The Kubiak offense is famous for two things: Getting every ounce of talent out of quarterbacks and making every running back with two legs into a star. Those two things came to fruition in Minnesota in 2019 with Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook having career years. But with the Vikings replacing Kevin Stefanski with Kubiak, it leaves us to consider what his history means for both players’ futures.
When Kubiak took over as offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos in 1995, he was gifted some superstar players. A 35-year-old John Elway put together the second highest net yards per attempt (which factors sacks) and second best quarterback rating of his career at that point and rookie sixth-round running back Terrell Davis picked up an impressive 4.7 yards per rush while going over 1,000 yards. Overall the Broncos finished the ’95 season third in yards and ninth in points.
Once their defense caught up, Denver was a force. Davis ran for more than 2,000 yards in 1998 and Elway produced the best rating of his career in his final season.
The Shanahan-Kubiak offense took the Hall of Fame talent they were given on offense and turned it into two Super Bowls and sheer offensive dominance.
But it wasn’t until 2000 when it became clear how much the system had bolstered the QB-RB combination. Elway retired and Davis ran out of steam from insane usage over his elite seasons. The combination of Brian Griese/Gus Frerotte and Mike Anderson produced the No. 2 offense in the NFL in yards and points and won 11 games. They ranked fourth in net yards per pass attempt and sixth in yards per rush.
When it became clear that Griese wasn’t going to be able to get them over the hump, the Broncos traded for Jake Plummer, who had a 30-52 record with a 69.0 quarterback rating in six years as an Arizona Cardinal. His time in Denver ended in 2006 with three trips to the playoffs, a 39-15 record with an 84.3 rating.
The trend continued when Kubiak became the head coach of the Houston Texans. Former Atlanta backup QB Matt Schaub led offenses that ranked in the top five three years in a row. And when he became the Ravens’ OC in 2014, Joe Flacco set career marks.
Along the way, running backs like Rueben Droughns, Tatum Bell and even Ron Dayne had success. Undrafted Arian Foster became a superstar.
Even in his Super Bowl season with Peyton Manning in which the aging star no longer had his fastball, Kubiak put the ball in the hands of no-name running backs Ronnie Hillman and CJ Anderson to carry the load.
The Broncos had a star running back on the Dalvin Cook level in Clinton Portis. They traded him to Washington for cornerback Champ Bailey.
Kubiak’s history might mean nothing as it pertains to the Vikings’ situation. The team could very well be committed to signing Cousins and Cook to long-term extensions that make them the centerpieces of the team for several years to come. Or it could suggest that Kubiak’s system — with the help of run-game coordinator Rick Dennison — can raise the level of less expensive quarterback-running back combinations and get similar results.
Between Cousins and Cook, the total price tag per year could be in the range of $50 million per year. Even with the salary cap going up, they would be taking up a very large percentage of the team’s total space. If Kubiak believes that these two Pro Bowlers are good enough to reach the Super Bowl even with some sacrifices in other parts of the roster, past successes with second and third-round draft picks or QBs who washed out on other teams wouldn’t matter. But Griese went 22-15 as a starter between 2000 and 2002 and Denver still moved on. Cousins is 18-12-1 as the Vikings’ starter.
And Portis was wildly successful in two years as a Bronco. He ran for 3,099 yards, scored 29 touchdowns and averaged 5.5 yards per catch and 9.5 yards per attempt. Yet they moved him for a harder-to-replace position.
The Vikings’ options with both positions will be numerous heading into 2020. If they follow the footsteps of Kubiak’s past, they could draft a quarterback within the first three rounds with plans to sit that player behind Cousins and start in 2021. They could look for a QB who struggled elsewhere like Josh Rosen or Marcus Mariota to use as Cousins’s backup and then turn the ball over to them if they like what they see behind the scenes or draft a QB in 2021.
Net Yards per Attempt rank
At running back, the Vikings picked Alexander Mattison in the third round in 2019 and he averaged an impressive 4.6 yards per carry. If they feel Cook’s production is even remotely replaceable — even if his talent isn’t — they could trade him, draft another third-rounder to fill in the gaps and let another team foot the bill.
None of this is to suggest Cousins and Cook aren’t worth extensions. Cousins was the fifth best QB in the NFL by PFF standards and — as every Kubiak QB does — set his career high in wins and QB rating. Cook was a top-five running back despite getting banged up at the end of the year.
It entirely rests on whether the play-actions and bootlegs and zone runs and personnel combos and formations and deep shots etc. can put cheaper players in the same positions as they have in the past and reproduce what Cousins and Cook accomplished in the Kubiak system. And whether Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman would be willing to take the risk that it doesn’t work out, like in 2016 when Denver turned to Trevor Siemian and Devontae Booker and dropped to 27th in offense.
That might not be a risk that the head coach and GM are not interested in. Or it might be the shrewd decision that makes Kubiak’s hire as OC truly pay off.