The job he had long aspired to with the Vikings, the one for which he would been passed over a year ago, was finally his. And shortly after Kevin Stefanski filled out his first staff as the team’s permanent offensive coordinator, one of his first moves was to give away a piece of his newly acquired influence.
The Vikings had added Gary Kubiak as an assistant head coach at Stefanski’s behest, bringing the former Super Bowl-winning head coach onto their offensive staff. They also hired Kubiak’s son, Klint, and two of his longtime assistants in a series of moves that quickly signaled how significantly Kubiak would shape the team’s latest offensive overhaul.
Rather than forcing the Kubiaks, offensive line coach Rick Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani to adopt the terminology that had become familiar to him, Stefanski told the group he would learn the offensive language they’d used for years together. It was easier, he reasoned, for one person to adjust to four people than the other way around. It didn’t matter that the person laying down his preference was also the one who ultimately would call the shots.
“That tells you who Kevin is. I don’t even know what words to describe it,” Gary Kubiak said. “It tells you why he’s going to get to the top and have a chance to be such a hell of a head coach in this league. Really, it was an unselfishness on his part. He could have come in here and bullhorned us into what we’re doing. He said, ‘No — let’s talk your language. I can catch up.’ I expected that, because of what I knew about him.”
The collaboration on which the Vikings are staking their 2019 offense — and, quite possibly, the status of their current regime — is a partnership born of mutual admiration: Stefanski loved the West Coast schemes Gary Kubiak ran with Matt Schaub and Arian Foster in Houston, while Klint Kubiak’s time at Stefanski’s side (as a Vikings quality control coach from 2014-15) led the elder Kubiak to keep Stefanski’s name in his Rolodex of young coaching talent. They’d entertained ideas of working together over the years, and when head coach Mike Zimmer removed the interim tag from Stefanski’s offensive coordinator title in January, it created the ideal situation for Gary Kubiak — who had been looking for a path back into coaching after two years in the Broncos’ front office — to return.
“I’ve called exactly three games in this league, so I don’t feel like I’ve figured this whole thing out.”
“I know he was so fired up to get this opportunity,” Klint Kubiak, now the Vikings’ quarterbacks coach, said of his father. “It’s who he is, and he’s darn good at it. This is the perfect scenario for him.”
There seems, at least for now, little about the partnership that would evoke the friction of 2016 (when the Vikings added Pat Shurmur and Tony Sparano to a staff that Norv Turner left at midseason) or the creative dissonance of 2018 (where Zimmer fired John DeFilippo after 13 games). Stefanski forged a close relationship with Klint Kubiak in their first stint together, and the elder Kubiak seems content as a mentor to Stefanski who will provide a wizened perspective during the week before posting up in the press box on Sundays.
The tension that has marked many of the Vikings’ recent offensive staffs, the team hopes, has been replaced by a consortium of like-minded coaches.
“I think it goes back to having a healthy respect,” Stefanski said. “I feel so strong about these people and these coaches, when we have conversations in that room, we are able to dig pretty deep and have discussions and have disagreements at times. I think it goes back to, we all have a healthy respect for each other. Ultimately, it’s my job to make sure what we do is in the absolute best interest of the Minnesota Vikings, and I feel comfortable doing that, because I feel really comfortable with the people around the table.”
Working his way up
Stefanski was among the holdovers from Leslie Frazier’s coaching staff to join Zimmer’s first staff in 2014. After Turner hired Klint Kubiak, Stefanski — who first came to Minnesota as Brad Childress’ assistant in 2006 — was responsible for getting the new quality control coach up to speed.
“His job was to teach me their system,” Klint Kubiak said, “so I could do all the grunt work: break down the film, draw the playbooks. It’s not a very fun job, having done it before and needing to train someone else. But he took the time to explain concepts to me.
‘‘He didn’t have to spend that time; he could have said, ‘Here’s the playbook. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ ”
The two coaches — who’d both tagged along with their fathers in professional sports, grown up around brothers and played defensive back for Jesuit high schools — became fast friends. They stayed in touch after Klint Kubiak became Kansas’ wide receivers coach, and then went to work with Gary in Denver.
“I wanted to be just like him,” Klint Kubiak said.
It didn’t take long for the younger Kubiak’s admiration for Stefanski to reach his father.
“Nowadays, you don’t see coaches take the path that he’s had,” Gary Kubiak said. “That used to be the old path: you start at the bottom, and you bang-bang-bang-bang-bang, and you get there … I just think it’s the way things are nowadays; a lot of guys are hired assuming what they’re going to be in a couple of years — which, that’s great. But Kevin has really come up the way guys like myself did. It’s going to be good for him in the long haul.”
The elder Kubiak — who spent his playing career as John Elway’s backup before coaching Steve Young, Elway and Peyton Manning, among others — spends much of his time with his son coaching the Vikings’ quarterbacks. He stands behind them in practices, teaching as often as not by asking questions.
“He’s just saying, ‘Hey, tell me why you worked that side,’ or, ‘What were your feet telling you there?’ ” Cousins said. “It’s always good to make you think.”
When he’s with Stefanski, Gary Kubiak is often on the receiving end of the questions.
“There’s no better sounding board for anybody,” Stefanski said. “He’s probably sick of me walking into his office saying, ‘Hey, have you done this before?’ It just is so cool to have a guy that has been through the ringer as a play-caller, as a head coach, as a quarterback. That resource, for me, is incredible.
“I’ve called exactly three games in this league, so I don’t feel like I’ve figured this whole thing out. That’s where I love to have some really strong, smart people on the headset with me.”
Though Stefanski’s relationship with the Kubiaks helped solidify the framework of the Vikings’ new-look staff, there’s another obvious stakeholder in the whole process. That would be Cousins, who broke into the NFL playing for Gary Kubiak’s old boss (Mike Shanahan) and burnished his reputation working with Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay in a system that shares plenty of tenets with what the Vikings figure to run in 2019.
Both Stefanski and Cousins said there’s enough novelty in the Vikings’ playbook that no one — the quarterback included — could have come in on the first day of the team’s spring program and run it without prior study time. But some of its core concepts (an outside zone running scheme, more play-action throws, two tight-end sets and increased time with the QB under center) are similar to what Cousins did in Washington.
Cousins, who posted career highs in completion percentage, touchdown passes and TD-to-interception ratio last year, redirected the narrative that the system was crafted solely to help him improve.
“You try to get the best play-caller, the best system, the best opportunity, regardless of who the quarterback is,” he said. “The reality is, if you get a really good system, a really good play-caller, who’s going to benefit? The quarterback. It has nothing to do with, ‘Oh, Kirk needs this or that.’ I had my best year last year, with a system that was brand-new. What they looked at was, ‘We were in the shotgun too many times to expect to win consistently. Let’s look at how we can get under center and run the ball more and use play action.’
“We were still effective in the shotgun; it was just a lot harder than if we had done it a different way. Look, Matt Ryan had an outstanding year last year, and they went 7-9, because they were like [27th] running the football. And Matt Ryan has been NFL MVP when they were in the top five running the football. If you run the ball and play good defense, the quarterback’s going to look pretty good. Just ask Peyton Manning in 2015, when they ran the ball and played good defense.”
The coach of that Super Bowl-winning 2015 Broncos team, of course, was Gary Kubiak. The Vikings’ efforts to get him his fifth ring as a coach will be met with myriad challenges between now and the end of the season.
Part of the reason Kubiak is here, though, is because the Vikings believe they finally have the offensive structure to overcome those challenges.
“He’s been through it,” Stefanski said. “He can tell a story from one of his Super Bowls, or he can tell a story from one of his seasons, that resonates with our players and obviously has a lot of weight, because it’s coming from him.”