On Monday afternoon, Tom Pelissero of the NFL Network reported that Gary Kubiak was leaning toward retirement. That would cause the Minnesota Vikings to turn to their sixth offensive coordinator in as many years. Continuity on offense has been a persistent issue for Zimmer’s Vikings, but they’ve worked to mitigate it.
The last two years have kept the same Kubiak wide zone scheme and with it the terminology, base techniques and strategies. They have that option available to them again by promoting quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak or offensive line coach Rick Dennison. If they did so, what do the Vikings lose with Kubiak, and what can they maintain?
Gary Kubiak has been running the Mike Shanahan wide zone since the John Elway era in Denver. Klint Kubiak has only been a position coach since 2015, which is a blink of an eye in the coaching world. He may have to re-learn lessons that Gary Kubiak had long taken to heart. If that means play-calling mistakes, it would file under a cost to losing Gary Kubiak.
Experience is not strictly a good thing, however. With fresh blood comes fresh ideas. The most successful wide zone schemes come from Matt LaFleur, Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, all younger faces. If the Vikings wanted to preserve experience, they could always pursue a more tenured coach like Anthony Lynn.
Keep: The Wide Zone
One could assume that Klint Kubiak would do little to change the basic chassis of the Vikings’ offense. Any hire would keep the outside zone usage and heavy play-action, which are perfect fits for Dalvin Cook and Kirk Cousins. This is perhaps the most important consideration when choosing Kubiak’s successor. With several teams still running Pete Carroll’s Cover 3 as their base shell, the wide zone is perfectly suited to the NFL meta-game.
This year’s Cleveland Browns-Dallas Cowboys game is a good example for more detail, but suffice it to say that the wide zone will excel until NFL defenses overhaul themselves. The Vikings could pursue some college spread coach if they wanted to modernize, but it would be a poor fit for personnel and a lesser matchup against NFL defenses. The wide zone is here to stay, Kubiak or otherwise.
With this also comes terminology and general staple concepts. In addition to outside zone and bootlegs, Klint Kubiak would likely port over the building blocks Cousins is familiar with. Yankee, a bootleg shot play the Vikings run all the time, would likely continue its heavy use.
Keep: The Run-First Approach
Zimmer has been pretty clear about his desire to run the ball well. The exact amount of volume that implies could change coordinator to coordinator, but a John DeFilippo-style spread approach seems unlikely. Klint Kubiak would likely continue the run-first approach Gary Kubiak’s offense employed in 2020, and Zimmer likely wouldn’t sign off on a hire that pledged to do otherwise.
There are ways to adjust play-calling toward passing volume in a wide zone. The Green Bay Packers have one of the most pass-happy offenses in the NFL and used play-action about as much as Minnesota did. Conversely, Arthur Smith’s Tennessee Titans won the AFC South primarily through Derrick Henry, passing less against expectation than the Vikings did. If Minnesota wanted to ask Cousins to perform more of an Aaron Rodgers role and less of a Ryan Tannehill one, they could. But knowing their tendencies, they likely won’t.
Lose: Developmental Coaching
One of the most striking things about training camp in 2019 was how smooth the offense looked. By the first full day in pads, they were operating zone runs in perfect sync. The 2018 unit was inconsistent and out of sorts until well into the season, but in 2019, it was an orchestrated ballet.
A strength of Gary Kubiak’s offense is how easy it is to learn. He is famous as a developer of talent, and that presence could be missed. It wasn’t perfect, however. Fourth-round 2019 pick Dru Samia never came along, and 2019 first-rounder Garrett Bradbury‘s results have been mixed at best. It would be difficult to find a reason to project that this would improve without Gary Kubiak in the building.
Lose: Zimmer’s Deference
How involved Mike Zimmer gets in the offense is a constant topic of debate. With Norv Turner, he was famously deferent. From 2015:
Football-wise, I was lucky to have (offensive coordinator) Norv (Turner) take care of that side of the ball for the most part. I’d go in and talk to him about things we should do, and plays, but if I didn’t have a guy that was good on that side of the ball it’d be (tough).
When Pat Shurmur replaced Turner, Zimmer decided to get more involved. But Gary Kubiak was a trustworthy enough figure for Zimmer to leave it alone, more or less, and spend his time on re-tooling his young defense. If the Vikings promote Klint Kubiak, Zimmer would likely get more involved.
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your read on Zimmer. If you see him as a strong-arming autocrat that will bully his OC into running 40 times a game, that’s a pretty bad thing. If you see him as more adaptable, that influence could be welcome. The 2017, 2019 and 2020 offenses featured much more of Zimmer’s influences than 2016’s or 2018’s. But perhaps it would still be better to have a proven mind to “take care of that side of the ball.”
Keep: Kirk Cousins
There are edges to be gained and lost with certain play-callers. Experience, leadership, strategy and communication all matter, undoubtedly. But those edges are drops in the bucket compared to Cousins and his impact. As Cousins goes, so do the Vikings. There isn’t much more to do with Cousins that Gary Kubiak wasn’t already doing. Give him long progressions, cut-and-dry reads and let him throw deep with play-action. Telling Cousins not to throw a boneheaded interception can only change so much about his play. The Vikings seem to be getting the maximum out of Cousins when the wide zone is working, and any attempts to differ return much worse results.
The post-Kubiak Vikings will probably look a lot like the Vikings under Kubiak. His influence will be missed without a doubt, but the skeleton of the offense will stay the same. The real question is whether or not the new OC will look at the 11th-ranked offense in EPA per play and see a way to get more meat off of the bone.