EAGAN, Minn. — As friends across the league pinged Kevin Stefanski’s phone with well-meaning text messages, the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator was touched – and a bit confused.
This was early October, days after a 16-6 loss to the Chicago Bears dropped Minnesota to 2-2, and put the Vikings’ disappointing offense, which mustered a mere 222 yards in the loss, in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
Start with the quarterback, Kirk Cousins, whose reluctance to consistently “pull the trigger” against the Bears became a talking point for the week, especially once one of his star receivers, Adam Thielen, publicly called out the offense as “one-dimensional.” Meanwhile, the Vikings’ other star receiver, Stefon Diggs, missed practices and mandatory meetings early in the week, and didn’t exactly deny he wanted a trade, simply shrugging his shoulders and telling the media “there’s truth to all rumors.”
The responsibility of getting this mess in order was largely Stefanski’s, hence the texts from friends.
The 37-year-old has been around pro sports long enough to know — his dad is longtime NBA executive Ed Stefanski, the vice president of basketball operations of the Detroit Pistons — that whatever was percolating around the Vikings could be fixed.
“I’m getting text messages from people saying, ‘Hey, hang in there,’ and I’m going, ‘What? Am I missing something?’ ” Stefanski told Yahoo Sports with a chuckle. “Sometimes the outside view doesn’t match what’s going on in the inside.”
He and the offensive staff knew exactly what to do.
“You step back, make sure you can see this thing from the forest through the trees and figure out what, exactly, do we need to do differently,” Stefanski said. “Sometimes the answer is nothing. But for us, there was maybe a little bit more of this [we could do], a little bit less of that [we could do].”
Stefanski soon made a conscious choice to lighten his players’ mood, including one that involves “Chappelle’s Show” and “Saturday Night Live.” But his primary objective was tweaking the Vikings’ scheme to one that would satiate his receivers and give Cousins the tools he needed to thrive.
“Once we figured out what we wanted to be,” Stefanski said, “I think you saw us take off a little bit.”
The adjustment that energized the Vikings’ offense
In August, the Vikings made no secret of their desire to build an offense around the strengths of Kirk Cousins, their $84 million quarterback who was entering the second year of a three-year, fully guaranteed deal. That meant building an offense around a dominant outside zone run game, one that defenses would have to focus on so much that the passing game could live on a steady diet of bootlegs, play-action and deep balls. They even brought in Gary Kubiak, the former head coach of the Denver Broncos and a bonafide play-action guru with over 20 years of coaching in those systems, as an offensive adviser, as well as his son Klint to be the quarterbacks coach.
So yes, Stefanski had high hopes for the offense. But through the Vikings’ first four games, the only thing the Vikings had established was the running game.
Star running back Dalvin Cook was killing it, ranking second in the NFL with 410 rushing yards and tying for first in rushing touchdowns with five. But the play-action effectiveness Stefanski and the Vikings promised in the preseason had not come to fruition.
Through the first four games, Cousins had attempted only 28 play-action passes, according to Pro Football Focus; it was the second-fewest of the 22 QBs who had taken 50 percent of their team’s snaps by then, and not coincidentally, the Vikings were next to last in the NFL in passing yards per game.
So Stefanski, the Kubiaks and the rest of the Vikings’ offensive staff huddled up. They’d keep running the ball, yes, and using the running back screens they love. But they’d also push the ball downfield more, especially on play-action shots, and use more two-tight end sets to take advantage of Kyle Rudolph and rookie Irv Smith Jr., who both possess terrific pass-catching ability.
“It goes back to aligning our vision with what we wanted this thing to look like,” Stefanski said. “With the threats we had to get down the field, we just thought there was potential there.”
The benefits were almost immediate. In the Vikings’ next game, Cousins completed 22 of 27 passes for a then season-high 306 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the New York Giants. Not coincidentally, the Vikings called 11 play-action attempts (also a season-high at the time), of which Cousins connected on nine passes for 153 yards and a touchdown.
Since then, Cousins has thrown 109 play-action passes, the fourth-most in football, as the Vikings currently sit at 10-4 and have already have clinched a playoff berth.
On Monday night, Minnesota will host the Green Bay Packers (11-3), who can secure the NFC North with a victory.
“For me, it never goes very far away from just trusting your players,” Stefanski said. “And we’re lucky — we have good players.”
The Vikings’ improvement hasn’t been just because they’re calling more play-action; it’s come because their quarterback has also been pushing it downfield more.
“To his credit,” Stefanski said, “he’s letting it rip.”
You can call him Captain Kirk now
In the wake of Thielen’s “one-dimensional” comments, Cousins apologized to him for missing him multiple times against the Bears.
Stats from Pro Football Focus show that he hasn’t needed to apologize much after that. In the 10 games since, Cousins has been pushing the ball downfield consistently, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt while completing a staggering 72.3 percent of his passes for 2,745 yards, 22 touchdowns and three interceptions.
On the season, Cousins’ passer rating of 127.7 on deep passes was tops in the NFL entering Week 16 — ahead of the likes of Aaron Rodgers (125.7), Patrick Mahomes (120.6) and Lamar Jackson (110.1). When asked how much the renewed commitment to play-action has to do with that, tight end Kyle Rudolph nodded.
“A ton, and that’s part of the commitment to running the football,” Rudolph told Yahoo Sports. “It’s easy to get guys to buy into running the football when the benefits are 20-plus yard completions off it. I think that’s been part of the reason we can sell this run game to the receivers and the skill position players, because again, we’re just trying to make everything look the same.”
After averaging a meager 6.7 yards per attempt on play-action through the first four games, Cousins has averaged 10.7 yards per attempt on play-action — third in the NFL — and no quarterback has thrown more play-action touchdowns (12) than him.
Stefanski noted it’s not uncommon for Cousins to get to the fourth progression in his read due to his “lightning-quick” eyes and intense preparation, and Diggs backed that up by citing one play in particular, a 54-yard strike against the Denver Broncos in Week 11, when Cousins hit him streaking on a post route.
“Kirk says, ‘Don’t even go to sleep on the backside,’ and sure enough, he threw the backside post,” Diggs told Yahoo Sports. “That ball never really gets thrown, and guys will fall asleep back there.”
Cousins added that they joke that route gets thrown about once a decade.
“For whatever reason, we’ve hit it twice this year,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. “So maybe it will be 20 years before we hit another one.”
One of the reasons the Vikings regularly hit on big passing plays is because their receivers often run their routes hard, even when the ball isn’t coming to them. This is not a given in the NFL, and it’s the sign of the ultimate buy-in. Diggs says it’s also a byproduct of Stefanski not only showing his players during film sessions what he needs them to do, but also explaining to them why he needs them to do it.
“I appreciate him as a coach, and I love him,” Diggs said. “You need to trust that it’s gonna get a guy open, and [he needs] your maximum effort in certain situations. And when it’s time for you to get the ball, other guys are gonna give you the same back. So he always just keeps it in perspective of being not only a good teammate for yourself, but for somebody else.”
Cousins credited Stefanski for being calm, brief and organized in his meetings, and Rudolph praised him for being smart.
“He keeps it light, he keeps us on our toes,” Rudolph said. “He knows when it’s time to get serious and when to give us breaks.”
And the breaks include “a lot of Dave Chappelle," Rudolph said with a laugh.
An unexpected boost from a classic comedy show
During the Vikings’ slow start to the season, Stefanski noticed his players were dragging during his Friday offensive install meetings. So within a week or two of the Bears loss, he decided to insert a video of a comedy sketch into the meetings to generate some laughter and positive vibes.
“We spend a lot of time together, we spend a lot of time on football,” Stefanski said. “Every once in a while, you gotta lighten the mood.”
The Vikings won the next game, so he kept doing it, with offensive quality control coach Christian Jones getting “full rein” to choose the clip, and they’ve kept winning.
“Anytime you win and you get on a winning streak and you’re doing well, you’ve got to keep that same routine,” Cousins told Yahoo Sports. "I look forward to it every week.”
Some of the sketches have been from “Saturday Night Live,” but most have been from “Chappelle’s Show.” This past week’s video was the sketch of Chappelle showing off his home, MTV “Cribs” style.
The results have been difficult to argue with, as the Vikings won four straight games after the Week 4 uncertainty, and eight of 10 since.
In the NFL, all it takes is one bad loss, one bad passing performance, for whispers from the outside to creep back in. With the way the Vikings lost to the Packers in Week 2 — with Cousins throwing a cringe-worthy end-zone interception with the game on the line — that could happen as soon as Monday night.
Stefanski and the rest of the Vikings’ offensive staff have been working like crazy to assure the good times will carry on.
“Like anything, it’s a work in progress,” Stefanski said. “We’re still the first year in the system for all of us, but I feel like we’re fine-tuning it and, hopefully, playing our best football.”
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