Another in a series on key veterans essential for the Vikings’ success this season, this time I take a look at the most significant new-comer to the Vikings coaching staff: Gary Kubiak.
How Influential Will Kubiak Be?
Since the Vikings signed Gary Kubiak as Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Advisor, there have been several changes made suggesting he has a leading role in the Vikings’ offense.
First, by all accounts the Vikings will be running Kubiak’s offensive scheme.
Secondly, the Vikings have employed Kubiak’s long-time cronies: Rick Dennison as offensive line coach and run game coordinator, Brian Pariani as tight end coach, and Klint Kubiak as quarterback coach.
Lastly, it appears the Vikings have acted on Kubiak’s personnel recommendations as well, from first-round pick Garrett Bradbury, who Mike Zimmer described as, “one of [Kubiak’s] favorite guys” since Kubiak had been scouting him last year; to free agent wide receiver Jordan Taylor (from Denver) who Zimmer said, “Gary Kubiak thinks he’s a good football player.” It’s unclear what influence he had on other signings like Josh Kline, Irv Smith Jr., Alexander Mattison and Dru Samia, but none of them appear to be head-scratchers when it comes to fitting into Kubiak’s scheme.
In any case, it appears the Vikings are giving Gary Kubiak broad authority when it comes to installing his scheme and implementing it with coaches and players he likes. It also appears that Kubiak has the ear of Mike Zimmer, who seems to prefer older coaches and speaks glowingly of Kubiak at times.
What remains to be seen is what influence Kubiak will have in operating his scheme once the regular season starts, and what modifications will be made to it.
Defining Kubiak’s Role
From initial press conferences after Kubiak was hired, it was said that he would be in the booth during games, while offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski would be on the sideline. Kubiak will be in charge of advance scouting and developing game plans each week, while Stefanski would call plays - although Kubiak indicated that may be more of a collaborative process.
We’ll have to see how things play out in that regard, but I could imagine, as a part of game-planning, Kubiak may work with Stefanski to draw up a script of around 15 initial plays each week - as Mike Shanahan did with him as a young offensive coordinator during his stint with Denver in the late 90s - early 00s. Kubiak later adopted the practice himself as a coach, and has been a proponent of it in the past. Developing a play script may help a young offensive coordinator in Kevin Stefanski ease into his job duties, while allowing the more experienced Kubiak to place his stamp on the play-calling early-on, while continuing to have input throughout the course of the game. It may also help players execute the scripted plays better, by rehearsing them in practice.
Overall it may be that Kubiak’s role is similar on the offensive side as Mike Zimmer’s role on the defensive side. Kubiak and Zimmer being the scheme architects and CEOs on their side of the ball, but with Kevin Stefanski and George Edwards chief operating officers under them.
Shanahan, Kubiak, Cousins and McVay - Or What Was Old Is New Again
Gary Kubiak, Sean McVay, and Kirk Cousins were all brought into the NFL by Mike Shanahan. Shanahan hired Kubiak to be his QB coach while he was offensive coordinator in San Francisco back in 1994 (and had even coached him in the 80s and early 90s when he was a backup QB in Denver). Shanahan hired McVay as his tight-end coach in Washington in 2010, and drafted Cousins in the 4th round in 2012. As such, they’ve all been indoctrinated in Shanahan’s offensive scheme, which both Kubiak and McVay have since adopted - and adapted.
Cousins learned that scheme under Mike Shanahan in his early years before he was a starter, which helped him become the best play-action passer in the league since he’s been a starter. Two of those years were under Sean McVay as offensive coordinator, although he was operating head coach Jay Gruden’s scheme - not Shanahan’s.
Meanwhile in Houston, Baltimore, and to a lesser degree in Denver, Gary Kubiak was operating his version of Shanahan’s offense, which he learned while working under Shanahan in Denver in the late 90s. Everywhere Kubiak has been, he has developed top offenses with his QB operating mostly under-center, to maximize the effectiveness of play-action passing. The exception was his 2015-16 stint in Denver with Peyton Manning - who preferred shotgun - which compromised the effectiveness of Kubiak’s scheme.
Then, after McVay left Washington to become head coach of the Rams in 2017, he implemented the key tenets of Shanahan’s (and Kubiak’s) scheme: outside zone runs and play-action passing. Only they have been re-packaged as innovative by the newly minted chief offensive guru in the NFL.
When McVay joined the Rams in 2017, he switched to an outside zone run scheme with Todd Gurley, and the Rams rushing attack went from next to last to 8th in the league rankings for total rushing yards. Last season, the Rams ran more outside zone runs than any other team in the NFL, and had a top 3 rushing offense in both total yards (despite only 8th in attempts) and yards/attempt.
McVay also brought another central tenet from Kubiak’s offense to LA with him: the play-action pass. In both 2017 and 2018, Rams’ QB Jared Goff led the league in percentage of play-action passes thrown among QBs with at least 100 attempts, per PFF. In the process, he took the struggling rookie QB and 1st overall draft pick from an 0-7 record and 63.6 passer rating to passer ratings over 100 in both 2017 and 2018. The Rams went from near the bottom of the league in passing to 10th in yards in 2017 (despite only 24th in passing attempts), and 5th in total passing yards last season (despite only 14th in passing attempts).
The Rams also finished 1st and 2nd in points scored in McVay’s first two years as head coach.
So what does all this mean?
First of all it means that Kirk Cousins is familiar with the scheme he learned from Mike Shanahan, who may have been Cousins’ staunchest supporter while he was in Washington. In fact, there were even rumors that Cousins agreed to play in Denver (rather than Minnesota) at a discount if Mike Shanahan was brought back as head coach. In any case, that didn’t happen.
What did happen is Cousins landing in Minnesota with now perhaps the next best thing for him to Mike Shanahan - Gary Kubiak - joining him and installing his (and Shanahan’s) scheme. It also means Kubiak and Cousins should be off to a quick start re-learning basically the first scheme he learned in the NFL as a rookie. Cousins knows the terminology, and is more developed in the techniques and nuances of that scheme, having practiced it for his first couple years in the league, and elements of it thereafter.
It also means that the basic tenets of Kubiak’s scheme - outside zone runs and play-action passing- can still be successful in today’s NFL, as demonstrated by Sean McVay and the Rams the past couple years.
Plug and Play?
It’s odd, but without knowing Gary Kubiak would ever be willing or available to coach and install his scheme in Minnesota, the Vikings may have succeeded in assembling what could be the closest thing to a plug and play roster for him.
It may also be the best roster Kubiak has had to work with since becoming a coach.
First off, he has a top 10 career passer rating QB in his prime, already versed in his scheme and the best play-action passer in the league the past four years.
Second, he has perhaps the most talented one-cut zone runner in the league in Dalvin Cook, who is also an effective 3-down back and versatile chess piece.
Third, he has one of the top wide receiver duos in the league in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, both of whom are excel in the intermediate routes and after-the-catch yards that are key in Kubiak’s passing game. He also has an experienced, traditional Pro-Bowl tight-end in Kyle Rudolph to complement rookie tight-end Irv Smith Jr., who is more versatile and athletic.
Lastly, while it may not seem like it, he has the talent along the offensive line to forge a pretty good unit if he can replicate the success he’s had getting the most from often undistinguished linemen. Having two first-round picks, a second, third and fourth is at least as much as he’s had to work with in the past, and more than most years. The key will be in Rick Dennison’s ability to teach them the finer points of the scheme and techniques that go along with it.
At the end of the day, just how quickly the Vikings are able to master Kubiak’s scheme will not depend just on Gary Kubiak’s influence and coaching, but also how well the entire coaching staff is able to teach and communicate the scheme effectively.
Early comments from coach Zimmer have been very positive, which probably speaks largely to how well Kirk Cousins is picking up the offense, given there isn’t much contact or pads. He did mention the play-action passes were coming along very well.
From here we’ll have to look for further details of Kubiak’s role going forward, but so far in OTAs he may be more of a coach’s coach than actively working with players. Stefon Diggs said he doesn’t talk too much, but when he does he gets everybody’s attention.