Gary Kubiak wasn’t entirely sure how to turn his webcam on for Wednesday’s Zoom session with local reporters. But he wouldn’t be the first coach to struggle with a virtual press conference since most media interactions became web-based with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many NFL longtime NFL coaches, Kubiak has been challenged to learn new technology during an offseason where instruction has been done over a computer screen, players are sending videos of their technique to the coaching staff, and “hands-on coaching” sounds more like a violation of social distancing.
“I can tell you I know a hell of a lot more about computers than I did six months ago,” Kubiak said with a laugh.
The Vikings’ new offensive coordinator hopes to be freed soon from the condo he says he’s been cooped up in for several months. Kubiak claims he’s spent about twice the time teaching in the classroom than he’s used to — and he considers the virtual meetings productive — but he’d like for his new players to get some face time in the near future.
“We tried to do a lot of interaction amongst the players, and probably the biggest challenge was having players get to know each other,” Kubiak said. “I mean, we’ve got players, they know each other’s names, but they’ve never met. So we tried to have some interaction on the computer, talking about their lives, about their families, so that we can make up a little ground from that standpoint. So it’s been very challenging, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
Kubiak has bounced between meetings to get as familiar as he can with the new roster. One player Kubiak is surely itching to meet is first-round pick Justin Jefferson, the receiver from LSU who is all but earmarked to take the spot of traded receiver Stefon Diggs. One of Kubiak’s early responsibilities will be to discern where Jefferson fits best in the offense: on the boundary or in the slot. Jefferson has performed mostly in the slot during his breakthrough season at LSU, totaling over 1,500 receiving yards when lined up inside.
“I think what he was asked to do last year is very beneficial,” Kubiak said. “You turn on the film, he was playing inside, but he was playing inside in a lot of bunch sets. He was playing in the backfield sometimes. He was moving around a bunch. He runs a lot of choice routes; that’s a way of getting your best player the ball in our league.
“I think he’s done some things that give him a good head start moving forward. We’ve got to be smart here, too. We haven’t run one football play this whole offseason, so we’ve got to be smart when we get these guys in here and taking it a day at a time and try not to do too much too quick because it’s gonna be about the season and not about the first day. We’ve got a plan in place, and Justin’s doing his part.”
Kubiak also walked through his process for working with Jefferson to get him up to speed on the team’s offense, which should be continuing in the same form as last year when Kevin Stefanski was the playcaller. Minnesota is likely to return nine of the 11 starters on offense, making Jefferson’s acclimation all the more important.
“What we have to do is teach a basis for what we do offensively,” Kubiak said. “We have to get Justin get caught up on all those things, and then it’s my job to put him in the best possible position to be successful. I try to go about it that way. We’ve given him basically our eight- or nine-day install, however you want to say it, giving him a basis of what we do offensively. Then I approach him basically like we’re scripting practice and where he would play, so I would say the fact that he’s probably going to move inside quite a bit.”
Jefferson projects to be an uber-valuable asset for the Vikings’ offense at some point, whether it’s Week 1, Week 8 or a season in the future. Running back Dalvin Cook shapes up to a game-changer the instant he takes the field, but the fourth-year pro is currently in a holdout as he negotiates a new contract with the Vikings. With the two sides reportedly far apart, there’s debate about whether Cook will be ready to go when the season commences.
Kubiak, though, doesn’t sound worried about Cook missing meetings.
“Dalvin Cook is very bright,” said Kubiak. “He has as good a grasp on what we do and how we go about it. Dalvin could teach class – he’s that bright and that smart of a football player. It’s part of the business. Guys like him, professionals like him, they take care of themselves and you understand that they’re going to go through things like this. We all want the end product, so to speak, and want to go back to work. But those things take time, so we’ll let the business take care of itself and we’ll stay focused on football.”
Cook may have no greater advocate than Kubiak, whose calling card is a commitment to the running game. Modern analytics might point toward a devalued running position. So, too, would the position’s injury susceptibility. But don’t tell Kubiak that running backs aren’t worthwhile.
“I love running backs,” he said. “I’ve had some really good ones in my day. Got a couple world championship rings because of one I’m thinking of in my head right now (Terrell Davis), but we believe in running the football. Obviously Dalvin did a hell of a job doing that last year along with [Alexander] Mattison, Ameer [Abdullah], and [Mike] Boone helped us out, as well. Really, that’s a big part of the game. You need everybody to win, but you guys know how much I think of a good back.
Kubiak then delved into his personal philosophy.
“I think it’s commitment to running the ball,” he continued. “You can sit here and say this guy was a great player or that guy was a great player, and you’ve got to have them to be successful, but I think anything you do in life or football – if you’re committed to something, you’ve probably got a pretty good chance of being successful at it.
“We walk into a room and tell our guys we’re committed to running the football and being a physical team. I work for a head coach that talks that same way. It’s really just a mindset and saying, ‘Hey we’re going to be good at doing this and we’re not going to find ways not to run the ball; we’re going to find ways to run the ball.”
That statement says a couple things. It’s clear how much a coach like Kubiak would value Cook, but taken a step further: If Cook isn’t around, the Vikings will find another way to run the football.