Hours after the Vikings returned to the Twin Cities following their NFC divisional playoff loss to the 49ers last month, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski accepted the Browns’ offer to become their head coach, forcing coach Mike Zimmer to look for the fifth offensive play-caller of his time in Minnesota.
Offering the job to Gary Kubiak took little time on Zimmer’s part. And given all Kubiak had been through in recent years, even his deliberations were relatively quick.
Kubiak collapsed at halftime of a 2013 game while he was the Texans’ head coach, and health concerns led him to retire as the Broncos’ head coach in 2017. But after two years in an advisory role with the Broncos, he put himself back in consideration for Denver’s offensive coordinator job before he joined the Vikings as assistant head coach in 2019. He had decided not to be a head coach again, but he’d never ruled out a return to calling plays.
When Zimmer asked Kubiak to take over for Stefanski after the season, Kubiak said he needed a couple of days to think before taking on the fourth coordinator job of his career. He beat his self-imposed deadline.
“I just said, ‘Coach, do you mind if I go back home and mow some grass for a couple days or something to think about it?’ ” Kubiak, 58, said. “I told him two days, and I think I called him in about a day and a half. I was just really excited to do it.”
Kubiak’s impact on the Vikings’ 2019 offense, which scored the eighth-most points in the NFL while incorporating many of the coach’s longstanding principles, made him the logical choice to succeed Stefanski in 2020. His presence also brings continuity to a Vikings offense that’s had little of it in recent years.
Zimmer said Tuesday the Vikings could see some changes in their passing game as a result of Kubiak replacing Stefanski as their play-caller, but the team’s scheme and terminology will remain largely the same in what figures to be the least disruptive offseason for the Vikings’ offense since 2016.
Andrew Janocko is the new wide receivers coach after three years working on the offensive line, while new assistant offensive line coach Phil Rauscher worked in Denver with four of the Vikings’ current coaches — Kubiak, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, offensive line coach Rick Dennison and tight ends coach Brian Pariani.
After a season in which the Vikings scored more than 400 points for the first time in the Zimmer era, they’re doubling down in 2020 on what worked for them. That stability helped make Gary Kubiak’s decision relatively simple.
“I get here, we put a system in place, we go to work, we do a job throughout the course of the year,” he said. “And then one thing changed: One guy got a head coaching job. For me, it’s very familiar. I didn’t have to go back to work a month ago and, say, start over with a new group of coaches. We’re way ahead. We can go back to work and try to make up some more ground here. I think all those things together added a little fuel to the fire, so to speak. It made it easier for me to say, ‘Zim, I appreciate the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to it.’ ”
Kubiak came to Minnesota a year ago in part because of his relationship with Stefanski, and Kubiak talked with Stefanski on Monday night about his new job with the Browns.
“I think all of us try to work in a direction to have an opportunity like that someday,” Kubiak said. “I think we’re all happy for him; we also understand what he’s taking on. He’s got his hands full from that standpoint. But I think we’re all proud of the fact that this football team gave him that opportunity, by the way they played and the way the coaches worked with him. I think we’re always proud when one of our buddies gets a chance to do that.”
As he succeeds Stefanski, Kubiak — who’s won four Super Bowls as a coach — figures to spend much of his offseason lending perspective to the Vikings’ efforts to break through in the NFC after a 2-3 playoff record the past five years.
Those efforts will lean more on guile and effectiveness than a novel offensive scheme. From Kubiak’s experience, all the Vikings can do is get ready to try again.
“The only way I know how to get over the hump is, keep going back to the hump,” he said. “You’ve got to be good enough to get there every year, and find a way to be playing in January. I used to always preach to my teams, ‘Hey, the bottom line [is], can we get ourselves in, and can we play better than anybody else for one month?’ That’s what this league boils down to: a lot of good coaches, a lot of good players, and a very fine line between being really successful and being successful.”