How Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo caters to quarterbacks

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MINNEAPOLIS -- In 2007, the quarterback's room in Oakland was made up of the following: JaMarcus Russell, an immature rookie who became the biggest bust of the past decade; Josh McCown, a veteran determined to prove his worth as a starter; Daunte Culpepper, a three-time Pro Bowler viewed as an insurance policy for Russell, the No. 1 overall pick; and Andrew Walter, a future congressional candidate with a 3-16 career TD-INT ratio.

Four QBs at vastly different points of their careers, ranging from 22 to 30 years old, from backgrounds so drastically dissimilar.

Welcome to life as a position coach in the NFL, John DeFilippo.

"Probably the toughest, most diverse rooms I've ever been in when it comes to quarterback rooms was his first job," former Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp said. "There you found out, can he handle balancing the guy's mentalities? Balancing the ups and downs of some guys not playing when we were struggling as a team? Yet he still made it enjoyable for each guy to come to work every day."

Through the dysfunction, DeFilippo formed his most compelling attribute as a coach. An energetic outlook coupled with a little naivete and a whole lot of gumption prepared him for how he'd handle plenty of challenges at the QB position that were waiting for him.

"Being young and inexperienced helps because you're willing to be flexible," said current Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson, who worked with DeFilippo in Oakland from 2013 to 2014. "He was always willing to experiment with new ideas. He's very flexible and adaptable. He knew they all had different strengths. There's a big difference between going from Carson Palmer to Terrelle Pryor in a year."

Since DeFilippo was hired as the Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator in February, fans and media have tried to project what his offense will look like. Will it incorporate concepts from the Super Bowl champion Eagles where he coached quarterbacks the past two years? How much will he pull from his tricks of "manufacturing yards" when he was the Browns' offensive coordinator? How different is the 2018 Vikings offense going to look from last year's 13-3 team? How will DeFilippo build the offense around Kirk Cousins when the Vikings' run is expected to be the focal point?

Months of speculation leads to answers that will begin to form on Sunday in the season opener against the 49ers. But it doesn't necessarily take hours of game tape to determine what DeFilippo is going to do in Minnesota. Sure, certain concepts from his background in West Coast offenses, what he learned from Knapp and Olson, two coaches he labels as mentors, and the five other NFL teams he's worked for will show up in play designs like the slot fade, RPOs, bunch formations, etc.

But in an offense that's based more on elements of scheme and philosophy, built to the strength of its personnel and not the other way around, the overarching theme of a DeFilippo offense isn't that of a hard-set system at all.

"The beauty of this scheme which I'm most proud of, and is proven in this scheme is Josh McCown goes out and breaks the franchise passing record for the Cleveland Browns, on the road against the Baltimore Ravens," DeFilippo said, "and then we go switch over to Johnny Manziel and we end up having two of the top four rushing performances in team history."

He's won games when he's called for the quarterback to throw 51 times (McCown's 457-yard OT performance in Baltimore in 2015) and 15 times (vs. Tennessee that same season). He's remained flexible in his approach when he's had rare instances of quarterback stability (Philadelphia from 2016 to 2017, and now Minnesota) and when he hasn't.

That principle is rooted in keeping things simple, eliminating as many pre-snap decisions for the quarterback through formations, motions and shifts. Sometimes it's just a matter of calling a quick, efficient play -- a throw to the flat to get the offense to second and 4 to get the ball in play and give the quarterback confidence to take a shot.

"Finding a way to get the quarterback six to seven layups a game, that's the difference in being a 62 percent passer and a 68 percent passer, and that's partly on the playcaller," DeFilippo said. "I'm a big believer in getting the quarterback confident early and giving him some layups."

During 12 years in the NFL, DeFilippo has adapted to a variety of personalities and playing styles. He's worked with traditional drop-back passers and dual-threat QBs. He's been tasked with grooming rookies like Derek Carr, Mark Sanchez and Carson Wentz and now has the keys to Minnesota's $84 million man, Kirk Cousins.

"Kirk is a very unique guy in terms of he wants to execute the play called," DeFilippo said. "I've been around quarterbacks that were very, very successful that had that mindset, and guys that were wanting to give you eight million ideas. Kirk wants to play quarterback, and he wants to lead this football team. He is not opposed to giving ideas at all, or 'Hey, this is how I ran it in my past.' He and I have discussions on plays all the time. So there's open dialogue there."

DeFilippo has been adamant when asked about the outlook for the offense that it's not his offense, but rather the Vikings' offense. Adapting to the strengths of his personnel is a collaborative effort, one that will begin to play out in real time against the 49ers.

"I see it as a mixture of a whole lot of backgrounds, a whole lot of different experiences," Cousins said. "We do try to have great communication back and forth. Coach (Kevin) Stefanski is involved in that, really the entire offense. Receivers have a voice, everybody shares their opinion and ultimately Coach [DeFilippo] makes the call."