Year 1 of the Kirk Cousins Era was thought to be the start of continuity, a prosperous time where the Minnesota Vikings assailable offense could develop cohesion and prosper.
Instead, the shape-shifting continued as Cousins struggled at times, the offense failed to establish a firm identity and, as a result, numerous offensive assistants were not retained after the season.
Since the Vikings couldn’t nurture continuity on their own, they decided to import it, bringing in one of the tightest coaching triumvirates in the league with assistant head coach Gary Kubiak, offensive line coach Rick Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani.
This will be the 17th year the three of them inhabit the same coaches room. As they say, the gang is back together.
“We have just done it a long time together,” said Kubiak, who spent the last two years in a scouting role after stepping down as Denver Broncos head coach due to health reasons. “We have been in a lot of battles in this league. Rick and Brian and I have probably 250-plus football games in this league coached together. And we have been around some good coaches and some good leaders and that’s helped us along the way.”
The group won two Super Bowls in the late 1990s with John Elway in Denver. Kubiak was the offensive coordinator, Dennison was the special teams coordinator and Pariani coached tight ends. Their titles have shifted around over the years, as have their cities of residence. Pariani, for instance, followed Kubiak to coaching stops in Houston, Baltimore and a second time around in Denver before reconnecting with the Vikings. Same path for Dennison.
“We can flip a switch real quick and get in a room and we are all on the same page.”
Having a tight-knit group of coaching disciples helped Kubiak fill out staffs at previous stops and get working quickly without the burden of teaching his assistants an entirely new language. In Minnesota, he’ll be working under 36-year-old Kevin Stefanski, who enters his first-ever offseason as a full-time offensive coordinator.
“I think the unique thing about us coming here with Kevin is it gives us an opportunity to do something quickly,” said Kubiak. “We can flip a switch real quick and get in a room and we are all on the same page instead of eight guys coming from different places. I think it’s helped up and running pretty quickly.”
So how did this group form?
Dennison’s playing career overlapped with Kubiak’s for eight years in Denver. While Kubiak was backing up Elway at quarterback, Dennison was an on-again-off-again starting Broncos linebacker. After football, Dennison tried his hand as an air pollution control engineer as Kubiak started rising up the coaching ranks, starting at Texas A&M as a running backs coach and then transitioning to quarterbacks coach with the San Francisco 49ers. His coordinator was Mike Shanahan.
When Shanahan took the head coaching job with the Broncos in 1995, he brought Kubiak with him, along with Pariani, who had been an offensive assistant with the 49ers. Shanahan had also been on the Broncos staff during Dennison’s playing career and gave him a shot to rejoin football.
“I started working for three or four years out of football and I missed it,” said Dennison. “I missed the game. Mike Shanahan gave me the opportunity to start back in and that’s what I did.”
The group that was united under Shanahan now continues on with Kubiak as their point man. Dennison has settled back into an offensive line role, where he spent 2001-05 with Denver, Pariani remains with tight ends, where he’s been the majority of his coaching career, and Kubiak is content in, essentially, a high-level consultant’s role to avoid the stress-inducing rigors of head coaching.
The group’s job: Inject some of the ideas that they’ve crafted over the last two-plus decades into the Vikings’ offense.
“I think the principles themselves and the values that we stand for have stayed the same, that we learned from Coach Shanahan,” said Pariani, “but different words have changed. Just like anything evolves in time.”
“as we decide what we want to be, I think it’s very helpful that everybody knows where we’re coming from.”
Dennison says the chemistry between the coaches helps them out on gameday when a week of intense studying gets condensed into a three-hour sprint to the finish line.
“As we work through [the game plan], we spend quite a few moments prior to the game thinking if we were in this situation, this is what we’re thinking about,” said Dennison. “This play gets the ball to this guy to attack this part of the defense. As you do that throughout the week, then you get into a three-hour game, it’s pretty automatic.
“[Kubiak] always asked that from the time we were in Denver all the way through each of the stops we’ve been at. He’s always asked everybody on staff. You study the game plan like you should and in those three hours there’s a transition. We have to make sure everybody is on the same page and we’re in the right play to help our players out.”
Stefanski says he views the opportunity to have Kubiak and Co. as a privilege while he continues to learn the ropes. As John DeFilippo found out last season, coordinators can have a short leash. DeFilippo lost his job after 13 games with the Vikings. He was replaced by Stefanski, who is willing to share some ownership of the offense, referring to it as “the Vikings’ offense” as opposed to his own.
“I think it’s helpful as we talk and as we have discussions there’s a history in a bunch of different ways with us,” Stefanski said of the existing relationships, “and I think it’s a shared respect too, so I think it helps as we have our conversations, and as we decide what we want to be, I think it’s very helpful that everybody knows where we’re coming from and there’s some respect across the board.”
Stefanski previously got to know Kubiak through Kubiak’s son, Klint, who worked on Minnesota’s staff with Stefanski from 2013-14 and returns this season as quarterbacks coach.
Most coaches in the NFL are connected by fewer than your typical six degrees of separation, but the Vikings new-look staff has deeper connections than simply originating from the same coaching tree. With relationships that were formed when Stefanski was still in grade school, the Kubiak-Dennison-Pariani trio will take aim at their latest challenge: recalibrating an offense for a team with Super Bowl expectations.
“Anytime you can be with people with you know,” said Pariani, “obviously it makes putting in an offense a lot easier.”