DENVER — John Elway is adamant that Gary Kubiak was never his understudy during their playing days together and certainly isn’t his underling now.
“I’ve looked at it the whole time — even when I was the starter, Gary and I were equals,” Elway said. “Gary and I, we’ve been friends, but even when he came back here — even though I am really his boss — I look at it as equal in the fact that we both have responsibilities within this organization. And we have great conversation, he runs the football team and I run the personnel side.”
Elway said they’re able to work together so well because of their history, dating to when they were roommates on the road back in the ‘80s.
“You get to know a guy,” Elway said.
And he gets to know you.
That’s why Kubiak’s cell was quickly buzzing a year ago after Elway ousted John Fox as his head coach following yet another playoff pratfall.
Kubiak served as Elway’s backup from 1983-91 and then as his position coach and offensive coordinator from 1995-98, the final two years ending in parades through downtown Denver.
After an eight-year run as Houston’s head coach, Kubiak landed in Baltimore and was basking in his bounce-back season with the Ravens when Elway called with the chance to return to Denver after decade away.
Elway had just parted ways with Fox, who went 49-33 in four seasons but whose teams were outscored 150-66 in their final game in the playoffs.
Elway wanted a head coach who would toughen up his team and add balance on offense while ratcheting up an already stout defense.
Kubiak did just that, guiding the Broncos (13-4) through a quarterback crisis and into today’s AFC championship against New England (13-4) on the strength of an NFL record-tying 10 wins by seven points or fewer.
Elway lauded Kubiak’s management style.
“There’s a purpose to everything he does, and there’s a reason to everything he does. He just doesn’t do things to do things,” Elway said. “And as a player, you respect that, and I respected that. That, to me, is why he’s been successful.”
Kubiak said he, too, sees this reunion with Elway, of which Tuesday was the 1-year anniversary, as a partnership.
“We’re all in this thing together,” Kubiak said. “That’s part of what we do. John has done a tremendous job here. You just look at what he’s done since he’s come in here, the success that this organization has had with him as a player an now as a general manager. It’s a joy for me to work with him.”
It’s one thing to take over a rebuilding team with low expectations and high draft picks and quite another to inherit one that’s averaged a dozen wins for four seasons.
Yet, Kubiak kept the Broncos from unravelling while dealing with major issues at the game’s foundational positions: quarterback, edge rusher and blindside protector.
Denver lost left tackles Ryan Clady and then Ty Sambrailo to IR. Peyton Manning’s left foot injury sidelined him for six games and parts of two others and backup Brock Osweiler was 5-2 in his starts, helping Denver secure the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
DeMarcus Ware missed five full games and parts of three others with a bad back and balky knee, but Denver’s defense finished No. 1 overall for the first time in franchise history.
The Broncos beat five of seven fellow playoff teams while facing the league’s toughest schedule, then ousted one of the teams they’d lost to, Pittsburgh, in the divisional round.
“The things that he’s gone through, not many guys will handle it as well as he handled it,” Elway said. “Gary, to me, was the type, he’d seen it, he’d been there, he’d won three championships, and I know having played with him, played for him, that the formula that he has and the way he goes about it can be successful.”
Elway said Kubiak’s greatest attribute is his steady heartbeat.
“He doesn’t get rattled in any situation,” Elway said. “I think he’s very calm in all situations and he’s got a tremendous knack of kind of feeling situations and kind of feeling what’s going on and how to direct the team in certain situations.”
That showed in his handling of his quarterback quandary.
“It’s a really delicate situation,” Elway said, “and he handled it masterfully.”
Elway has spent all five of his top draft picks on defensive players and Kubiak has reintroduced the zone blocking scheme in Denver to balance the Broncos’ offense.
So, Elway believes he has the formula and the foundation in place for a continued run of excellence no matter who’s under center.
“I like the system, obviously, having played in it,” Elway said, “and knowing that you can win world championships with it.”
Together, as equals.