Gary Kubiak's 'invaluable' presence the catalyst behind Vikings' offensive surge

Ninkovich: Vikings have NFL's best running game (0:34)

Rob Ninkovich breaks down how the Vikings' running game will be too much for the Broncos. (0:34)

EAGAN, Minn. -- The itch just wouldn't go away.

When Gary Kubiak stepped away from coaching in 2016, one season after winning Super Bowl 50 with the Denver Broncos during his first year at the helm, he wanted to stay in the game as best he could while tending to the health issues that forced him into early retirement.

After 21 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Kubiak moved into a role in the Broncos’ personnel department in 2017 and ’18 in which he studied college film of draft-eligible players, often from the comfort of his farm.

He was still in football yet removed from the relentless day-to-day grind of coaching. But Kubiak didn't feel as connected to the game as he once was. He missed being around the players. He wanted to teach.

An opportunity arose for Kubiak, 58, this offseason to do just that, allowing him to bring his ideas and three of his longtime staff members to a Vikings team seeking to shift its direction on offense. In January, he was named Minnesota's assistant head coach/offensive adviser.

On Sunday, Minnesota plays host to Denver, where Kubiak played his entire career as a backup quarterback and spent 13 seasons as a coach. On a Vikings team making a playoff push, Kubiak's influence is apparent for an offense performing at a Super Bowl-caliber level and for a staff that has benefited from his presence.

"It's probably the best thing that's ever happened to me since I've been here," coach Mike Zimmer said of hiring Kubiak, who was also the head coach of the Houston Texans from 2006 to 2012. "He's very smart. I talk to him a lot about what he's done as a head coach. We talk a lot about offensive and defensive football. I just love his demeanor and the way that he and Kevin [Stefanski, the offensive coordinator] can communicate during the games and also during the week on game plans."

The decision to overhaul the offensive staff in 2019 was rooted in wanting to get the most out of quarterback Kirk Cousins after an up-and-down first season with the Vikings. Zimmer believed the best way to get there was to remove the interim tag from Stefanski as offensive coordinator and have him run the system Kubiak created.

"Having him around has been invaluable to me," Stefanski said. "This is my first year doing this, so having somebody that I can bounce ideas off of both during the week and during the game and then on top of that … you guys know Gary -- great person. In terms of working together, I think he among all of our staff, I'd point out to every single one of our coaches, I think it's a really great working environment where we could get a lot done and respect each other's ideas and thoughts. And Gary's certainly at the forefront of that."

Kubiak's passing offenses have ranked in the top 10 in net yards per attempt 12 times since his first year as a coordinator in 1995, while his scoring offenses have cracked the top 10 11 times in that span. A lot of that had to do with how much he was able to get out of the quarterback position.

Through 10 games this season, Cousins' 112.0 passer rating ranks just below Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes. Since Week 5, Cousins is completing 71.5 percent of his passes (third in the NFL) and has 15 passing touchdowns and just one interception. His 73.7 Total QBR ranks fourth in the NFL during that span.

Cousins is surrounded with everything he needs to succeed. There are staples of Kubiak's scheme now fully embedded in Minnesota, beginning with a dominant run game led by Dalvin Cook, an outside zone blocking scheme, heavy use of play-action and changing where Cousins receives the snap.

"You're under center a little more often than maybe you would be in other systems," Cousins said. "There's a lot of timing and rhythm, which I would say is true of anywhere you go: Quarterback coaches are going to preach timing and rhythm. I would say with this system, with Gary and Klint [Kubiak, quarterbacks coach and Gary's son] and Kevin, it's heavily emphasized and they're not going to let you get away with not playing in timing and rhythm.

"And ultimately, I think Gary having been a quarterback in this league, knowing how difficult it is, knowing what you need to be successful, I think there's an awareness of all that has to take place for a passing game and an offense to come together and to be productive, and I think that awareness makes a difference."

Minnesota passed on 69% of its dropbacks (fifth-highest rate in the NFL) through the first 10 weeks of the 2018 season. This year, the Vikings have shifted to running the ball at the second-highest rate in the league (50%).

For a run game than ranked 30th in yards (1,493), 27th in carries (357) and 25th in yards per carry (4.18) last season, this shift in approach was exactly what Cook had hoped for when he found out Kubiak was coming on staff. Now, Cook is second in the NFL in rushing yards (991) and first in yards from scrimmage (1,415).

"People kept saying Terrell Davis and all those good backs, but when you go look at [Kubiak's] track record and how they were doing it and what they were running, it's some of the stuff I like running and some of the stuff I was good at," Cook said. "Just had to get my body physically and mentally ready for the challenge. I love the scheme and love everything we're doing."

Minnesota has run an NFL-high 497 offensive snaps with no more than two wide receivers on the field -- 120 more than the next closest team -- a trend that has popped up everywhere Kubiak has been and goes back to his West Coast roots. The unlikely use of the fullback in today's pass-happy NFL is prevalent in this offense (C.J. Ham has played more snaps than any other fullback this season), as is dominating teams with an aggressive run game that makes way for screens and play-action.

This was exactly what Zimmer envisioned when he made the decision to hire Kubiak, who not only gets "back in the fight" but also can see his scheme maintain its legacy.

"I love the way the offense is, the way the scheme is, the things that he's seen over the years running the offense," Zimmer said. "One of the things that was important for him was he wants to keep the offense moving that way. For him to be able to come in and mentor a young coordinator was really important. To me, that's about your particular scheme and making sure that carries on in the future. I think that part was as important to me as anything."