Vikings OC Stefanski: ‘It’s about the players and not the plays’

EAGAN, Minn. — With three games left on Minnesota’s schedule to determine whether or not the Vikings return to the playoffs, Kevin Stefanski has suddenly been tasked with trying to steer a struggling offense back on track in a supervisory role he’s never held before in 14 seasons of coaching.

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There’ll be plenty of scrutiny on the team’s interim offensive coordinator, not to mention an unofficial audition for the job next year and beyond.

To judge Stefanski’s readiness by noting a lack of play-calling experience, though, would not tell the whole story.

“I think every assistant coach, and probably every fan, is calling the plays with the play-caller,” Stefanski said.

“Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. But when we’re up there, you’re always thinking about what you may be calling in that situation. I’ve tried to do that since day one as a coach. I think that’s incumbent upon you to take yourself through what you may do here.”

With the Vikings having produced fewer than 285 total yards in four of their past five games, coach Mike Zimmer fired John DeFilippo on Tuesday and promoted Stefanski from quarterbacks coach. Stefanski, one of four sons of long-time NBA executive Ed Stefanski, who’s now with the Detroit Pistons, is the NFL rarity who has risen to a prominent position at age 36 without ever having to uproot his family.

A team captain as a defensive back at Penn, Stefanski spent one season in football operations for his Ivy League alma mater before Vikings head coach Brad Childress hired him in 2006 to serve as his personal assistant. Stefanski has survived two head coaching changes, coached tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks and worked under a total of five offensive coordinators: Darrell Bevell, Bill Musgrave, Norv Turner, Pat Shurmur and DeFilippo.

“I hope my experience with all of the guys I’ve worked with over the years has shaped me into the coach I am,” Stefanski said on Thursday.

Zimmer said he believes quarterback Kirk Cousins, who has worked closely with Stefanski as his position coach since signing with the Vikings last spring, will be more open to making his own suggestions in game-planning than with DeFilippo.

“He knows me well,” Cousins said. “But at the same time, you don’t reinvent much this late in the year.”

Cousins took personal responsibility for DeFilippo’s firing, but he naturally expressed optimism about the new working relationship.

“He’s got an even-keel demeanor about him. He’s been with multiple systems now,” Cousins said, adding: “I think he’ll do a good job in this role.”

If the Vikings can’t consistently protect Cousins or clear space for the running backs, or if Cousins doesn’t avoid the turnovers that have persisted, the plays called by Stefanski down the stretch won’t ultimately matter.

“I’m going to steal a line from Pat Shurmur: ‘It’s about the players,” Stefanski said, “and not the plays.'”