For Gary Kubiak, his 2013 season appeared to be one long, slow death march for his head coaching career, a metaphorical Netflix series concocted by the most evil producers in television history. There were blowout losses, there were season-ending injuries, there was Kubiak’s own on-field mini stroke and there were the pick sixes. My God, the pick sixes!
Eventually, the kill shot for Kubiak in 2013 came on a Thursday night in early December in Jacksonville, with what was supposed to be the worst team in football (the Jaguars) completing their season sweep on the actual worst team in football (your Houston Texans!). One year removed from an 11-1 start to the 2012 season and Super Bowl pole position, Gary Kubiak’s head coaching career ended amid a sea of penalties and turnovers in a half-full EverBank Field. Bob McNair’s press conference the next day to announce Kubiak’s firing was a mere formality.
If on that day of Kubiak’s termination, you’d made the leap of predicting that not only would he be hired as an NFL head coach again within 14 months, but coaching in a Super Bowl by 2015, you’d have been publicly ridiculed and possibly drug-tested. Yet here we sit, just a few days away from the 50th edition of the NFL’s on-field crown jewel, and Gary Kubiak will be leading the Denver Broncos out of the tunnel and onto the field to take on the 17-1 Carolina Panthers in a Super Bowl that, from Kubiak’s standpoint, is basted in irony on so many levels.
In two seasons, Gary Kubiak went from skipper of a 2-14 football Titanic to head coach of the AFC champions. Equivalent turnarounds in the non-football world would and could be explained only by massive changes in people’s lifestyles or corporate philosophies. And therein lies the irony. Gary Kubiak rose from the ashes and made it to a Super Bowl by staying true to every fiber of his head coaching being and employing largely the same tactics and people with whom he plummeted into the abyss in 2013.
Kubiak’s loyalty to his coaching staff and certain players, a tragic punch line by the end of his run in 2013, was evident from the day he said yes to Broncos president John Elway’s job offer back in January 2015. There are seven Broncos assistant coaches from the same staff that “helped secure” the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft for the Texans. There are five former Texans players on the playoff roster, including tight end Owen Daniels, who apparently wasn’t good enough for Bill O’Brien to keep over Garrett Graham in Houston, but was good enough to catch two touchdown passes in the AFC championship game against the Patriots last Sunday.
Former Texans tight end James Casey spent half the 2015 season in Denver backing up Daniels. In July, following OTAs, Casey said he’d noticed very little difference in the Kubiak he was playing for at that time and the one he’d played for in the first four years of his career in Houston.
“He seems like a similar Kubiak,” Casey said at the time. “Maybe just a little bit of difference in the offense he’s putting together to help accommodate Peyton [Manning], but he’s the same guy.”
On the Tuesday after the AFC title game, Casey, who was released by the Broncos midseason and is now an assistant on Tom Herman’s staff at the University of Houston, with the benefit of several 2015 regular season games of hindsight, reiterated his stance on Kubiak. “He was definitely the same Gary Kubiak,” Casey reconfirmed. “Guys love playing for him.”
If there was any semblance of reinvention with Gary Kubiak between 2013 and 2015, the tweaks were subtle. Kubiak did spend the 2014 season as the offensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens and in that time, he was able to observe Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and gain some self-awareness.
“I got to sit in the back of that room instead of being the guy up front in the meetings, and it gave me a chance to watch John Harbaugh handle situations,” Kubiak told The Denver Post prior to the start of the 2015 season. “You sit there and say to yourself, ‘You know I like that idea, and if I’m a head coach again, I’d probably do this the same way.’ I learned watching him each and every day.”
More than anything else, that stint as Ravens offensive coordinator in 2014 helped cleanse Kubiak of the stench of 2013, as he helped Baltimore’s offense improve from 30th to ninth in the league in Football Outsiders’ DVOA measurement, a recognized standard for offensive efficiency. At the very least, Kubiak reminded everyone that he could coach up an offense, a belief that, to many Texans fans, was buried under a pile of Matt Schaub pick sixes in 2013.
Despite Kubiak’s 2014 renaissance as an offensive coordinator, many football insiders contended that coaching offense for the 2015 Broncos would be Kubiak’s undoing in his new job, since he was tasked with somehow blending his beloved zone running scheme with whatever-it-is-Peyton-Manning-likes-to-do, an arranged marriage more awkward than anything Game of Thrones could serve up. Experts anticipated a painful tug-of-war between the head coach and the future Hall of Fame quarterback, a story line whose drama was amped up by the poorly kept secret that Kubiak nixed the signing of a willing Manning to quarterback the Texans in 2012, a transaction that, in retrospect, would’ve likely saved Kubiak’s job in 2013 and possibly won him a Super Bowl already in 2012.
What many expected to waylay Kubiak in his second stint as an NFL head coach, though, turned out to be his finest hour. While the 2015 Broncos were a team whose 12-4 record was built on the back of an historically good defense, Kubiak’s deft handling of a delicate quarterback situation was crucial to the team’s ultimate success and, as it turned out, blending Kubiak’s and Manning’s philosophies was a concern secondary to Manning’s nearly 40-year-old body breaking down.
Manning started the first ten games of the season before bottoming out with a 5 for 20 performance with four interceptions in a home loss to Kansas City in Week 10. From there, Kubiak turned to backup Brock Osweiler, who steadied the ship and put the Broncos in position to clinch the top seed in the AFC. However, in Week 17, needing a win over San Diego to secure that top seed and struggling to get one, Kubiak replaced Osweiler with Manning in the second half of that game, and Manning led the Broncos on four second half scoring drives to seal the win and, in retrospect, save their season. Without that home field advantage in the playoffs, the Broncos are likely watching Tom Brady and Bill Belichick against the Carolina Panthers on television this weekend.
Given that his mishandling of the Case Keenum/Matt Schaub quarterback tandem was specifically cited by Bob McNair as a reason for Kubiak’s firing in 2013, Kubiak’s chess moves with Osweiler and Manning must feel like sweet redemption for a head coach who should know, if nothing else, the unique vibe of the starter/backup dynamic with quarterbacks, having himself been a nine-year backup to Elway back in the day.
Speaking of Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback turned franchise czar and the man who got this party together in the first place made it very clear that the firing of Kubiak’s predecessor, John Fox, was as much about how the Broncos lost as it was about them losing at all. Elway wanted to see more fire, more “kicking and screaming” after a divisional round loss to the Colts at home in last season’s playoffs. In that respect, it was Elway who really started this cycle of irony in the first place by hiring Kubiak, who has never been seen as a kicker nor a screamer during his time in Houston.
However, former Texan and Bronco tight end Joel Dreessen says the Kubiak we all saw publicly was different from the guy players would see behind the scenes, and that the head coach could make Mondays after losses very uncomfortable. “When I was in Houston, the Monday after a loss would feel like the sky is falling,” Dreessen recalled. “If you made mistakes the day before, you’d get singled out and held accountable.”
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Dreessen also believes that, despite Elway’s desire for more kicking and more screaming, this is a more laid-back version of Kubiak, publicly and privately. “What’s interesting is that I think Gary has taken a more relaxed approach this season after watching the way John Harbaugh operates in Baltimore,” Dreessen continued. “He lets players bring their families to walk-throughs on Saturday, things like that.”
Whatever the gap may be between perception and reality, the whole thing has worked, and now comes the Broncos’ most daunting challenge, a date with the likely league MVP and a football cyborg in Cam Newton. The Broncos are underdogs again, just as they were against the Patriots, which means they’re probably perfectly comfortable in their role.
From rock bottom in 2013, the journey may not have always been pretty, but for Kubiak, the results have been gorgeous. We now live in a world where Gary Kubiak is coaching in a Super Bowl. Let that sink in.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/SeanCablinasian or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.