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Gary Kubiak Helped Shape the Modern NFL. Now, He’s Stepping Back Into It.

Kubiak and Mike Shanahan created the system that Matt LaFleur, Kyle Shanahan, and more coaches use today. And now the Vikings offensive coordinator is returning to show just how far it can go.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Gary Kubiak got his first NFL coaching job in 1994, as the quarterbacks coach of the 49ers. He had nearly a decade of experience as the Broncos’ backup quarterback under his belt, but the gig in San Francisco gave him a chance to see the sport in an entirely new way. One of Kubiak’s first assignments was to hunker down in a small meeting room and digest the taped installation sessions the Niners used to teach their offense. He pored over videos of Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren, and Mike Shanahan explaining each detail of the Niners’ scheme. As he moved from one VHS to the other, Kubiak realized that even though the system was the same, the details changed depending on who was at the front of the room. “I was looking at three brilliant offensive minds, watching them teach the same material three different ways and put their own spin on it,” Kubiak says. “A lot of the time in football, that’s what we do. Everybody has their own way of teaching.”

Kubiak eventually got his own turn at the helm—an 11-year run as the head coach of the Texans and Broncos, which included a Super Bowl victory with Denver following the 2015 season. But starting in 2017, Kubiak moved back behind the scenes. He spent two years in a front-office role with Denver, then returned to coaching last season as an offensive consultant for the Vikings. During that stretch, he’s watched as several young head coaches—including Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur, Kevin Stefanski, and others—have played out Kubiak’s experience in that 49ers meeting room on a larger scale, taking the foundation of a scheme and making it their own. The difference this time is that they’re working with an offense that Kubiak helped create.

As the 58-year-old Vikings offensive coordinator steps back into a play-calling role for the first time since 2016, he’ll be part of a paradigm of offensive football that he’s helped shape for a quarter-century. “You start to realize how long you’ve been doing it, when you see it withstand the test of time,” Kubiak says. “Just watching someone take something you did five years ago and say, ‘Wow, he’s grown it.’ You know the origins of it, where it’s coming from, and now, where it’s going.”

When Kubiak and Mike Shanahan left San Francisco in 1995 to become the offensive coordinator and head coach, respectively, of the Broncos, they took the basic outline of Walsh’s West Coast offense with them. Shanahan paired that philosophy—which included a quick-passing approach and split-back setup—with the innovative outside-zone running game devised by offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. Individually, the component parts were familiar, but together, they formed a radical new system. “You’ve got Alex’s run game, you’ve got Mike’s mind coming from San Francisco, and then we started to put all these keepers and boots in,” Kubiak says. “It all started to tie together, and then it started to grow.”

During the staff’s first season together in 1995, the Broncos finished fourth in the league in offensive DVOA. Two years later, Denver fielded the highest-scoring offense in football (29.5 points per game) en route to a 12-4 finish and the franchise’s first Super Bowl win.

Kubiak and Shanahan spent 11 seasons together in Denver before the former was hired as the head coach of the Texans in 2006. In those 11 seasons, the Broncos finished in the top five by offensive DVOA seven times, and fell out of the top 10 only twice. Kubiak and Shanahan continued to expand on the basic offensive premise they’d established in the mid-’90s. Kubiak recalls watching all of the Colts’ play-action schemes from Peyton Manning’s breakout season in 1999 and trying to fold the applicable concepts into the Broncos’ playbook. “We asked, ‘How do we fit this with some of our schemes—some of our zone passes and some of our QB movement schemes?’ We grew right there. That was a big part, about four or five years deep into it, that became part of what we were doing.”

New wrinkles emerged later, but by the time Kubiak went to Houston, the bones of the system’s modern iteration were in place. LaFleur got his first NFL gig as a quality control assistant with the Texans in 2008, and by that point, Mike Shanahan’s son, Kyle, had taken over as Kubiak’s offensive coordinator. The pair quickly gave LaFleur the football education he didn’t know he needed. “Coming from a job as a Division II offensive coordinator, I realized just how little I knew about football,” LaFleur says. “The attention to detail [Kyle and Gary] give on every play, and how every player is tied into each play—it’s really that mentality, that it takes all 11 to allow an offense to function at its highest level.”

More than a decade after his first year in Houston, LaFleur still uses teaching tape from the Kubiak-era Texans to install his offense in Green Bay. The same has been true for Stefanski during his first offseason as the Browns head coach, and for Kubiak as he returns to full-time duty as a play-caller. “I’ve always loved having a robust library of tape for the players to study,” Stefanski says. “I think players oftentimes get more out of tape watching than they do from the playbook. When you can throw on the tape of what Kub was doing with Andre Johnson ... I think it really lets the scheme sink in. And you can get the finer nuances and coaching points off the tape.”

Stefanski says that designs in the 2020 Browns playbook are exact replicas of plays that the Texans used under Kubiak. But even in cases when some details have changed, the building blocks of the offense have remained the same. “When you’re stopping to teach this time of year, and you’re showing your guys examples, and you look up and say, ‘Shit, that example is from 2011,’” Kubiak says. “You don’t even realize you’re getting that old.”

When asked why he thinks his system has endured after all these years, Kubiak focuses on a single word: deception. By seamlessly tying rushing concepts together with complementary play-action designs, Kubiak and his disciples can deploy a system that seems complicated, but is actually quite simple. “In a lot of ways, you’re not doing a ton of things, but you’re doing it a ton of ways,” Kubiak says. “You’re trying to mask certain things. They may look different on film, but they’re not. They’re simple for you, but they can get repetitive and hard for the defense because you’re doing it so many different ways.”

Nearly 25 years after Kubiak and Mike Shanahan unleashed this offense onto the rest of the NFL, variations of the scheme are still tormenting opposing defensive coordinators. Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers finished seventh in offensive DVOA last season on their way to an appearance in the Super Bowl. LaFleur’s Packers were right behind them at no. 8, and they finished fourth in rushing DVOA. Tennessee, which kept the foundation of the offense LaFleur installed during his lone season as coordinator, ranked sixth as Ryan Tannehill led the NFL in yards per attempt (9.6) and completion percentage over expectation. And the 2019 Vikings, led by the combination of Kubiak and Stefanski, finished 10th in passing DVOA despite injuries to both Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook. Stefanski parlayed that success into a head-coaching job in Cleveland, where he’s hoping the same scheme that elevated Kirk Cousins can propel Baker Mayfield to a bounce-back season.

Stefanski’s experience in the past two seasons provides a lot of insight into how Kubiak’s basic approach evolves from team to team. Kubiak came to Minnesota last year just as Stefanski was starting his first full season as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator. Stefanski had always known that he wanted to run some version of this system, but he never imagined he’d have the scheme’s architect sitting just down the hall when the opportunity came. “I had always admired that scheme from afar and wondered how they coached certain parts,” Stefanski says. “Then I had the luxury of Gary sitting next to me for an entire season. A season’s worth of questions, rather than two hours at the combine saying, ‘Hey, can I talk keepers with you?’ I had this treasure trove of coaching points right there, ready and willing to share.”

While Kubiak helped illuminate some of the tried and true aspects of the offense, Stefanski added a few brand-new elements. With new screens, red zone concepts, and route combinations, the Vikings were able to put a fresh spin on an established system. “Everybody’s got their own mind, and they say, ‘Hey, this is how I’m going to do it when I get my chance,’” Kubiak says. “So you start to see more creativity from that standpoint.”

Many of Kubiak’s former pupils agree that the most effective twist that’s emerged in recent years has been the use of presnap motion to add another layer of complexity. Kubiak points specifically to the way McVay deploys jet motion to alter the “strength” call for a defense just before the snap, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Shanahan has incorporated more shotgun formations and RPOs tailored to Jimmy Garoppolo’s strengths, and he’s also established an impressive sense of urgency within the offense. “If you really watch San Francisco and the job Kyle does, his teams play so fast,” Kubiak says. “From when they come out of the huddle, double motions, movement. There’s a lot of things going on that they’re just very precise at that you hope gives people problems. Telling a team to play fast is good board talk, but it’s hard to achieve. It’s something you have to convince your players of.”

As the Kubiak–Mike Shanahan coaching tree grows and more teams adopt some version of this scheme, coaches are getting more and more examples of how to innovate. LaFleur says that he’s naturally drawn to watching the Rams and Niners because he understands why McVay and Kyle Shanahan try certain concepts. Determining their motivation helps LaFleur and the Packers staff figure out how the same strategies could potentially work with their personnel. “Those are guys I coached with before, and it’s easier to understand why they’re doing the things they’re doing,” LaFleur says. “You know their thinking and how they want to act.”

Stefanski has gone through a similar process during his first season in Cleveland, where he’s tried to take the foundation of Kubiak’s system and modify it for the specific talent on the Browns’ roster. Stefanski brought in coaches who specialize in several different systems. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt spent six years in Green Bay, including four as Aaron Rodgers’s quarterbacks coach, before serving as the Bengals’ QBs coach for the past two seasons. Browns passing game coordinator Chad O’Shea comes from the Patriots system, which has a reputation for consistently devising smart red zone packages. The goal is the same one that Kubiak and Shanahan had 25 years ago: By bringing together elements of different schemes, Stefanski is hoping the Browns offense presents a unique set of challenges for opposing defenses. “That’s the fun part of getting minds together in a room … ” Stefanski says. “The best idea wins. When you put it all on the table and you have the empirical evidence of tape to back it up, that’s the fun part of putting schemes together. We’re putting in the 2020 Browns’ system. I don’t care what you call it, really. And I know there’s gonna be time spent trying to figure out what we are. But we’re trying to spend time making sure that we’re hyperaware of what our players do well.”

After spending last season with Kubiak in Minnesota, Stefanski says he’s thrilled to watch the longtime coach return to the play-calling ranks. “I’ve already given him suggestions on his first call,” Stefanski jokes. Kubiak expresses a similar sentiment: “Taking a step back for a couple years and being in a little bit of a different role, watching a lot of things, studying, I’m just excited to get back in there and firing away as a play-caller.”

Kubiak’s latest stint as an offensive coordinator comes 25 years after his first. And this time around, his challenge will be reminding people that the scheme he helped create still has plenty of life after all this time. “It kind of makes you proud, that through the years, it withstood the test of time,” Kubiak says. “A lot of people are running it at a tremendous level right now.”