Biomechanical Review: Gary Kubiak

Gary Kubiak is a coach who blends a technical approach to the QB position with a complementary offensive scheme.  When Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs brought the zone-blocking scheme to the NFL, Kubiak (as Shanahan’s QB coach) added a specific way of playing QB to this scheme, designed to maximize vertical throwing accuracy.  His technical approach enabled many QBs in the Shanahan/ Kubiak ZBS to play more effectively than might be presumed by their general talent level.


What is Gary Kubiak’s innovation?  Let’s first take a look at the ZBS as described by Ted Bartlett

The running game and short/intermediate passing game are decidedly horizontal in nature, with a goal of making defenders chase the action from side-to-side, and then killing them with misdirection.

The passing game isn’t particularly timing-based,[…] and on base downs, it mostly relies upon half-field high-to-medium-to-low reads off of bootleg action.

With the initially horizontal action, Shanahan’s scheme puts a lot of defenders out of position to the wrong side of the field, and then attacks the guys staying at home vertically.

So the QB, having brought the defense to one side of the field via a play that is blocked exactly like a wide-zone running play (the base play in the Shanahan/ Kubiak playbook), boots to the other side of the field and attacks vertically on that side. The defense is out of position (assuming the run is being respected), and the QB only needs to read half the field and throw vertically to whichever depth presents an open receiver.

Gary Kubiak added specific throwing techniques to this half-field passing attack, to enhance vertical accuracy (particularly while throwing on the run, off of boot-action).  Given Kubiak’s biomechanical profile as a player, he likely derived these techniques from his personal experience as a QB.

Gary Kubiak’s QBs consistently show a particular biomechanical pattern when playing in his scheme- they borrow from their lateral posterior areas, torquing their bodies in the direction of the throw.  Essentially, they guide their throw down the field by using the outside of their body (on the throwing side) as a sling. Even QBs with somewhat underdeveloped posterior areas (a description that not-so-coincidentally fits Gary Kubiak) can tune their vertical accuracy by turning their bodies into the throw (starting from the feet).  This technique, unlike natural throwing efficiency, is able to be practiced, relying on precisely-guided footwork. So it is a very effective technical tool, particularly for QBs who are more efficient in their lateral areas (again, like Kubiak himself)- they are able to borrow from their favored lateral areas (the outside of their bodies) to make accurate vertical throws on the run.

Borrowing from the lateral areas does present a significant drawback- it limits the thrower’s overall range of motion, thereby narrowing the horizontal throwing range.  However, in a half-field throwing situation, this downside becomes largely irrelevant. The QB only needs to throw within a relatively narrow cone, so whatever drawback exists to this borrowing technique is almost entirely offset by the added vertical accuracy and consistency.  

This is likely why Gary Kubiak has historically been so specific about both his scheme and the QBs he chooses to run it.  A QB like Peyton Manning, who is equally efficient in both medial and lateral areas (and who, in his HoF career, relied on being able to throw accurately across a wide range of the field, both horizontally and vertically) would have little to gain by utilizing Kubiak’s techniques.  He could already throw accurately to all depths, and to both sides of the field. Whereas a QB like Matt Schaub, or Trevor Siemian (or Jake Plummer, or even Paxton Lynch) could play far more effectively in Kubiak’s scheme than in others, utilizing Kubiak’s techniques to gain additional vertical accuracy within a limited horizontal range of the field.  

And crucially, these techniques rely on the wide-zone scheme to stretch the defense horizontally.  Without an effective wide-zone running game to put the defense out of position relative to the booting QB, the QB is forced to stay home and survey the entire field for an open WR.  At which point, the drawback of borrowing from the lateral areas (limited horizontal throwing range) becomes very relevant.

So, more than almost any other coach, Gary Kubiak relies on a marriage of scheme and technique.  Scheme, to free up half the field for a QB on boot-action, and technique for the QB to be able to consistently make an accurate vertical throw on the run. Put them together, as Gary Kubiak has done throughout his coaching career, and even somewhat marginal QBs can play very effectively.