EAGAN, Minn. -- As Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer begins the process of evaluating where things turned south for his team, he says he’ll evaluate everything, including himself, in hopes of turning around a lost season.
That same approach is what Zimmer aims to use in selecting Minnesota’s next offensive coordinator.
On Tuesday, interim OC Kevin Stefanski’s contract will expire, which will allow him to pursue other offensive coordinator opportunities. Stefanski interviewed for the Cleveland Browns’ head coach opening on Thursday, and he could choose to take that job (or any other head-coaching position) if offered before his contract with the Vikings runs out.
Zimmer said he’ll decide before Tuesday about Stefanski’s status and whether to offer him the offensive coordinator spot on a full-time basis, but Zimmer wants to conduct a thorough search for the position.
“I’m looking at all kinds of options there,” Zimmer said. “We are sitting down, and again, we are evaluating everything. I think Kevin is a really good football coach. Very smart guy. I thought he did a good job for the three weeks that we were in a tough situation that we had to do. It’s fair to the organization, to myself, to the fans, that we look at everybody.”
Stefanski took over the Vikings' offense in Week 15 after Zimmer fired former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, who was hired away from Philadelphia last February after coaching the Eagles' quarterbacks to a Super Bowl win. Stefanski was part of the Vikings' candidate pool for the OC job in 2018 and was blocked by Zimmer from interviewing elsewhere, notably to become the OC for the New York Giants.
Along with Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, Zimmer helped hire DeFilippo, a process from which the coach said he has learned, noting that he didn’t feel he asked enough questions about "what we were trying to get done" with any of the candidates the Vikings looked at last year.
“I’ve learned a lot about the questions, the interview process, about things that I should probably do a lot better than what I did,” Zimmer said. “Hopefully, I’ll do better this next time.
“We do a lot of research on guys and guys names pop up and pop up and pop up. You kind of assume that’s the right way, but it may not be the right way for your particular football team. I need to do a better job there, yes.”
In addition to Stefanski, former Browns coach Hue Jackson, a longtime colleague and friend of Zimmer, has emerged as a possible candidate for the Vikings' OC job. Zimmer coached with Jackson in Atlanta (2007) and Cincinnati (2012-13), where the two developed mutual admiration.
“There’s a group of men that I kind of lean on, and Mike being one of them,” Jackson said in 2017. “There is a lot of, sometimes, 4 in the morning calls or midnight calls that we kind of go through things and it keeps me from jumping off the ledge. He’s been spectacular that way of having me truly understand that sometimes there’s patience in any process of where you’re trying to go as long as you can see the light at the end of the tunnel that it’s something that sometimes you have to go through. He’s been there for me, and I really appreciate that."
Zimmer, however, said that having a prior relationship with various candidates he aims to interview does not carry more weight than those he has not previously worked with.
“No, not really,” Zimmer said. “I know where you're going with that question, but it's not a good question. I mean, it's a good question, but probably you're fishing in the wrong pond."
Zimmer noted in his season-ending news conference that he didn’t feel like the Vikings played with the same edge they had in years past.
“You can look at a lot of the statistics, but I think quite honestly this football team for the four years that I’ve had been here had that nasty, 'we’re going to win regardless or no matter what the situation is' mentality,” Zimmer said. “I don’t know that we had it this year. I talked to a couple of people during the season around the building and I actually said to them, 'It’s just kind of a different vibe with this football team.' And I can’t figure out why, because we have a lot of the same guys back. We have good football players. I wasn’t really different than I normally am.
"But for some reason, we didn’t finish the games like we’d finished before. I don’t know why. We had the lead in a bunch of games last year that we finished, and this year, we were playing catch-up more so, so I don’t know if that’s it or not. But we’re going to get that mentality back, I can promise you that.”
What Zimmer is looking for in his next offensive coordinator is someone who will help lead his offense with that same approach, scheming to the strengths of what his playmakers do best while maintaining the balance the team managed to find but could not sustain throughout the entirety of this past season.
“I think the biggest thing, we’ve got to score points,” Zimmer said. “We didn’t score enough when we were in the red zone. Obviously, I want to be able to run the football and play-action pass, because I think that is the most effective way to affect a defense. We didn’t score enough points in the red zone. We weren’t good enough on third downs. There were a lot of things that we need to improve on there.
“That is going to be big. Part of it is making sure that we are able to, without getting too complicated in the X’s and O’s, but a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about is, ‘We’ve got this great player. How are we going to block him?” Let’s get innovative with this so we can protect and be able to throw the ball or protect and be able to run the ball to a different spot."