MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Vikings stumbled to an 0-3 start, endured seven games without superstar wide receiver Justin Jefferson and have started three different quarterbacks after king-of-durability Kirk Cousins went down with a season-ending injury.
How, then, have they managed to maintain control of a spot in the playoffs with five games to go? That's a tribute to Brian Flores, whose bold debut as Minnesota's defensive coordinator will undoubtedly put him in the conversation for head coach vacancies around the NFL when the next hiring cycle begins.
“I’m having a great time coaching this team. I am thankful for the opportunity to coach this group of guys,” Flores said. “It’s fun group to coach. They work hard. It’s important to them.”
Flores has not only rejuvenated a defense that had been struggling for the last three years — and even through the first three weeks of this season — but served as a valuable confidant to head coach Kevin O'Connell as the Vikings have navigated a series of depth chart challenges they didn't face in 2022.
“That was, selfishly for me, one of the big reasons why I was excited about bringing Flo in here,” O'Connell said. “From a leadership standpoint, from a player-development standpoint, from his understanding of football, situational football.”
Hiring Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator became one of O'Connell's rookie mistakes. Replacing him after one year with Flores has been one of his most important decisions since.
“He is incredibly bright. He is somebody that I trust completely. That does not surprise me. That was my expectation when I brought him in here, that he would do what he has done with our defense, and he has surpassed what even I thought could be possible in year one,” O'Connell said. “Ultimately, that is not a surprise to me that the league is taking notice with the quality of a coach and man that he is.”
The New York native, who was raised by Honduran parents in a rough part of Brooklyn and went on to play at Boston College, broke into the league as a scout with New England. He moved onto the coaching staff under Bill Belichick and spent 15 years with the Patriots with four Super Bowl titles along the way. He eventually ran the defense and in 2019 became Miami's head coach.
His career hit a snag when the Dolphins fired him after three years. He wound up suing the league and multiple clubs for racial discrimination in their hiring practices, a case that continues to plod through the court system and has become a flashpoint for the NFL's long-lagging rate of minority head coaches.
After resetting last season as an assistant with Pittsburgh, Flores accepted the job working for O'Connell.
One of the mottos Flores developed during his time in New England as both a scout and a coach was, “Don’t tell me what a player can’t do. Tell me what he can do.” He immediately went to work on maximizing the experience and skill of edge rusher Danielle Hunter and safety Harrison Smith, valuable veterans whose impact was stifled last year.
He identified a talent in Josh Metellus, who was just a backup safety and a special teams contributor before thriving in a hybrid role in coverage, run stopping and rushing from multiple spots. He sought input from the players about the scheme and the calls.
“It still all comes with an all-11 feel where it feels like they are all working together. The communication is clean. The operation is clean. Total credit to Flo and his staff and the way they have evolved throughout the season. I have really admired just taking something and making it better,” O'Connell said.
The Vikings have risen to eighth in the NFL in points allowed per game (20.2), after ranking 29th last season (25.1). They’re ninth in red zone touchdown rate against (50%), up from 21st last season (57.1%). They’re ninth in yards allowed per play (5.01), after finishing third-worst (5.91) in 2022. According to Sportradar data, their missed tackle rate (5.7%) is the second-best in the league.
Beyond the numbers, the aesthetics show and anecdotes tell a story of improvement.
Opponents have respectfully remarked about the challenge of facing the Flores-directed defense. Vikings offensive players and coaches were routinely confused during training camp by the unorthodox alignments and movements before and after the snap. There’s more swarming the ball, more disruption in the backfield and more joy apparent on the field.
Flores has not spoken publicly about the lawsuit, nor has he wanted his head coaching aspirations to intrude on his current job running this Vikings defense. Last week, though, as the Thanksgiving holiday approached, he sounded a bit sentimental about a vital career stop that could end up being a short one.
“You want to enjoy these moments with them," Flores said, "because every year everything's different.”
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Dave Campbell, The Associated Press