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Gary Kubiak can keep it all together

When the Vikings hired Gary Kubiak, it became a running joke that nobody was sure exactly how he got to Minnesota, what his job was supposed to be and whether he ever existed at all. That’s because neither the Vikings’ general manager, head coach, owner, offensive coordinator or Kubiak himself would explain the process behind his hiring or his exact role as “offensive adviser.” But Kubiak indeed exists and in 2020 we know what his job will be: Offensive coordinator and director of keeping the Vikings from coming apart at the seams.

It’s a strange time for Kubiak, 58, to take over the offense. The first gift he received as OC was the team trading away a receiver who caught 63 passes for 1,130 yards and six touchdowns. They also cut his veteran right guard and have yet to give a contract extension to the running back of whom the offense is built around. Not to mention the Vikings locked their quarterback whisperer into a future that almost certainly includes Kirk Cousins, signing the veteran to a two-year contract extension on the first day of the “legal tampering” part of free agency.

Usually teams are either in win-now or rebuild mode. If you had to toss each of the Vikings’ moves on offense into buckets, you’d get as many win-now as rebuild moves. On one hand  the intricacies of the roster decisions suggest that they could rebuild but everything else — from the uncertain status of GM Rick Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer to the hiring of long-time defensive coordinator Dom Capers — says the Vikings are not thinking about stepping back in 2020.

That means the pressure is on Koobs to drive the team’s success. As of March 28, the Vikings have just two cornerbacks with any legitimate NFL experience and neither as a full-time starter and Everson Griffen announced he planned to sign elsewhere. Not to mention they might still trade Anthony Harris to create cap space. It’s hard to envision a world where Zimmer schemes his way to a No. 1 defense in ’20, which means the offense will need to carry the Vikings into contention.

All of that might be the easy part.

Under the surface there has been tension building in Eagan, dating back to 2018 when expectations were raised to “Super Bowl or bust.” Players are leaving, sources around the league asking, “what the heck is going on there?” And prior to the Vikings’ win against the New Orleans Saints in the Wild Card round there were reports that the team would consider trading Zimmer to Dallas. Naturally, he took offense to the notion and the team put out a statement saying Zimmer is here to stay. For how long is unclear.

Kubiak will have to hold it all together.

Everyone likes Gary

If you want to know how someone feels about a former coach, ask for an interview and see how quickly you get a call back.

Former Denver Bronco (and Oakland Raider, Dallas Cowboy, Phoenix Cardinal, Jacksonville Jaguar and Carolina Panther) Steve Beuerlein woke up on the West Coast to a text message about Koobs. An hour later he was on the phone sharing his experience of spending the 2002 and 2003 seasons with Kubiak as his offensive coordinator.

“I got to know Gary Kubiak and the first thing that struck me… is that he didn’t get to play very much [when he was John Elway’s backup] but he always stepped up and played very productive and was always ready to go, so I knew this guy knew how to get ready for a game,” Beuerlein said. “And meeting him he’s the most laid-back, soft-spoken guy and always has a smile on his face. He’ll light you up if you need to be kicked in the butt and he’s not afraid to do that and if he’s serious you know it’s time to get serious but he’s just so approachable, so easy to talk to.”

Beuerlein had a front-row seat for one of Kubiak’s most impressive accomplishments as an OC: The reinvention of Jake Plummer. In Arizona, Plummer had won just 30 of 82 starts with a 69.0 quarterback rating. But in ’03 his career hit the reset button in Denver, going 9-2 with a 91.2 rating. All said and done, Plummer won 39 of 54 starts as a Bronco.

That’s Kubiak’s calling card: Get more out of players than anyone knew was there.

Beuerlein says it starts with his personality.

“There are not a lot of people in the world that everybody trusts,” said Beuerlein, now an analyst for CBS. “Gary is one of those people. He has the ability to make everyone trust him, even when people are opposite sides of an argument, he’s going to find a way to get both people to trust him. That’s a very unique talent. It’s almost like a politician, to be able to productively get people to trust him and as a result trust each other and work for the common good. That’s a very unique skill set and he just does it very easily.”

Before Kubiak arrived in Minnesota, Zimmer’s history of working with offensive minds was shaky.

Outside of Pat Shurmur’s brilliant 2017 season, the Vikings’ head coach had struggled to get on the same page with his other OCs. Norv Turner resigned in 2016 amid head-butting over offensive philosophy and Zimmer fired John DeFilippo when the offense sputtered toward the end of the ’18 season (and again there was disagreement over philosophy).

Last year from the outset Stefanski and Kubiak put Cousins on a path that he was familiar with from his days working with Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay in Washington and Zimmer was thrilled. He called Kubiak’s hire the best thing that happened to him during his head coaching career. They shared perspectives, Kubiak told stories from the old days and the offense jumped to the top of the league by mid-season with Cousins being awarded the NFL Player of the Month in October.

By year’s end, Cousins had more wins, a higher PFF grade and a higher QB rating that he’d registered in four previous seasons as a full-time starter.

Kirk Cousins got his first career playoff win and second Pro Bowl appearance under Gary Kubiak. Credit: Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports

Kubiak’s former signal callers weren’t surprised. They understand how his approach connects with the few people who are playing the toughest position on earth.

As a player Kubiak was an eighth-round pick. He spent nine years in the NFL and only started five games but he won three of them. So few players make nine-year careers for themselves that the NFL doesn’t have an eighth round anymore. Kubiak’s savvy for the game was so evident that he landed a gig as a quarterback’s coach three years after he retired and coached Steve Young to the best year of his career and a Super Bowl championship.

“As a quarterback it’s so important to feel like your offensive coordinator has got your back and isn’t going to throw you under the bus and point fingers and put it on somebody else,” Beuerlein said. “I never felt like he wasn’t on my side. That lets you go out and play free and play the way you’re capable of playing.”

Former Houston Texans quarterback and Purple Daily co-host Sage Rosenfels had a similar experience.

“His best salesmanship is his authenticity and steadfast realness,” said Rosenfels, who went 4-1 as Kubiak’s starter in 2007. “He doesn’t blow smoke, he doesn’t lie to guys, he is extremely fair. He talks about when you are in the pros to act like a pro and when you come to a situation, whether it’s out at night or in the weight room, it’s: ‘what would a pro do? What would a professional athlete do who’s truly dedicated to his craft?'”

Kubiak is a fit for Cousins’s personality. The Vikings’ starter has deep knowledge of the game and prefers to have a dialogue about what happened on the field rather than being told he was right or wrong.

Former Koobs QB Gus Frerotte, who played for the Broncos in 2000 and 2001, said that simply understanding the difficulty of the tasks at hand gives Kubiak a leg up in teaching his QBs.

“Sometimes an offensive coach is so smart and they understand their scheme and what they’re running so well, they say, ‘OK we’re getting cover-3, the ball should be here’ and then when it doesn’t go there and the coach is saying, ‘why didn’t it go there, it shoulda went there, this play is designed exactly written down and made for.’  Instead of saying, ‘What did you see, why didn’t you throw it?'” Frerotte said. “I think sometimes coordinators get caught up in saying, ‘this is the perfect throw,’ and I don’t think Kubiak ever got caught up in that much and understood the mental side of it, that if something scared you off the first or second read, let’s get to the check down. He understood that mindset more.”

His demeanor matters. Who knows where it came from, but Kubiak has always had a calmness that can only exist in a man from Texas. In a playoff game in 1992, Elway led a potential game-winning drive against the Houston Oilers, going from the 2-yard line to field goal position. On a torn up field, the snap on the attempt was in the dirt. Kubiak, the holder, scooped it up smoothly, put the ball perfectly in place and the Broncos won 26-24. You never see him snap on the sideline and he’d be gosh darned before allowing a reporter to get him to flinch at a tough question.

When it comes to gameday, Beuerlein said the patented Kubiak coolness is invaluable.

“Gary’s not going to blow a gasket and jump on your butt and say, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ He’s going to come over and say, ‘what did you see?” …To have him understand and see it from your perspective was huge,” Beuerlein said. “You can’t sit there and explain that stuff. You don’t have time to sit there and say, ‘coach, what happened was…’ And you just move on and that’s one of the greatest qualities that he has is that you just move on and what are we going to do now, what’s the next play? The next day when you look at the film you realize that maybe you made a mistake but he’s not going to berate you and prolong the correction, he’s going to slap you on the butt and say, ‘let’s move on, let’s go to the next play.'”

Wade Phillips, who coached Kubiak as a player and eventually worked for him in Houston and Denver as a defensive coordinator, said that the qualities that have made the ex-Bronco QB2 a winning coach were clear even when he was behind Elway.

“When he played he was the backup quarterback but he was a leader,” Phillips said. “Then when he got into coaching he really excelled at that. I was lucky to coach for him.”

There will be times in 2020 in which Kubiak’s nature is necessary. With the Coronavirus outbreak bringing all major sports to a halt, we may not see the league have any Organized Team Activities or minicamps, which will inevitably lead to a rushed offensive install. The Vikings could very well have a new No. 2 receiver in free agent Tajae Sharpe or they could select a top receiver in the draft. Either way, teachable moments will be required. They will also be relying heavily on ’19 rookies Garrett Bradbury and Irv Smith to take significant steps forward.

And per chance if Dalvin Cook doesn’t agree to a contract extension and holds out, there will be another challenge to face. The Vikings need someone who’s been through this circus before.

“The one thing you see with Gary is that he’s very even-keeled,” Spielman said at the Combine. “Whether the adversity is up or down, he stays like this … and I think the players feed off that level of — I don’t want to call it calmness — but that level of security. I think no matter what’s going on on the field, when they see him like that, that just gives the players the confidence.”

Sometimes in the NFL the importance of managing personalities gets lost in the pressure, the scheme, the scouting, the grind. Coaches like Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick are perceived as being all-time hard-asses whose military style molds their team into a winning bunch. What might be more at work is the trick of having a group of players who want to see their coach succeed.

Rosenfels explained:

“The people business aspect of the NFL is understated and I think it’s one of the reasons everyone likes Gary Kubiak,” he said. “You just can’t find somebody who doesn’t like him and a lot of times those guys have success but they also coach for a long, long time and their teams consistently do well because he’s a guy that you want to play for.

“My second or third year in Houston we had nothing to play for at the end of the season, we were like 8-7 and we went and played the Bears one year and they needed the win to go to the playoffs and we beat them. We had nothing to play for but we were playing for the coach. We knew it was important for Kubiak to have a .500 or above record and it meant something to us. If it’s coach that you don’t like at all you say heck with it and you end up 7-9 and a negative feel to the end of the season.”

In an upcoming season in which the Vikings could be on the bubble with all the roster adjustments, and the difference between 7-9 and 9-7 could mean a playoff spot and all the ramifications that come along with that. They will need Koobs to keep it all together.

The scheme 

Gary Kubiak sets up his explosive passing game with a complex run attack. Photo credit: USA Today

There have been plenty of nice guys in the NFL who finished last.

Kubiak’s extended success may start with his personality but it’s driven home by his scheme. Over 23 years as a head coach or OC, his offenses have finished outside of the top 12 in scoring just six times — and one of those years he won the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning.

One thing Zimmer long admired about the style, which stemmed from Bill Walsh to Mike Shanahan to Kubiak — and now to up-and-coming coaches like Stefanski, Matt LeFleur and Kyle Shanahan — is that the run game sets up explosive play opportunities.

Zimmer has been called “old school” for wanting to be a run-first offense but he explained several times last year that the goal was to enhance play-action plays. In ’19, Cousins was sixth in the NFL in play-action percentage, per PFF, and posted an outrageous 129.2 quarterback rating when using a play-fake.

Beuerlein explained how the run and pass are married together.

“The focus is on making sure a defense is playing honest,” Beuerlein said. “If they over commit to stopping a certain aspect of your run game, Gary has an answer.”

In recent years the NFL has noticeably shifted toward more passing plays. Last year 21 teams passed at least 58% of the time. In 2010, only 10 teams threw the ball that often and in 2003 only five teams exceeded the 58% mark. But the Vikings passed on just 51.7% of plays in 2019 and they used more multiple tight end and two running back sets than everyone outside of the 49ers and Ravens.

“Gary will run the ball. Some of these offensive gurus are pass-only,” Phillips quipped.

As it turned out, there was value in being different, even if it was in an old school way. Opponents whose base defense usually included three cornerbacks were forced to either put in an extra linebacker or get run over by Cook.

And whether it’s the most efficient play or not doesn’t matter as much as the fact that defenses hate to be beaten in the ground game. Kubiak’s coaching staff will have eyes on the gaps that are being created by opponents’ commitment to stopping the run.

“Whether it’s the safety coming down too early in run support, whether it’s the backers flowing too hard on the stretch zone play, whether it’s the backside defensive end crashing down trying to run that play down from behind, Gary has an answer and he’s got his coaches up in the box watching these different things,” Beuerlein said. “These guys are assigned different responsibilities. ‘Let me know if that defensive end is consistently chasing this thing down from behind, let me know if that safety is getting a little bit nosy, if you see something let me know and we have to come back and take advantage of that.'”

Where the Vikings saw immense success was on deep crossing routes, which Cousins excelled in throwing accurately. NFLNextGen Stats showed a diagram of Cousins’s touchdown pass to Adam Thielen, which put all the elements of deep crossers and play-action into play.

“There’s a lot of different routes that look very similar to a safety and the safety will be convinced he’s running a crossing route and then he plants and goes back the other way and the ball is going to the opposite side of the field to where the guy thought it was going to go,” Beuerlein said. “Gary is taking note of all of that stuff. How are they reacting to this formation or this motion, how are they adjusting to that and how does it set things up later on down the game. Those kind of things make him one of the very best.”

The long-proven scheme hasn’t worked for everyone who has ever tried to implement a Shanahan or Kubiak style offense. Of course, the Jimmy’s and Joe’s (as opposed to X’s and O’s) are most important but the demeanor of the play caller matters. Beuerlein says Kubiak’s patience comes into play here as well.

“Really the key to being a successful play caller and offensive coordinator is patience and understanding how to set up plays and when to call them and not spending all your money too early. Saving a few of your big, big shot plays…for the right time late in the ballgame,” Beuerlein said. “The worst thing you can do is use up all the plays you’re really excited about in the first three quarters and then you don’t have anything to go to at the end of the game. All these great offenses, you think it’s the quarterback, you think it’s the receiver but it really comes down to the coordinator having the right play call at the right time. Gary, I always really respected that quality in him, that he would save some of his ammunition for late in the ballgame and when you need that big home run play or dagger play to close out a game, he always has something saved up and ready to go.”

Without Stefon Diggs on the roster, there will be little room for error with Kubiak’s scheme and play calling. But it won’t be the first time he’s been dialing up an offense with only one high quality receiver. In 2012, Houston’s offense ranked eighth in points and seventh in yards while throwing 162 times to Andre Johnson and targeted the next highest receiver just 68 times. The 2014 Ravens had a fairly similar split with the top receiver Steve Smith pulling in 78 passes and the next highest receiver in catches nabbed 48 passes.

Kubiak’s scheme and play calling will have to keep it all together.

The teacher

Kubiak said watching players grow and succeed has driven him to keep coaching. Photo credit: USA Today

Kubiak needed a few days to think about whether he wanted to be an offensive coordinator again. Zimmer offered him the job almost immediately after Stefanski left for Cleveland but the football lifer had to consider the commitment, the stress, the hours and the pressure that comes along with an OC gig.

Ultimately he agreed to become the Vikings’ OC — not because there’s one finger left without a ring but because he’s a people person. He said that 2019 was a good experience simply because of the players he was given to work with.

“I think we’re all in this business because we enjoy teaching, we enjoy taking a player out of college, watching him grow, watching him become Pro Bowl player, those type of things,” Kubiak said. “That’s what motivates me. I get excited when I see Kirk (Cousins) play well, see Dalvin (Cook) play well, see our offensive line play well. All those things keep me going, so that’s what motivates me each and every day.”

He will also have more chances to pass on his knowledge and teach the next generation of coaches like his son Klint, the QB coach, and recently promoted receivers coach Andrew Janocko, who is entering his eighth season in the NFL.

I just try to be a sponge,” Janocko said. “How he deals with people. How he teaches. His style of teaching. I really think that’s one of the biggest things besides the X’s and O’s that you can spend time with somebody like that has success and just try to emulate the way he teaches and the way he goes about being with the players every day, being with the coaches in the meeting rooms so everybody’s on the same page.”

If any team needs to find a way to get on the same page, it’s the Vikings. That’s what Gary does best.

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