Rick Dennison set up the perfect segue for his thoughts on the Vikings run game when talking the start of his NFL playing career, which began as an undrafted college tight end in 1982. A master’s degree in fluid mechanics in hand, Dennison eschewed what likely was a promising career in engineering – air pollution control, to be precise – so he could stumble while chasing a dream of playing football.
“I kept failing and kept failing,” Dennison said.
Failure didn’t deter the Vikings’ new 60-year-old run game coordinator and offensive line coach, who thrice returned to one word Thursday when asked what makes a great run game during his introductory press conference. Dennison eventually latched onto the Broncos roster as a linebacker in 1982. A year later, a new teammate named Gary Kubiak would eventually become his close friend and loyal coworker for decades to come.
On a Sunday-to-Sunday basis, it sounds like the Vikings’ run game will seek a similar breakthrough no matter how many failures precede it. Roughly 22 carries per game last season were among the fewest in the league, an imbalance Dennison – who oversaw the Bills’ No. 6 run game in 2017 – was hired to correct.
“Persistence, like I said, and a good runner,” Dennison said. “We feel like we have that right there.”
More carries for running back Dalvin Cook won’t be the only attempted fix. Coaches began the offense’s makeover by poring over new run schemes. At the center is Dennison, who is tasked with reworking a previously zone blocking-heavy approach Kubiak said Thursday was too predictable.
As a coaching disciple of Mike Shanahan’s, Dennison said his focus lies on properly meshing run and play-action pass concepts to create a more unpredictable offense. It’s a reason why he’s looking forward to working with quarterback Kirk Cousins, one of the NFL’s most prolific play-action passers who was drafted by Shanahan’s Redskins in 2012.
“[Cousins] worked in Washington with a guy that taught me a lot about the ball game,” Dennison said. “I know he’s learned quite a bit of that, so I’m looking forward to that.”
From a work perspective, Dennison fills the void left by last summer’s unexpected passing of Tony Sparano, the Vikings’ former run game coordinator and line coach. The Vikings do expect Dennison’s 10 seasons as a coordinator to provide a similar veteran presence on staff.
“I think it’ll be great,” Dennison said. “I’ve always done what the head coach wanted me to do. I’ve never been a rebel in that. I think it’ll be fine. Obviously, we want to threaten the defense, make them play all plays — not just the run or just the pass.”
A smooth collaboration, unlike the recently rocky ones under coordinators John DeFilippo and Norv Turner, will be required.
Dennison, Gary Kubiak’s coordinator in Houston and Denver, described with Kubiak a “fluid” play-calling process, which 36-year-old coordinator Kevin Stefanski could expect on Sundays. Stefanski will call plays from the sideline while Kubiak said he’ll advise from the booth.
“I don’t think I went to a game where I called everything myself,” Kubiak said. “Whether it was Mike [Shanahan] coming on the headset saying ‘Hey Koob, what about this?’ or whether it was Rick Dennison or Mike Sherman or Kyle Shanahan, who worked for me. I think as a group, Kevin’s got a job to do. It’s our job as coaches to help him in any way we can. When you’ve got people who have called games – Rick Dennison has called games as coordinator in Buffalo – I think we have a lot of experience around him to help him out.”