We don’t know whether Gary Kubiak will return as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator next season — Mike Zimmer said Kubiak has yet to make that decision — but the Vikings coach made one thing clear on Tuesday at his season-ending press conference. He is happy with what he saw from the team’s offense during a disappointing 7-9 season, and that means we shouldn’t expect any significant changes in scheme, even if Kubiak isn’t back.
“He’s taking some time to mentally think about the season and where he’s at health-wise and he’ll decide what he wants to do,” Zimmer said.
Kubiak’s future was a hot topic after Pro Football Talk reported Monday that he planned to retire, while Tom Pelissero of NFL Network said that Kubiak is “leaning towards retirement.” Those reports caused plenty of speculation about who might be Zimmer’s sixth offensive coordinator in six years.
This revolving door has existed for a few reasons. Norv Turner, hired as Zimmer’s first OC in 2014, resigned abruptly in 2016. We still don’t know the whole story on that one. Turner’s replacement, Pat Shurmur, held the job through 2017 but departed after the Vikings went 13-3 and Shurmur was hired as coach of the New York Giants. John DeFilippo was hired away from the Eagles, who had beaten up on the Vikings in the 2017 NFC title game, but he didn’t last the entire season before Zimmer decided he didn’t like DeFilippo’s obsession with the forward pass.
That led to Kevin Stefanski, a longtime Vikings assistant, being elevated to the OC job. Stefanski was paired with Kubiak, who was hired in 2019 as an offensive advisor and assistant head coach, but it was Stefanski who called the plays. The Vikings made it to the second round of the playoffs and Stefanski was hired as coach of the Cleveland Browns.
Zimmer asked Kubiak to take over the play-calling duties last offseason. Kubiak had to give it some thought but accepted. He is again considering how much a 59-year-old with previous health issues wants to return for the grind of another season.
“Let me say first, I love Gary Kubiak,” Zimmer said. “He’s an unbelievable person, unbelievable coach, a great ear to me. I love sitting there talking to him. We’re both kind of the same guys. I know that he’s had some health issues in the past, so it’s always good to take some time and think about where you’re at, mentally and physically. Obviously this year was a major mental and physical drain on all of us, including the players. We’ll just see how all of that unfolds as we move forward. (He’s) the best I’ve ever been around.”
Zimmer’s words about Kubiak’s character are flattering, but from a football standpoint what Zimmer said in his opening remarks about the Vikings’ offense was the most important thing when it comes to his desire to have Kubiak return. “For the first time in my seven years, I thought we had a very, very explosive offense,” Zimmer said. “We’ve got a lot of good players over there.”
The Vikings do have some top-level skill position players, including running back Dalvin Cook, wide receivers Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and quarterback Kirk Cousins rebounded from a rocky start to have a very solid second half of the season. The Vikings finished fourth in the NFL in total offense and 11th in points, their third-highest finish in that category under Zimmer (10th in 2017 and eighth in 2019).
But anyone who watched this offense on a weekly basis certainly took note of some of the shortcomings. For instance, Jefferson, whom the Vikings selected with their opening pick in the first round, had seven games in which he was targeted five or fewer times. This is a star player who established a record for rookie receiving yards in the Super Bowl era. How could Kubiak (and Zimmer) have involved Jefferson more? How about taking deep shots to him on second-and-short, when the Vikings’ overwhelming tendency was to run the ball. It was maddening to watch given the potential of the player and the situation.
It also wasn’t a complete surprise considering how much Zimmer wants his play-caller to rely on the run. (Establishing the running game keeps Zimmer’s defense rested.)
Cook missed two games but still finished second in the league with 356 touches. He had 312 rushing attempts, which was the fifth-most in a single season by a Vikings running back. Adrian Peterson holds spots one through four but he played in all 16 games each season. Cook’s 22.3 rushing attempts per game, trail only the 22.7 that Peterson had in 2008. The Vikings were eighth in the NFL with 468 rushing attempts and 27th with 516 pass attempts.
This is Zim Ball and given the fact DeFilippo got fired for not adhering to Zimmer’s offensive philosophy, the guess here is, if Kubiak does depart, he will be replaced by a guy who won’t deviate from the expected.
“Let’s not deal with what-ifs yet,” Zimmer said when asked about the possibility of having a new coordinator. “Let’s wait and see what happens, then we can figure all that stuff out. But I will say this: I love the scheme that we’re running offensively, I love the wide zone offense, I love the play-action passes. All those things. A coach told me one time that your offense should be what your quarterback is best at. And that’s what I feel Kirk is best at. Those kinds of things are what makes him really good. So to me, that is really important.”
Considering how much Zimmer likes Kubiak, and how tired he must be of changing play-callers, one has to wonder if Kubiak hasn’t been offered the opportunity of returning to his advisor role and having his son, Klint Kubiak, take over as the offensive coordinator. Klint arrived in Minnesota with his father in 2019 and has been the quarterbacks coach the past two years. He also was a quality control and assistant wide receivers coach for the Vikings in 2013-14. Kubiak will turn 34 next month and while he has no experience as a coordinator, promoting him might give Zimmer the best chance of keeping his pal Gary around.
It also would give Zimmer the one thing he wants the most. An offensive coordinator who isn’t going to abandon the run game.