The Vikings’ search for a new offensive coordinator ended with them giving play-calling duties to the man coach Mike Zimmer has called “the best thing that’s ever happened to me” in Minnesota.
In a widely expected move, the team is making assistant head coach Gary Kubiak its new offensive coordinator, according to an NFL source. Kubiak replaces Kevin Stefanski, who became the Browns head coach last week. Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl title as Broncos head coach after the 2015 season, will be an offensive coordinator for the third time in his career after holding the title in Denver from 1995-05 and Baltimore in 2014.
The Vikings brought Kubiak to Minnesota before the 2019 season, making his son, Klint, the quarterbacks coach and two of his longtime assistants — Rick Dennison and Brian Pariani — the offensive line and tight ends coaches, respectively. The team revamped its offense around many of the principles Kubiak had used during his career, putting Kirk Cousins under center for 70% of his snaps and employing heavier personnel groups to facilitate Kubiak’s outside zone running scheme.
The Vikings finished eighth in the league in points (407) and 16th in yards (5,656, after landing 19th and 20th in those categories the year before), and Cousins posted the best numbers of his career while thriving off downfield throws after play-action.
Kubiak stayed behind the scenes during the 2019 season, largely declining interview requests, but with the Vikings at 7-3 before they faced the Broncos in November, Zimmer told about how much of a benefit Kubiak had been to him.
“I love the way his offense is, the way the scheme is, the things that he’s seen over the years running the offense,” Zimmer said at that time. “Gary told me when he came, one of the things that was important for him was, he wants to keep the offense moving that way. For him to be able to come in and mentor a young coordinator was really important. To me, that’s about talking about your particular scheme and making sure that carries on in the future. I think that part was as important to me as anything.”
After Stefanski left, Zimmer said he wanted the Vikings’ offensive scheme to remain the same as it had been in 2019, and retaining Kubiak should give the Vikings some of the continuity they’ve lacked on offense. He will be their fifth offensive coordinator since Zimmer became head coach in 2014, but his promotion should represent the first time the Vikings have kept the same scheme and terminology while switching coordinators.
But while Kubiak gives the Vikings’ scheme some continuity, his latest turn as an NFL play-caller will come with some big decisions.
Until the final minutes of their 27-10 playoff loss to the 49ers, the Vikings had only four first downs, threatening a postseason record for fewest first downs in a game since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Making things easier for Cousins — who was pressured more often than all but seven quarterbacks in the league — and running back Dalvin Cook could require the Vikings to resume what’s become an annual exercise of attempting to upgrade their offensive line.
Cousins has one year left on the three-year, $84 million deal he signed before the 2018 season; he’s scheduled to hit free agency at the same time as Cook, who posted 1,654 yards from scrimmage (1,135 rushing) in 14 games this season. Wide receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs also will have a new position coach, after a source said receivers coach Drew Petzing will not return next season.
The Vikings’ commitment to a run-heavy offense — after Zimmer clashed with former coordinator John DeFilippo in 2018 over how rarely the team ran the ball — should continue in 2020, however. They’ll see if the approach can lead them closer to the game Kubiak has won four times (three as an assistant) in his career: the Super Bowl.
“I know that I appreciate him greatly,” Thielen said of Kubiak the day after the Vikings’ loss to the 49ers. “He impacted me and made me a better person and player this year for sure. I’m thankful for him and really that entire coaching staff.”