Gary Kubiak's Scheme a Big Reason Why Vikings Offense is Thriving in 2019
By virtually every metric, this year's Vikings offense is the best, most balanced offense the team has had since Mike Zimmer became head coach in 2014.
The Vikings are averaging 384.4 yards per game and 26.2 points per game (both top-ten marks in the NFL) this season, which is 27.5 more yards and 2.3 more points than Zimmer's previous best offense in 2017. None of Zimmer's offenses had averaged more than 5.5 yards per play in his first five seasons. This year, the Vikings are at 6.1.
Advanced metrics like Football Outsiders' DVOA also support the notion that the Vikings are better on offense than they were in 2017. The biggest difference from two years ago is that the Vikings have had great success in both the running and passing games.
A major reason why this offense has done so well, according to Zimmer, is the offensive coaching staff. This offseason, the Vikings removed the interim tag from Kevin Stefanski's title as offensive coordinator and brought in Rick Dennison as the offensive line coach and run game coordinator. Perhaps most beneficially, they convinced former Super Bowl-winning coach Gary Kubiak to come out of retirement and join their staff.
Kubiak joined the Vikings as an assistant head coach and offensive advisor, working closely with Stefanski to implement his signature zone-blocking offense. This week, the Vikings will take on the Denver Broncos, for whom Kubiak was the offensive coordinator from 1995 to 2005 and the head coach in 2015 and 2016.
After retiring due to health issues following the 2016 season, Kubiak very nearly came back to the Broncos this year. He was reportedly going to take the offensive coordinator job under new head coach Vic Fangio, but Fangio and the Broncos decided to go in a different direction on offense. Chalk Zimmer up as being happy that the Broncos let Kubiak get away.
"Gary has been tremendous," Zimmer said on Wednesday. "It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me since I’ve been here. I talk to him a lot about what he’s done as a head coach, we talk a lot about offensive and defensive football. I just love his demeanor and the way that he and Kevin (Stefanski) can communicate during the games and also during the week on game plans."
Kubiak came to the Vikings with a history of leading successful running games. In his first stint with the Broncos, he helped turn Terrell Davis into one of the best backs in the league; Davis ran for 5,296 yards from 1996 through 1998, the most prolific three-year stretch in NFL history. After that, he coached Clinton Portis to consecutive 1,500-yard seasons in Denver. Then, as head coach of the Texans from 2006 to 2013, Kubiak helped Arian Foster put up several huge seasons. Other running backs to rush for 1,000 yards under Kubiak: Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns, Steve Slaton, and Justin Forsett.
It's not hard to understand why Zimmer likes Kubiak so much. One of the main reasons John DeFilippo was fired midway through last season was that Zimmer felt they weren't running the ball frequently enough. The Vikings' head coach is an old-school guy who values Kubiak's experience and knowledge.
"I love the way the offense is, the way the scheme is, the things that he’s seen over the years running the offense," Zimmer said. "He’s a hard worker, team guy. The other thing he told me that he really missed was being part of the team. I think he likes being here and doing those things."
Dalvin Cook, who was recently named NFC Offensive Player of the Week and is off to a historic start to this season, has become a superstar in Kubiak's offense, just like Davis, Portis, and Foster before him. Once he heard about Kubiak joining the staff in January, he started to get excited.
"People kept saying about Terrell Davis and all those good backs," Cook said. "But when you go look at his track record and you go look at how they was doing it and what they was running, it’s some of the stuff that I like running and some of the stuff that I was good at. Love the scheme and love everything we doing."
"I think when you put those great minds together...[Kubiak], coach Kevin [Stefanski], coach Rico [Rick Dennison], our offensive staff, they smart and they put a good game plan together each week for us to go execute," Cook said. "And I think we do a good job of buying into what they got going on and how they want it done. I think that’s where our success been coming from.”
The Kubiak offense has also helped Kirk Cousins have the best season of his eight-year career. By running a great deal of play-action and encouraging Cousins to "play fast," Kubiak has put the Vikings quarterback in positions to succeed and allowed him to utilize his strengths. Both Gary and his son Klint Kubiak, the Vikings' QB coach, have had a profound impact on Cousins this season.
"Gary has done a really good job with him," Zimmer said. "Getting him to understand about playing fast, about getting the ball in the right place, about the things that we’re able to do with some of the movement passes. The counseling that he’s done with these guys has really been good, and Klint as well."
Cousins agrees that the coaching staff has helped him succeed. He praised everyone who works closely with him – Stefanski, Dennison, both Kubiaks – as bringing something different and important to the table each week in preparation for the upcoming game. Cousins added that the effectiveness of the running game and the emphasis on timing and rhythm are two things that have helped him play well this season.
"Gary coming in has really been a voice in just about everything I’ve mentioned," Cousins said. "They’ve worked really well together as a staff. Ultimately it comes down to when you have great people around you, that’s coaches and players and management too, it just puts you in a position to be successful.’’
On Sunday, the Broncos will get a close-up reminder of what a Gary Kubiak offense looks like and what they missed out on by not hiring him.