Monday, January 14, 2019

How might Gary Kubiak help the Vikings' offense?


The Vikings are reportedly hiring veteran coach Gary Kubiak, according to reports. Daniel House analyzes Kubiak's fit and other staffing decisions. 

Entering the offseason, it was clear the Vikings wanted to add experience and innovation to the offensive side of the ball. In 2018, the offense didn't have an identity, particularly when it came to their running game concepts. On Monday, the Vikings reportedly hired former head coach Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach/offensive advisor, according to Adam Schefter. Kubiak spent ten seasons as head coach of the Texans and Broncos, winning a Super Bowl in 2016 with Denver. The veteran coach had interest from at least four teams for coordinating positions. 

One of the key areas where Kubiak can help the Vikings’ offense is through the development of running game concepts. Kubiak has a track record of producing successful zone-blocking systems at numerous stops. He was also heavily influenced by Mike Shanahan and helped orchestrate his offense for 11 seasons in Denver. Kubiak called plays and laid the foundation for a large portion of Shanahan’s West Coast system. He is a true disciple of thezone-blocking scheme that was popularized by Alex Gibbs and Mike Shanahan. It’s also worth noting the impact Shanahan had on current Vikings’ quarterback Kirk Cousins for two seasons in Washington. He played a major role in Cousins’ development and ran a system that maximized his strengths. When Cousins has been at his best, it’s come within an offense that suits his skills. Kubiak has been widely known for his ability to develop highly productive play-action looks. 

In other words, Kubiak has extensive experience in the type of offensive concepts the Vikings want to bolster. He also was extremely productive at helping Peyton Manning use play-action and boots to get him outside of the pocket. When Manning was older, this was a necessary adaptation to make him the most effective. After watching Kirk Cousins’ pocket movement this year, getting him outside the pocket by design, may be important. The Vikings need to blend in more outside zone, deigned roll-outs and play-action to take advantage of his strengths.

The good news: these are all principles Kubiak has used in the past. Just go back and check out Denver’s offensive approach during the Super Bowl 50 run. Getting the ball out quick, moving him by design and using play-action were all core foundations. It’s one of the reasons why Peyton Manning, a 39-year-old quarterback with limited mobility, had success. Kubiak managed to play to the strengths of his players, rather than trying to do something they aren’t good at. Manning used play-action at a 19 percent clip in 2015, which ranked No. 13 among NFL teams, according to Football Outsiders. The Vikings will likely use plenty of play-action because it’s something Kirk Cousins does well. Prior to arriving in Minnesota, Cousins ranked top-three league wide in play-action passing during a three-year span, according to Football Outsiders.

However, at the end of the day, Kubiak’s largest impact will likely be in blocking schemes. All season, it felt like Minnesota lost the ability to capitalize upon the skill sets featured on the offensive line. Mike Zimmer echoed this opinion in his season-ending press conference and indicated the Minnesota offense needed to be more innovative in the running game.

“Quite honestly, the death of Tony Sparano really kind of threw things into a little bit of a downward spiral, only because the fact that this guy was type-A personality,” Zimmer said in his season-ending press conference. “He was very innovative in the running game, had a strong voice in that room and had a strong voice with me. Yes, I do feel like we lost a little bit of our identity. We are going to get that back.”

Sparano’s impact revolved particularly around the running game and usage of zone concepts. Following the tragic loss of Sparano, the Vikings were missing an important voice and mind on offense. His past experience coaching the offensive line, serving as an offensive coordinator and being a head coach, played a big role in the Vikings’ offensive gameplan.

It’s clear the Vikings were searching for another offensive coach who had a similarly diverse background. They needed a person who could be a bridge between head coach Mike Zimmer and the offense. Kubiak’s familiarity in Bill Walsh and Mike Shanahan’s systems will be very valuable. It also won’t hurt to have another coach with previous head coaching experience in the building.

He can place his fingertips on many of the schematic adjustments the Vikings make offensively. The zone-blocking system values athletes and Minnesota has several players who fit this mold. In 2017, the Vikings’ coaches did an excellent job of getting their linemen in space to take advantage of this. They used a heavy dose of outside zone blocking and got their playmakers to the edge. With the athletic profiles of players like center Pat Elflein and tackle Brian O’Neill, this type of blocking scheme is a nice fit when it’s deployed correctly. Not only that, but the explosiveness of Dalvin Cook suits a blocking scheme that gets him in space.

Of course, the staff can choose to make adaptions regarding how they approach the blocking schemes. However, that’s the perfect reason why adding a coach with such diverse influences makes sense. Schematic adjustments and different perspectives are needed to succeed in the NFL.

In addition, Kevin Stefanski was hired as the permanent offensive coordinator last week, but has limited experience calling plays. Kubiak can mentor Stefanski and help him adjust to the demands of being an offensive coordinator. His experience on offense may also help the delegation of responsibilities on this side of the ball. It felt like this veteran presence was lost, following the unexpected passing of Tony Sparano. When John DeFilippo was hired, he had limited experience as a play-caller. Sparano would have surely been a positive mentor to DeFilippo, but unfortunately, things were sent in a spiral before the season began. Now, the Vikings hired a coach that can influence Stefanski and leave a mark on an area the team would like to improve – the blocking concepts.

Finally, Kubiak’s skills as a player evaluator may be helpful when the Vikings are searching for talent offensively. He shifted into a personnel advisor role in Denver and has a lengthy track record of player identification and development. As the Vikings enter a pivotal offseason, they could use Kubiak’s mind to add offensive talent.

Besides hiring Gary Kubiak, the Vikings’ are reportedly adding his son, Klint to coach the quarterbacks, according to Adam Schefter. Klint Kubiak was an assistant wide receivers coach in 2013-14 for the Vikings. During this time, he worked closely with Kevin Stefanski, who was elevating through the organization. Now, Stefanski and Kubiak will reunite in primary roles within the Minnesota offensive staff. The addition of Gary Kubiak helps tie everything together and provides a veteran presence/voice in the offensive room. Gary actually once wanted to bring Stefanski to Denver, according to Adam Schefter. The Kubiaks also have familiarity with both of the Vikings' backup quarterbacks, including Trevor Siemian and Kyle Sloter, former Denver quarterbacks. Siemian is a free agent, but might become a priority with the new coaches entering Minnesota.

The team is rumored to be exploring the acquisition of tight ends coach Brian Pariani, according to the Star Tribune’s Mark Craig. He spent all but one season with Gary Kubiak during his head coaching stints. He has more than 20 years of experience developing tight ends, dating back to the Mike Shanahan era in Denver. This is a position the Vikings may be looking to upgrade in the offseason, too.

In addition to Pariani, offensive line coach Rick Dennison may be joining the staff, per Sirius XM’s Alex Marvez. Dennison has a track record as an offensive coordinator, offensive line coach and run game coordinator. Most recently, Dennison was the offensive line/running game coordinator for the New York Jets. If this move happens, between Kubiak and Dennison, the Vikings will be adding a combined 22 years of coordinating experience in the building.

Dennison was an offensive coordinator during Kubiak's Super Bowl run in Denver. He has been known for his inside/outside zone blocking influences -- schemes the Vikings may heavily use with their personnel. His track record was less impressive in Denver, but it’s easier to project fit, rather than overall ability to succeed. There are so many variables at play such as scheme adaptions, influences from the offensive coordinator and the personnel you have to work with. Denver allowed the tenth-most sacks in 2015, but averaged 4.2 yards per carry (seventh-best mark). In his most recent stop, the Jets allowed the ninth-fewest sacks and finished in the bottom-tier of rushing attacks. 

What’s clear is the fact Minnesota wanted to gain more experience on offense, while emphasizing coaches with backgrounds in zone blocking concepts. When considering the coaches’ past styles, it’s apparent the Vikings are looking for coaches that can maximize the strengths of their roster. More importantly, the coaches align with Mike Zimmer's mentality of physical running and quick-hitting passing. 

*I’ll have more on these potential additions in upcoming articles, but these are a few initial thoughts that come to mind.*

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