Vikings

Why Klint Kubiak Shouldn't "Update" the Vikings' Offense

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Klint Kubiak has some pretty big shoes to fill. Gary Kubiak was a legend of NFL offense, from his days perfecting the wide zone with Alex Gibbs all the way to his final season in Minnesota. As one of the original architects of Shanahan/McVay wide zone offenses we see all over the league, his loss will definitely be felt. The Vikings obviously wanted to keep things as consistent as possible because they promoted Gary’s own son to fill his job.

Young play-callers on offense are all the rage. Why run stale old schemes from the ’90s when a fresh set of eyes can come by and innovate? Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Kevin Stefanski, and Kliff Kingsbury, among others, have all taken concepts from their predecessors and built upon them to create the NFL’s premier offenses. Can we expect the same from Kubiak, the younger?

There are two competing philosophies in football in a constant tug of war. The simpler an offense is, the easier it is to grasp and build upon. More complex offenses, however, are more difficult to defend. Coaches have been hired and fired for being both too complex and too simplistic. The Kubiak scheme falls squarely in the realm of simplicity. Somebody like Jon Gruden falls in the complexity camp.

That sort of complexity has its advantages. If you can break down every possible component of football into a code word, you can design plays and concepts on the fly. That was Peyton Manning‘s claim to fame, layering in ideas as the defensive alignment developed. If everyone on the offense was on the same page, you could be an enigma that gives defenses fits. How do you scout an offense that doesn’t even decide what it’s doing until right before the snap?

Still, there’s a reason the Gibbs/Kubiak/Shanahan family of coaches opts for more simplicity. In the clip above, Jon Gruden confuses the hell out of rookie Chris Simms. The Manning model only works if everyone actually executes the play you’ve designed. When people mix things up, go the wrong way, or miscommunicate, the results can be disastrous. Instead, these coaches opt to keep it simple.

If you don’t have Peyton Manning, you may not have a choice. Simpler designs can help young quarterbacks get used to the breakneck pace of the NFL. If a quarterback is slumping, you may need to simplify things to get them back on track. You sacrifice some of the flexibility and dynamism, but at least everyone is on the same page.

The problem now is how to make that simple offense difficult to defend. If you ask Kirk Cousins, simpler is harder to defend. In an interview with Charles Davis at the Hudl Blitz summit earlier in 2021, Cousins talked about the advantages of simplicity. For Cousins, if you run the same thing over and over, you’ll get unstoppably good at that thing. Who cares if they know what’s coming if they can’t stop it?

Let’s assume that isn’t good enough. For McVay, Shanahan, Stefanski, or the Kubiaks, it often isn’t. These coaches layer in additional concepts and subversions to spice up their core concepts. But the core concepts are king. For Minnesota, one of those core concepts could be, for example, Orlando. Here’s a screenshot from a CoachTube clinic on quick passing concepts from Vikings quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko.

Orlando is a simple enough concept that the Vikings use all the time. Everyone runs speed-outs with the aim of a quick completion. Receivers run two steps and go. They run this out of any alignment, and in many downs and distances, simplifying everything. Nobody needs to memorize when they do or don’t run Orlando.

An Orlando route concept is more than just a speed-out, however. The inside receivers run simple speed outs, but the outside receivers run the titular Orlando route. Their route can become a go route if they see the proper leverage from the cornerback. This can be inside leverage, outside leverage, a certain coverage shell, or anything else the Vikings see on tape and think they can exploit.

It’s still fairly simple, but think like a defense. How do you defend that? If the Vikings run Orlando out of every formation, how do you see it coming? And if they change the “trigger” that determines the outside route, how do you know what they’ve changed it to? This isn’t a complex play call at all, but it presents challenges to the defense all the same.

From there, you can add other wrinkles. Give a slot receiver the Orlando route instead one play. Change the “go” part of the Orlando route to a deep post against certain coverage shells. It’s all part of the Orlando family of concepts, with little tweaks here and there to mix it up. You’re working in a more restrictive framework than Jon Gruden’s word salad, but you can be creative all the same.

Alex Rollins brought up a great example in his recent video about Justin Jefferson. The Vikings use the “drift” concept to set up some of their play-action plays. It’s often called “flood” as well, but the key is Jefferson running a crossing route over the middle. Here’s an example from Matt LaFleur, who comes from the same coaching family.

You’ll notice Davante Adams running that intermediate crossing route, you may even say drifting across the field. This play works as a core concept that you can master in the way Kirk Cousins wants to, and you can subvert it from there. Say Justin Jefferson runs the drifting part, or “over” route, as some would call it. Say Adam Thielen has the deeper corner route. Change Thielen’s route to a post, and you have Yankee, another Vikings core concept.

As Rollins points out, when two of your core concepts look so similar, it’s difficult for defenses to pick it out. That can already work on its own, but you can add even more subversion without piling on too much complexity. If Jefferson has the right leverage, tell him to cut his over route back toward the sideline. You may remember this touchdown:

Or perhaps this one:

Perhaps the most famous example is McVay’s NFC Champion Los Angeles Rams in 2018. McVay used 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) on almost every play. That made it impossible to pick out tendencies because there wasn’t a tell to examine. Everything looked the same all the time but split off into different variants and ideas as the game wore on. That took them to the Super Bowl.

All this brings us back to Klint Kubiak and the weight of an offense on his shoulders. Kubiak might be tempted to work in extra concepts and add flavors to the unbelievably simplistic Vikings offense. If he learned anything from his father or the various wide zone disciples he has encountered over his career, he’ll keep things simple. Core concepts must remain core concepts, and the complexity can come within them. Until Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen stop sending cornerbacks to the shadow realm, there’s no reason to stand in their way.

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