At his end-of-year press conference, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer made it clear that he wanted to keep the scheme that posted the best offensive production of his six years in Minnesota.
On Thursday the Vikings brought that statement to fruition by hiring offensive adviser/assistant head coach Gary Kubiak as the offensive coordinator, replacing Kevin Stefanski, who left to take a head coaching job in Cleveland, according to an NFL Network report.
The difference between the 2018 and 2019 Vikings offense tells the story of Kubiak’s influence. The Vikings went from 19th to eighth in scoring, 23rd to sixth in yards per pass attempt, 30th to sixth in rushing yards and 23rd to sixth in percentage of drives producing points.
“Gary (Kubiak) has been tremendous,” Zimmer said in November. “It’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me since I’ve been here. He’s very smart. I talk to him a lot about what he’s done as a head coach. We talk a lot about offensive and defensive football.”
The vast improvement in the Vikings offense started with Kubiak’s scheme, which proved successful in Denver where quarterbacks like Jake Plummer and Brian Griese excelled and then in Houston with Matt Schaub at the helm and in Baltimore, where veteran Joe Flacco posted the second highest rating and highest QBR of his career in 2014.
The story was the same for Kirk Cousins, who set his career high in quarterback rating and ranked as Pro Football Focus’s fifth best quarterback. His previous best PFF ranking was 10th.
Kubiak’s offense starts with marrying the run and pass game together — using play-action passes off the same looks that they used to run the ball. When using play-action this year, Cousins produced a 129.2 quarterback rating (per PFF), which was No. 1 in the NFL. The Vikings used play-action on 31.4% of plays, fifth most in the NFL. They were 17th in that category in 2018.
Cousins has consistently been one of the best play-action passers in the league. Even when the offense dialed up play-fakes less in ’18, he still produced a 116.1 rating, fourth best in the NFL.
Part of the reason for his play-action success is that Cousins possesses the ability to throw deep passes with a high rate of accuracy. It makes for a perfect fit with Kubiak’s scheme, which requires receivers to run deep crossing patterns. Per PFF, Cousins ranked third in rating on throws that traveled more than 20 yards in the air, completing 24-of-61 deep throws.
Kubiak’s concepts also found ways to mitigate the weaknesses of the veteran quarterback. Using bootlegs and rollouts gave him more time to throw, which resulted in the Vikings cutting down Cousins’s sack total from 40 to 28 from ’18 to ’19. An increase in screen passes also cut down on pressure and provided easy completions for the QB, who averaged 8.0 yards per attempt on throws behind the line of scrimmage.
The effectiveness of the run game also took pressure off Cousins. For example, in a win over the Dallas Cowboys, the Vikings ran on 10 straight plays and finished the drive with a Dalvin Cook touchdown.
Aside from the numbers and Cousins producing the best season of his career in the Kubiak scheme, the fact that the veteran quarterback won’t have to learn a new scheme is valuable too. Since he became a full-time starter in 2015, Cousins has only had the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back years once (2015, 2016 with Sean McVay). And while Kubiak will be different in some ways from Stefanski, he will get an opportunity to have the same terminology, same concepts and very likely the same playmakers around him in Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Dalvin Cook, Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith and Bisi Johnson.
Zimmer’s comfort with Kubiak matters too.
In past years, Zimmer has questioned the offense’s direction. Norv Turner resigned and he fired DeFilippo late in the ’18 season. Last year the two bonded over their long history in the game and similarities in philosophy.
“We talk about offense and defense, we talk about when I was in Dallas and, he wasn’t in San Francisco at the time, but we talked about that offense and the things in Dallas and we had to do and the plays that we used to have to work like crazy on,” Zimmer said. “I think the other thing that I appreciate about Gary (Kubiak), kind of like with (Bill) Parcells with me, Coach (Mike) Shanahan was on his rear end every day, talking about understanding this and understanding that. I think Coach Parcells was pretty much the same way with me. We’ve kind of been in that same thing where we’ve had our rear ends chewed a little bit.”
Having an OC that the head coach trusts and the quarterback is comfortable with was the obvious direction for the Vikings to go with the job. And if they repeat a similar offensive performance to 2019, the Vikings will be back in the postseason in 2020.
As for the more distant future, the Vikings will have to decide on whether to sign Cousins to a contract extension. Presumably Kubiak will play a role in that decision. It’s hard to say where Kubiak would stand on the veteran QB’s contract but he would have the experience to help the Vikings make the decision.