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Evaluating Gary Kubiak

Continuing on from my evaluations of Rick Speilman and Mike Zimmer, let’s focus now on Vikings’ offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.

When Kevin Stefanski left to take the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job early this past off-season, the obvious choice to replace him as offensive coordinator for the Vikings was Gary Kubiak. After all, when Kubiak became available just a couple days after the Vikings named Stefanski as offensive coordinator two years ago, the Vikings immediately hired Kubiak and his long-time staff- Rick Dennison, Klint Kubiak, and Brian Pariani, to help Stefanski implement Kubiak’s scheme.

And so it was no surprise that Zimmer asked Kubiak to take over as offensive coordinator this season, which he did, in a pretty seamless transition. Same scheme, same position coaches, and a long-time offensive coordinator and 4-time Super Bowl champion coach running the show. Mike Zimmer said hiring Gary Kubiak was the best thing he’s done as a head coach, and it’s hard to argue with the results.

2020 Vikings Offense by the Numbers

With one game left in an otherwise disappointing season, the Vikings offense under Gary Kubiak has been a relative bright spot, and perhaps even more promising heading into next year.

For example, if the Vikings manage to score over 23 points against the Lions this weekend, this offense will have scored the 3rd most points in franchise history (417+), behind only 1998 (556), and 2009 (470). It would also be an improvement over last season, when the offense scored 407 points. In terms of total yards, with just under 300 yards of offense on Sunday, the Vikings will break the 2009 total and have the highest total yards on offense since 2004, and I believe 5th most in franchise history.

Currently, the Vikings’ offense ranks 6th in total yards, and 13th in points scored - it’s best combined rankings since 2009. But this is nothing new for Gary Kubiak.

If those rankings hold, it will be the 15th time in 23 seasons as either head coach or offensive coordinator that Gary Kubiak has had a top 10 offense in either points and/or yards. It would also be his 9th time doing so in his last ten seasons in either job.

The Vikings offense this season has also been top 10 in a number of efficiency metrics including 4th in yards per rush (4.9), 8th in net yards per pass attempt (7.1), 4th in yards per play (6.1), and 5th in red zone TD percentage (73.6%). They’ve also generated the 5th most first downs, the 7th most TDs passing, and the 8th most rushing.

In terms of PFF grading, the Vikings offense is ranked 7th overall, with a 84.3 grade after 15 games. The Vikings’ team receivers grade is #1 in the league at 89.5. This is the only time the Vikings have ranked #1 in this category in the PFF era, and is also the highest grade they’ve ever had. It’s also the highest grade any team has had for receivers since 2016.

The Vikings are also ranked #2 in team rushing grade, just behind the Titans, at 90.7. This is also the highest team rushing grade the Vikings have ever had in the PFF era, which goes back to 2007.

The Vikings team passing grade (Cousins) ranks 10th this year at 82.5, which is down a bit from last season at 86.0, which ranked 3rd. If the ranking holds this year, Cousins will have ranked in the top 10 in each of his first three seasons with the Vikings.

The weakest part of the Vikings offense, not surprisingly, was their blocking grades. The Vikings team pass blocking grade ranking remained the same (27th) as last season, but the actual grade declined to 58.3 from 63.0 in 2019. The decline is pretty much exclusively the result of the guard play this season. The Vikings’ team run blocking grade was ranked 19th this season, at 65.1, which is down from 12th last season, although the actual grade has improved from 63.3 a year ago.

Dalvin Cook and rookie Justin Jefferson were named to the Pro-Bowl, and I’d be surprised if they weren’t both named All-Pro as well. Jefferson also has a shot at Offensive Rookie of the Year, and with about 50 receiving yards on Sunday will break Randy Moss’ rookie WR receiving yards record. Dalvin Cook looks set to finish first in the league in yards from scrimmage, and 2nd in rushing yards. He also has rushed for the 3rd most yards in franchise history, behind AP in 2008 and 2012.

All in all, it was a very good year for the Vikings offense, the best since 2009, which reflects well on Gary Kubiak in his first official year as offensive coordinator for the Vikings.

Kubiak’s Scheme, Play-Calling

While the numbers this year speak for themselves, Kubiak also has a long track record with top 10 offenses, not to mention 4 Super Bowl championships as a coach - 2 as offensive coordinator with Denver in the late 90s, one as head coach with Denver in 2015, and a fourth as QB coach with the 49ers in 1994, the year his QB, Steve Young, won both league and Super Bowl MVP.

Kubiak’s scheme, from the Mike Shanahan/Bill Walsh offensive scheme tree, has been around a long time, long enough to have come around to be in vogue again in recent years. Teams currently running a variant of Shanahan/Kubiak scheme include the Packers, 49ers, Titans, and Rams. The scheme itself is built around a run/pass balance, misdirection, disguise, play-action passing, zone blocking, and wide/outside zone runs. It’s a scheme a team in the Super Bowl has used in 4 of the last 5 Super Bowls, including when Kubiak won it the last time in 2015.

Detractors of the scheme call it an old-fashioned, run-first scheme in a passing league, but in truth the average pass rate for teams running this scheme is about 55% this year, which is pretty typical. The scheme seems to be somewhat counter-trend, and in that sense innovative, both now- remaining committed to the run in a passing league - and then: using smaller, more athletic offensive linemen at a time when most teams were looking for big linemen like Washington’s ‘Hogs’ and the Cowboys’ Nate Newton and Larry Allen.

Back then, having athletic offensive linemen who could get outside and to the second level to block old-school linebackers made sense. And these days remaining committed to the run, when most teams have opted for smaller, more athletic linebackers and edge rushers to better combat the pass, can also create some advantageous matchups.

In any case, the commitment to the run is what makes opposing defenses honor the run-fake on the play-action pass, which in turn typically yields better results on play-action passes. Passer ratings 15 points higher on play-action vs. no play-action are about average, and Kirk Cousins has a 25 point higher passer rating on play-action passes this year, and 32 points higher last year.

The disguise and misdirection elements of Kubiak’s scheme come from basically running a lot of different plays from the same look. A wide zone run one time, a play-action rollout pass another, an inside zone run a third play - but all from the same pre-snap look.

In terms of the outside run, the scheme has evolved to include more use of other blocking schemes as defenses counter the outside run with five-man fronts and wide alignments. This year the Vikings used some 2-back inside-zone runs to good effect to combat 5-man (bear) fronts and wide alignments. They even used some power runs on occasion as well.

SUCCESSFUL PLAY RATE

In terms of play-calling, the bottom line measure is how successful was Gary Kubiak with his play calls relative to the rest of teams in the league this year. Here is the results:

Sharp Football Stats

According to data compiled by Sharp Football Stats, above, the Vikings and Gary Kubiak were the 7th most successful team in the success rate of their play calls, with a 52% success rate. In terms of successful plays per game, that was about 2 plays per game behind the most successful offense, the Packers, at 55%. The Vikings were also right there with the leading offenses in the league - Packers, Chiefs, Saints, Titans, Bills, Seahawks. Their play success rate also corresponds with their average yards per play (6.1) which is 4th best in the league after 15 games.

A successful play is defined as a play that gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on first down, 60% of yards-to-go on second down and 100% of yards-to-go on third or fourth down.

EXPLOSIVE PLAY RATE

Beyond simply efficiency and moving the chains, Kubiak and the Vikings have also generated the highest explosive play rate of any team in the league this year.

Sharp Football Stats

The above chart from Sharp Football Stats breaks down explosive run play (10+ yards) rate and explosive pass play (15+ yards) rate, for a combined explosive play rate and ranking.

As you can see, the Vikings had the highest rate of explosive runs in the league this year through 15 games, at 16%. They also had the 5th highest explosive pass play rate at 10%, just behind the leaders at 11%. The Vikings also combined for the highest overall explosive play rate in the league at 13%.

Bottom Line

Gary Kubiak has basically continued to do this year what he’s almost always done when he’s run an offense: produce a top ten unit.

The offense was hampered by relatively poor pass protection again this year, and also a much worse defense and special teams units that made their job more difficult by keeping them off the field more, not generating as many takeaways, missing some special teams points, and starting drives with the worst average field position in the league.

Nevertheless, the offense will likely improve in both raw points and yards gained (with an average performance against the Lions this Sunday) over last season, and by most measures was a top 10 offense this year for the first time since 2009.

Poll

How would you rank Gary Kubiak as an offensive coordinator?

This poll is closed

  • 47%
    One of the best in the league
    (458 votes)
  • 46%
    Top half in the league
    (442 votes)
  • 4%
    Bottom half in the league
    (39 votes)
  • 2%
    One of the worst in the league
    (20 votes)
959 votes total Vote Now