EAGAN - The Minnesota Vikings season ended in a 27-10 loss at San Francisco in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, and Mike Zimmer had a decision to make at offensive coordinator.
After being a finalist to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns last off-season, Kevin Stefanski was offered and took the same job in January. Zimmer needed a replacement to hand the keys to the Vikings’ offense, one that vastly improved to the No. 6 rushing offense in the NFL and got one of the best statistical seasons of Kirk Cousins’ career.
Zimmer didn’t go very far to find his guy. In fact, he walked down the hall at TCO Performance Center into the office of his assistant and friend, Gary Kubiak. He came to the team last off-season as an offensive advisor to Zimmer and Stefanski. Seeking continuity and consistency in schemes and play-calls heading into 2020, Zimmer asked Kubiak if he wanted the job.
Kubiak went home to clear his head, and of all the ways to think about his NFL future, he did while mowing his lawn.
“The NFL season is a grind and when it all went down really quickly when we got back from San Francisco, and coach had given us some time off, I just said ‘Coach, you mind if I go back home for a couple days and mow some grass for a couple days or something and think about it?’” Kubiak said Tuesday. “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 now has those keys, and the play-calling duties, for an offense that averaged 133.3 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. He was instrumental in improving a rushing attack that was No. 30 in the NFL two seasons ago.
The Vikings also scored 25.4 points per game last season, good for eighth in the NFL.
Kubiak’s answer probably made Zimmer smile. After all, the Vikings’ head coach said during the 2019 season Kubiak was the best thing to happen to him in his six seasons in Minnesota.
“I was definitely relieved. It was the perfect fit for the entire offense,” Zimmer said Tuesday morning via conference call.
With the influence of Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme elements, Dalvin Cook ran for a career-high 1,135 yards and 13 touchdowns in his third NFL season. That includes missing two games, and missing halves of two other games with shoulder and chest injuries.
In the second season of a three-year, $84 million fully-guaranteed contract, Kirk Cousins threw for more than 3,600 yards and 26 touchdowns. He’s got the history of not playing well in big games under the spotlight, but he led the Vikings to a game-winning touchdown drive at New Orleans in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs.
“I think the No. 1 thing Kirk did last year, he got rid of the football. It’s hard in this league to get that mentality that the ball has got to come out for your team to be successful. I think he took a step in that direction, but now it’s time for us to grow off that,” Kubiak said. “The better he plays, the better we coach, the further we have a chance to go in this business.”
Kubiak, 58, labeled it interesting how his time in Minnesota has worked out so far. He started as an advisor and mentor to Stefanski, who now is getting his first shot as an NFL head coach in Cleveland.
Kubiak admitted himself, largely due to previous health scares, that he isn’t interesting in being a head coach again. The offensive coordinator job allows him to teach, mentor and be a veteran on the coaching staff without getting over-worked.
“He’s got a lot of skins on the wall so players respect him,” Zimmer said.
“This opportunity came up, it was a unique opportunity that basically Rick (Spielman) and Zim created it for me, so I’ve got them to thank for that. The way it led to this with Kevin leaving, it’s just interesting how things worked out,” Kubiak said. “I just feel very fortunate and I feel very good, and I’m motivated each day.”