“You were guessing! You were guessing!”
That’s the sound of Rick Dennison coaching up his new pupils at Minnesota Vikings OTAs.
Dennison, a former engineer, doesn’t stand for guesswork.
“Stay closed with your feet!” he says as he hovers near one of the guards, mimicking the correct action.
The new offensive line coach has been charged with remodeling a young group of blockers around his zone scheme and possibly bringing renewed stability to a unit that tragically lost its leader last July when Tony Sparano passed away due to heart disease.
It’s Dennison’s 25th year as a coach, marking a quarter century in the profession.
The man who taught him much of what he knows has more than double that.
Dennison played linebacker for the Denver Broncos from 1982-90, where he first encountered Alex Gibbs. At that point, Gibbs was already a coaching institution having worked at the college level for nearly two decades before beginning to make his mark on the pro game. Gibbs was the Broncos offensive line coach from 1984-87, his first venture into the NFL.
He wasn’t coaching Dennison directly just yet — that would come later. Instead, he would reward the young linebacker when he splashed in practice and provided teachable moments for his offensive linemen. “He used to give Atta Boy t-shirts,” said Dennison, “so if you gave him a good look on scout team, and I was a linebacker, I got an Atta Boy t-shirt from him once.”
This gesture fit Gibbs well — finding a way to put a chip on his line’s shoulder by incentivizing their opponent.
The old-school coach rarely spoke to reporters during his coaching days but gave a small media contingent several hours of time before Super Bowl XXXIII, an eventual Broncos win, during his second stint as the team’s offensive line coach.
From reporter Adam Schefter: “Gibbs teaches in unconventional but memorable ways. He invites his offensive linemen to his house for dinner, where he is an avid barbecuer, then chews them out the next morning for being overweight. He chews them out anyway whenever he thinks their heads are swelling, which is one reason he likes overachieving, undrafted free agents a lot better than first-round draft picks. He inspires them to play better than they ever could, but never praises them.”
Gibbs first left the Broncos in 1987 and made stops with the Raiders, Chargers, Colts and Chiefs before making his return to Denver in 1995 — coinciding with the arrival of Gary Kubiak, who called his old pal and teammate Dennison to join the staff. In his post-playing career, Dennison had dabbled in material engineering, then coached football and taught at a Connecticut prep school. He eagerly returned to football, however, when Kubiak came calling.
But he was about to get a crash course in coaching from Gibbs. Dennison was named the Broncos new quality control coach, putting him to work for various operations, especially Gibbs’. The offensive line coach became a “24-hour-a-day information channel,” as Dennison described it.
“When I started working for him, he would start at 4:30 in the morning in camp,” Dennison said. “It was all day. ‘This is what we’re going to do in individuals, this is why we’re doing it. This is the game plan. We’re working this guy. We’re gonna try and work this. This is why we’re doing this.’ It was just all the little minute details that we needed to do to get these guys ready.”
Changing of the guard
Dennison got promoted to special teams coordinator from 1997-2000 while the Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls. That’s when head coach Mike Shanahan approached him about reconnecting with Gibbs in the offensive line room.
“Mike approached and said he wanted me to hang out with Alex more because Alex was talking about retiring for the first time,” Dennison recalled. “He thought that I would be a good choice to take over, and I didn’t believe it.”
Dennison became a sponge, soaking up every offensive line meeting while still performing his special teams duties and paying attention to Gibbs’ demanding coaching style. Dennison took the reins in 2001 when Gibbs stepped aside — sort of. He stayed on as an offensive line consultant, a role he’s reprised several times over the last decade and a half with several franchises.
Through the veteran coach, Dennison learned to craft game-like drills. Sometimes he would invent new ones to meet the needs of a specific player, like in 2002 for University of Minnesota draftee Ben Hamilton, who went on to start over 100 games for the Broncos.
“He had a hard time in his rookie year,” Dennison said. “He was in space, and he missed a couple times, so we’re gonna set up a drill for space. I just used it this year.
“Center or guard or tackle, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got three yards. How am I going to reduce that space as fast as I can to block a guy in the area? So we set it up, and all our guys had to go through it, ‘Close this space as fast as you can, get your hands out as fast as you can and get your feet down.’ So we worked on that drill, and sure enough it made Benny better.”
That nuanced approach to coaching has already made an impression on the Vikings. Second-year tackle Brian O’Neill said that Dennison never uses empty words. He gears his instructions for each player specifically.
“It’s not a generic thing,” he said. “It’s more personal with each person.”
Dennison, of course, took plenty of schematic notes on the now widely-used zone blocking scheme that was cutting edge at the time under Gibbs. In a nutshell, it requires linemen to cover a specific area to open up cut-back lanes for running backs. Once blockers handle their first assignment at the line of scrimmage, often a double-team block, they’ll be asked to get to the second level. Gibbs made the strategy what it is today, in the estimation of many football historians, though he takes no credit.
“I steal everything I’ve ever used,” Gibbs admitted in Schefter’s feature back in 1999. “I’ve never invented anything. I’ve never developed a play. I’ve never developed an offense. I’ve stolen everything I’ve gotten from players and coaches and film. Everything. I have never, ever invented a thing. All I do that’s a little special is I teach different than other people teach. And that’s what we are, we’re teachers.”
And Dennison is comfortable in that teaching role, having done it in his pre-coaching years. His communication style may be different than Gibbs but not his expectations. He may raise his voice but always stays in control.
“I feel like he’s an elite guy, and everyone’s buying in. We really like playing for him,” said Pat Elflein, who’s transitioning from center to guard this season. “[Communication is] very clear, very honest, and there’s really no gray area. He makes everything very clear, which as a player is nice because then you can just play. You don’t have to think.”
Rookie Dru Samia contrasted Dennison’s approach to that of his Oklahoma offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
“Coach B at Oklahoma had a very stressed out attitude,” Samia joked, “whereas here it’s just go about your business. Everyone’s a grown adult, everyone’s ready to go.”
At Denver, Dennison and Kubiak started tinkering with the zone scheme. Its evolution continued in their subsequent stops with the Texans, Ravens and Broncos (again). Dennison then had two stints on his own with the Bills and Jets.
As Gibbs’ tactics have become mainstream, it’s gotten necessary for teams to start disguising looks that were once unique but are now commonplace.
“One of the strengths of Alex was he never wanted to change anything,” said Dennison. “And sometimes you do need to make some changes, and Mike [Shanahan] was always pushing for, ‘Well, that’s great we know how to do that, but let’s make it look a little bit different, and how to do that without really changing what we do.’
“We can change the verbiage, change how we make it look like the defense, but we’re repeating an activity.”
Most recently, Gibbs, now 78, has taken his knowledge to the New Orleans Saints. With his help, they finished top seven in rushing yards each of the last two years while leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Gibbs also trains draft prospects from his home in Phoenix in between mountain hikes, and Dennison says he calls Gibbs from time to time to see if he’s worked with any good zone scheme matches during the offseason.
“I’ll call him every once in a while and pick his brains,” said Dennison. “‘Did you work with anybody? Who do you like? Who fits what we like to do?’ He’s always been really good about that.”
Dennison’s task with the Vikings is clear: Get an offensive line that struggled last year up to speed on a new scheme with new terminology, and get them to perform on Sundays. He’s been given three impressionable starters in Elflein, O’Neill and first-round pick Garrett Bradbury, who have three combined years of NFL experience.
There is lots to learn, and plenty of teaching to do.
“You can tell he’s like a professor out there,” said Zimmer. “All the little intricacies of offensive line play. I think it’s been outstanding.”