MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' recent hiring of Gary Kubiak as assistant head coach/offensive advisor along with two members of his coaching entourage carried the perception that they were swooping in to steer the direction of the offense.
Kubiak’s role is unclear, but here are a few things we know: Kevin Stefanski will remain as offensive coordinator (a job he was hired for last week), Mike Zimmer will be able to keep his focus on the defensive side of the ball and Kubiak’s boatload of experience and wisdom from his nine seasons an NFL quarterback and more than 20 years as a playcaller will be an invaluable asset for an offense under pressure to turn things around.
The addition of Kubiak, who also brought his son Klint as quarterbacks coach and Brian Pariani as tight ends coach, may further highlight the all-in mindset within this franchise. Minnesota doesn’t have time to work through the lumps with an inexperienced playcaller, so the Vikings had to jump at the opportunity to help Stefanski in his first full season as offensive coordinator. It’s also important to not overlook the role Klint Kubiak, who developed a close relationship with Stefanski when Klint coached in Minnesota from 2013-14, played in this entire thing coming together.
While we won’t know for some time how much control the elder Kubiak will have in his role as an advisor, here are a few things that might influence the dynamic of Minnesota’s offense with the former Houston and Denver head coach involved.
A restored run game
A zone-blocking run scheme is a staple of Kubiak’s system. The Vikings have been committed to this type of blocking style but struggled to execute it effectively in 2018. Kubiak is revered for taking run-of-the-mill backs and putting them in position to reach their fullest potential, having morphed Arian Foster from an undrafted free agent in 2009 into the Texans' all-time leading rusher. The same happened in Denver for Terrell Davis, who became the Broncos’ all-time leading rusher when Kubiak was offensive coordinator, and C.J. Anderson (ninth all-time in team history), who flourished as a downhill back in that system.
Given the emphasis Zimmer has placed on wanting to be more balanced, hiring Kubiak could revitalize the run game. As a head coach or offensive coordinator, Kubiak’s offenses since 1995 ranked in the top 10 in rushing attempts 11 times and finished in the top 10 in yards 13 times. But he hasn’t always been strict on balance. During his last year in Houston (2013) and his two years in Denver from 2015-16 (with Peyton Manning as his QB), Kubiak’s teams had a designed pass percentage that ranked 11th, 17th and 13th, respectively. Their designed rush percentages fluctuated from 22nd to 16th to 20th in that same time frame. The only time his team had a higher rushing percentage (50.7) than pass percentage occurred in 2011, the season after Foster led the league in rushing.
But in that same timeframe during his later years in Houston, Kubiak was able to get the most out of an offensive line that wasn’t overloaded with star power -- similar to the situation he walks into with the Vikings and a unit that could look different by the time OTAs take place. Left tackle Duane Brown, a former first-round pick, went to two Pro Bowls under Kubiak in Houston. Center Chris Myers, a former sixth-round pick, went to the Pro Bowl in 2011 and 2012 along with Wade Smith, a journeyman left guard, who was selected for his first Pro Bowl in 2012.
"The detail of that zone-blocking scheme was incredible and the way he maximizes people's talent," former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who played under Kubiak, said on the Purple Daily show on SKOR North. "He just is so good at the details of the O-line, the details of that zone running game, the details of that play-action. I think he’s going to help with coaching the coaches and the details of all that needs to happen in order for an offense to be successful."
For a run game that ranked 30th in yards (1,493), 27th in carries (357) and 25th in yards per carry (4.18), bringing in a veteran voice whose rushing attacks were the bread and butter of his offenses can only be viewed as a positive for the Vikings.
The Shanahan connection
The line of head coaches in Kubiak’s coaching tree is impressive and includes two who have a close relationship to quarterback Kirk Cousins: Mike and Kyle Shanahan, whom Cousins worked with in Washington for several seasons.
One major benefit of retaining Stefanski was preventing Cousins from having to work with a fifth offensive coordinator in four seasons. With the idea of continuity in mind, having someone who worked with both Shanahan’s at length and knows how those West Coast principles were taught to Cousins early on in the NFL could help with the quarterback's development in Minnesota.
Even if Kubiak’s role is strictly to advise the offense, having him around to talk system and concepts with Cousins could help him improve.
A quarterback whisperer
This term gets thrown around a lot, but given the list of quarterbacks Gary Kubiak has worked with and his ability to get the most out of veterans such as Jake Plummer (three straight playoff appearances from 2003-05), Matt Schaub (set career highs in passing/attempts in 2009 while earning one of two trips to the Pro Bowl) and Joe Flacco (put up better numbers under Kubiak in 2014 than in his Super Bowl year), the title is often and fairly associated with the new Vikings coach.
Kubiak has also worked with a wide array of talent, from Trevor Siemian, Brian Griese and Brock Osweiler to veterans late in their careers like John Elway, Steve Young and Manning. He’s a master at finding ways to maximize passing efficiency, no matter who he’s working with.
His offenses ranked in the top 10 in net yards/attempt 12 times since 1995 while his scoring offenses have cracked the top 10 11 times in that same timeframe. How he’s been able to achieve that feat is largely rooted in what he’s done at the quarterback position in each of his stops, something that could be a factor in Minnesota when he gets to work with Cousins.
"Kubiak is a guy who does a great job of maximizing a quarterback’s strengths and minimizing weaknesses," Rosenfels said. "The Vikings are not going to lead the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns next year but as far as being efficient with your quarterback and putting him in really good chance to have success -- which I believe is the No. 1 goal for your offense -- Kubiak has done that at a high level with guys who are less talented than Kirk Cousins."