The Vikings’ salary-cap situation meant they didn’t have the room to sign a big-name player off the open market last offseason, but that didn’t stop them from adding one of the top available free agents.
Gary Kubiak’s contract terms were never revealed but it’s safe to say whatever the Vikings are paying him isn’t enough. Hired as the Vikings’ assistant head coach and offensive advisor last January, Kubiak has taken an offense that was suspect in 2018 and molded it into a strength in 2019. A year ago, the Vikings finished 19th in the NFL in points per game at 22.5; this season they are tied for fifth at 27 points per game.
This is not meant to sell Kevin Stefanski or Kirk Cousins short. Stefanski, who replaced John DeFilippo after he was fired late last season, has been the guy calling plays each week and more often than not he’s put players in a position to succeed. This has led to speculation that Stefanski could be in line for an NFL head coaching job this offseason.
Cousins was a disappointment in the first season of a three-year, $84 million contract in 2018, but he has been good enough this year that his name has been tossed around in some MVP discussions. Cousins threw 30 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions last season in 16 games and is at 25-5 in 14 games this year. Most importantly, the Vikings have two more victories than they did all of last season with two regular-season games remaining and are on the verge of clinching a playoff berth.
Kubiak quietly has played a key role in this success. He has done a masterful job of orchestrating in the background. He doesn’t talk to the media on a regular basis and is likely very happy to be left alone.
What’s really impressive is that since Mike Zimmer was hired as the Vikings’ coach in 2014 this franchise has been know for its emphasis on defense. That isn’t the case this year.
As Zimmer’s beloved defense has taken a step back — largely in part because of subpar play from the cornerbacks — Kubiak’s scheme has gone a long way toward insuring the job security of Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman. After the Vikings missed the playoffs in Cousins’ first season in Minnesota, Spielman and Zimmer had the options picked up their contracts through 2020 but the feeling was if things did not go well in 2019 changes might be coming.
The Vikings’ success this season — barring a major meltdown — means it’s likely Spielman and Zimmer will get contract extensions.
The only surprising thing in seeing Cousins’ 2019 success is that the Vikings didn’t go in this direction a year ago and hire someone who knew how to get the most from the veteran quarterback.
The 58-year-old Kubiak had been a successful coordinator and head coach in the NFL before landing in Minnesota, spending eight seasons as coach of the Houston Texans and two with the Denver Broncos. He had an 82-75 regular season record and went 5-2 in the playoffs, leading the Broncos to a win in Super Bowl 50. It was only because of health concerns that Kubiak got out of coaching after the 2016 season; he was a senior personnel advisor in 2017 and 2018 for his friend and former teammate John Elway in Denver.
Kubiak would have returned to the Broncos’ coaching staff this season, except for he and new Denver coach Vic Fangio (who had been defensive coordinator in Chicago) reportedly had differences in offensive philosophy and staffing. Denver’s loss was Minnesota’s enormous gain. Kubiak brought along his son, Klint, as quarterbacks coach; Brian Pariani as tight ends coach; and Rick Dennison as offensive line coach and run game coordinator.
Dennison’s work and changes to the Vikings’ blocking schemes have helped their run game go from 30th in the NFL last season (93.9 yards per game) to fourth this year (135.9 yards per game).
Kubiak also introduced the Vikings to a Cousins-friendly system that put the quarterback in position to do more than simply accumulate impressive statistics. Cousins had success in Washington running Mike Shanahan’s offense and Kubiak was Shanahan’s offensive coordinator in Denver from 1995 to 2005.
Cousins admitted in minicamp that he wasn’t as familiar with the offense the Vikings were installing as many of us believed, but after getting off to a rough start in the first four games it was clear something clicked with Cousins in Week 5 against the Giants. Starting with that game, he has thrown 22 touchdowns and three interceptions and the Vikings are 8-2.
The fact that wide receiver Adam Thielen missed six of those games, or that running back Dalvin Cook has been slowed by a shoulder injury the past three games, hasn’t derailed the offense. There also is clearly a flexibility to Kubiak’s approach considering star wide receiver Stefon Diggs disappeared for a few days following an ugly Week 4 loss in Chicago.
Diggs was upset about how the offense was operating — many misinterpreted this as a shot at Cousins — but when he returned the following week changes had been made. Diggs had 13 receptions for 209 yards and one touchdown through the first four games, but then had 24 catches for 496 yards and three touchdowns in the next four. Diggs is now eighth in the NFL with 1,073 yards receiving.
Zimmer has had mixed results with his offensive coordinators. Norv Turner walked out on him (we think) during a tumultuous 2016 season and DeFilippo was fired. Pat Shurmur, who took over for Turner, had such a good season calling plays in 2017 that he got a career-year out of backup Case Keenum and the Vikings advanced to the NFC title game before losing at Philadelphia. Shurmur was quickly hired as head coach of the New York Giants and likely will be fired from that job this offseason.
Stefanski could be a candidate to replace him and likely will get a few interviews. There is no doubt if the 37-year-old departs it will be a loss, but as long as Kubiak stays put the Vikings’ offense is in excellent hands.