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Game Within The Game: Jake Browning Mentor Gary Kubiak Enjoying Bengals Coaching Clinic As Vikings Full Circle

QB Jake Browning calls out a play during the Colts-Bengals game in Week 14 of the 2023 season on Sunday, December 10 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.
QB Jake Browning calls out a play during the Colts-Bengals game in Week 14 of the 2023 season on Sunday, December 10 at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Since head coaching two different franchises to the playoffs and one of them to the Super Bowl title, you can find Gary Kubiak these days on his Texas farm and in Jake Browning's text messages.

After Browning completed another historic performance Sunday in the middle of a playoff run as the Bengals backup quarterback for Pro Bowler Joe Burrow, there was another message. Something along the lines of, "God-dang I'm so proud of you." When Browning stares at the Vikings secondary Saturday at Paycor Stadium (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 9 and NFL Network), he knows those days he spent as a Minnesota scout team safety with Kubiak helped get him here.

"I always watch offensive football from the defensive side. And it's always good on the defensive side of the ball to watch my guys work," Kubiak is saying this week. "And Jake was a scout team quarterback, but he had to play safety on defense because you're out of players. He always stood back there with me as I watched the offense and I always talked to him about why we're doing this, what should happen. So it was really interesting.

"He and I were together every day, watching our offense work and it was good for me. I assume it was good for him, but I think he learned a lot of football that year."


"Very valuable," Browning is saying after Wednesday's practice during a week the Bengals prepare for the latest edition of a Vikings team that bears no resemblance to that one.

That was 2019, Browning's first year in the NFL. Four years before, Kubiak led the Broncos to the NFL title and now Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer had brought him in to fix his offense. He also ended up helping develop a quarterback while rehabbing a veteran in Kirk Cousins. On both sides of the ball.

"Very valuable," Browning is saying. "(Kubiak) ran the scout team my rookie year. It was his offense. Kevin Stefanski calling the plays. So he would run the scout team and coach me up on my scout team reps. He'd kind of say, 'You've got to get rid of the ball quicker,' or something. He'd give me coaching points.

"And then when I was back playing scout team safety, we would talk about plays. Things that Kirk did well. Maybe how he should read a play. I had a really good relationship with him."

He still does.

"It's kind of fun for me right now to kind of live through him a little bit and watch what he's doing because he deserves it," Kubiak says. "He's worked really hard to get a chance. He's with some really good people and I'll be darned, this is going to be a fun month to watch."

But it's just not Browning he's watching these days in Cincinnati. He's keeping track of a greenhouse he helped cultivate in the NFL's forest of coaching trees. The schemes have become so intertwined these days that it is more like coaching vines.

Kubiak's son, Klint, was a graduate assistant with Bengals head coach Zac Taylor at Texas A&M, where he was Bengals wide receivers coach Troy Walters' GA. Taylor says he's watched tape of virtually every Gary Kubiak install. Offensive coordinator Brian Callahan coached under Gary Kubiak in Denver. Offensive line coach Frank Pollack worked under Kubiak when he was head coach of the Texans. Tight ends coach James Casey played for Kubiak on Houston's first playoff teams.

"(Browning) is around some damn good coaches. Zac and Cali. Those guys know what they're doing. They know how to put him in position to be successful," Kubiak says. "Those guys grew up together at A&M. Funny how things work out.

"I know that staff well. It's pretty impressive what they've done with obviously losing a quarterback and going through some hell. But all of a sudden sitting here with a chance this next month."'

If anyone knows anything about winning with backup quarterbacks, it is Kubiak. He himself came off the bench for the injured John Elway in the 1984 opener to spoil Bengals head coach Sam Wyche's debut in Denver with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Clarence Kay late for a fourth-quarter comeback victory.

Then nearly 30 years later at Paycor Stadium in 2011, Kubiak's Texans clinched their first AFC South title in a 20-19 victory during T.J. Yates' first road start in place of Matt Schaub. Four years later in another December, when the Broncos were battling the Bengals for a playoff bye, Brock Osweiler pinch-hit for Peyton Manning and nosed out Bengals backup AJ McCarron in a 20-17 overtime win.

"They're playing to his strengths," Kubiak says. "It looks like they're not putting it all on him. They've got a really good team. They've got a lot of weapons around him. They find ways to get him started early in games and give him some confidence.

"And then I think what you've seen over the past few games is his confidence has grown and now he's starting to play better and better. So just a really good job by Zac and those guys understanding their situation and finding a way to make it successful."

According to Next Gen Stats, Taylor and his staff are blowing it up with Browning. Not only is Browning's 79.3 completion percentage in his first three starts the highest since 1950, he leads the NFL the last two weeks with 10.3 yards per attempt and has the second-best passer rating at 119.2 behind only Brock Purdy.

Not only that, Taylor has guided Browning to 8.8 yards per attempt and three touchdown passes for a 128.4 passer rating against the blitz, third in the league for anybody with at least 25 attempts vs. pressure.

"I think the biggest thing is first understanding exactly who he is," Kubiak is saying. "You know, you can't throw a backup in there and say, 'Okay, you're going to do everything the starter did.' You have to say, 'Okay, what does he do best? What are his strengths? How do we play the game to his strengths? How do we play the games to his confidence.'

"When you see coaches lose a quarterback, and continue to win games, that just tells you how good a football coach they are because it is a big adjustment as a coach."

Taylor is doing that in a big way while displaying a playbook teeming with diversity. As a master of play-action and quarterback bootlegs from under center, Kubiak has to be loving what he's seeing. Off play-action, Browning leads the NFL with 14.3 yards per pass on 81.5% passing. They've done it by doubling their use of two tight-end sets the past two weeks and increasing their number of snaps under center.

Taylor and Callahan stress this is not a re-invention of the offense, but merely an expansion of the playbook as they adjust more to that week's defense than to Browning. As Taylor says, "It's all stuff we've got in there." He often says his offense is an evolution of what has come before, so it's no surprise given the Kubiak influence on the staff there are vestiges of the offense Browning worked in under Kubiak in Minnesota.

"We're well-versed in that whole scheme. We've used some elements of it. We use some things that maybe they don't," Callahan says. "We've definitely leaned into some of those concepts more than maybe we have before because they suit Jake's strengths. We're just using parts of the playbook.

"But there are still a lot of core things that we do that are very similar that both Joe and Jake do well. I would say we're just pulling from different parts. These are all things we've done before."

Kubiak is enjoying the current day coaching clinic. But he and Taylor both say it comes down to the guy. When the Bengals signed Browning after the Vikings cut him before the 2021 season, Taylor said they were looking at the player more so than the background he came from.

"The thing that impressed me about Jake is that he was very successful in college. He a lot of good things going on," Kubiak says. "And then all of a sudden, you don't get drafted. That can be a blow to a lot of guys. But all he wanted was a chance.

"When I had him, I told him, 'It's going to take you some time. But if you stay the course, and battle it, stay around good people, good offenses, you'll get a chance eventually and I'll be damned. Look what's going on. Great kid, great kid. I tell players, the only time somebody is going to find out whether you're staying prepared is when you step in there and it hits the fan. People say, 'Damn this guy. This guy knows what he's doing. This guy has been paying attention.' Credit to the player."

There seems to be plenty of credit to go around as Browning finds himself looking at a Vikings secondary again.

"Hats off to Zac and those guys," Kubiak says.

Browning knows he'll get a good luck text from the Texas farm soon.

"He definitely roots for the underdog," Browning says.