EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings drastically improved their running game last season, fielded another top-five defense and won a first-round road playoff game at New Orleans — all positive steps in Minnesota’s quest for its first Super Bowl appearance since 1977.
But a lopsided, second-round playoff loss to eventual NFC champion San Francisco left head coach Mike Zimmer entering the offseason with one big question: How do we get over the hump? New offensive and defensive coordinators have started working on an answer.
“The only way I know how to get over the hump is to keep going back to the hump,” offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. “You have to be good enough to get there every year and find a way to be playing in January.”
Kubiak is one of seven Vikings coaches in new positions this season. A senior offensive assistant last season, the Super Bowl-winning coach is replacing Kevin Stefanski, who left after one season as coordinator to become head coach in Cleveland.
On orders from Zimmer, Stefanski dramatically improved the running game in 2019, finishing sixth in the NFL (133.3-yard average) after ranking 30th in 2018. The Vikings were sixth in scoring defense, giving up an average 18.9 points a game.
It was good enough to earn a wild-card playoff bid and a 26-20 playoff victory over the Saints, but the Vikings were overmatched in a 27-10 loss at San Francisco, leaving them one win shy of the NFC Championship Game.
Zimmer, entering his seventh season as head coach with one season left on his contract, said he hired Kubiak in part because the transition will be virtually seamless.
“There will be some changes, obviously, in probably some of the pass game,” the head coach said. “Every year you’re looking for new and better ways to do things, but the large majority of the offense will be very, very similar.”
A longtime head coach who won a Super Bowl in Denver after the 2016 season, Kubiak played a big role in designing last year’s offense and said Tuesday not much will change. The change, he hopes, will be in playoff performance.
“I used to always preach to my teams, ‘Hey, the bottom line, can we get ourselves in? Can we play better than anybody else for one month?’ ” he said. “That’s what this league boils down to: a lot of good coaches, a lot of good players, a very fine line between being really successful and being successful.
“I think we’re all searching for that, but we’ll work toward that and stay committed to each day and try not to get ahead of ourselves.”
Kubiak, 59, retired in 2017 for health reasons before returning to the NFL as a consultant, and then as a senior assistant to Zimmer last season. He took two days to accept Zimmer’s offer to return to the sideline for the first time since he won Super Bowl L.
“I’m really excited about it,” he said. “I had a great time last year.”
Kubiak will have his most important players back.
Third-year pro Dalvin Cook rushed for 1,135 yards and averaged 4.5 yards a carry, and quarterback Kirk Cousins completed 69 percent of his passes for 3,603 yards and 26 touchdowns with just six interceptions.
Top receivers Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen return, as does tight end Kyle Rudolph, who caught 34 passes for 326 yards and seven touchdowns in his final 11 games including the playoffs.
Kubiak was last an offensive coordinator for Denver in 2005.
“He’s got a great way about him,” Zimmer said. “He’s very down to earth. He’s got a lot of skins on the wall, so the players really respect him. They respect the way that he does teach them, and he’ll get after them when they need to get reprimanded, I guess, or coached hard. He’s not afraid to do any of that. I just think it’s a great fit.”