Two seasons ago, Gary Kubiak collapsed while walking off a field at halftime. He was hospitalized with “a mini-stroke” yet was so dedicated to his craft that he resumed coaching the Houston Texans shortly afterward, only to be fired weeks later.
So he could handle any challenge, including the one presented this season by his good friend in Denver, John Elway.
That would be persuading 39-year-old icon Peyton Manning, who for years called his own plays and put up the most prolific regular-season passing statistics in NFL history, to learn a new run-first offense and let the defense carry the biggest burden. That would be telling Manning, when he missed six games and parts of two others with a foot problem, that the Broncos could win without him … as they did. And that was making sure the team kept a promise when Manning came on board that Elway would get him back to Super Bowls as the starting QB … which he has done again.
Kubiak was dealing with history, expectations and egos — Manning’s and his own. He also was dealing with 50 other egos in uniform. He pulled it off, making the successful transition in one season.
“What is not mentioned,” said Elway, the Broncos’ general manager, “is that the hot seat Gary stepped into was hotter than any seat in the league. I mean, we had great success before he got here, and for him to come in and do what he’s done, you know we had a tremendous situation because he’s done a tremendous job of managing the quarterback situation.”
Elway knew what he was getting when Kubiak was signed last January, replacing the ousted John Fox. Kubiak, an eighth-rounder in the same 1983 draft in which Elway was the overall No. 1 pick, both by Denver, was Elway’s quarterbacking backup and roommate.
Kubiak brought in as coordinator the veteran Wade Phillips, for whose father, Bum Phillips, Kubiak, 54, a lifetime ago served as a ball boy. Phillips has produced the NFL’s No. 1 defense this season.
In 1994, Kubiak was quarterbacks coach on a 49ers team coached by George Seifert that would win the Super Bowl. “It was a one-year-stop for me,” recalled Kubiak, whose No. 1 man was Steve Young, “but it was an enjoyable one.”
So was a return to Denver, where Mike Shanahan, who had been Niners offensive coordinator, became head coach and won two Super Bowls — with Elway as quarterback.After 11 seasons in Denver, Kubiak in 2006 became head coach of the Houston Texans, getting to the playoffs in 2012. But late in the 2013 season came his collapse on the field. Wade Phillips replaced him in the interim, but the team was awful, and in December. Kubiak was fired. That led to being offensive coordinator with Baltimore in 2014 and Elway reaching out to call him back and give life to the Broncos.
“Even when I was a starter,” said Elway, “Gary and I were equals. I am his boss, but I look at it as equals.”
After his medical problems of 2013, Kubiak said he has learned to delegate some responsibilities. As all coaches, he still works too long and too hard but now understands there are limitations. He also understands the pain and pleasure of coaching Manning, whose career looked over as young Brock Osweiler took over … until the final regular-season game against San Diego, when Manning took over as the starter. “For him to step in the huddle and take over the group,” he said, “this football team believes he’s going to get it done. He worked hard to get back.’
The same thing could be said about Gary Kubiak, the one-time Broncos reserve, now head coach.