Gary Kubiak looks so comfortable in his Denver Broncos T-shirt and shorts.
It’s like he never left. Denver is simply where Kubiak is meant to be as, at the age of 55, he is taking full advantage of his second chance at being an NFL head coach.
Kubiak may be have been born and raised in Houston, but Denver is where his NFL career was born. Of course, Kubiak joined the Broncos in 1983 as a late-round draft pick as a quarterback out of Texas A&M. Of course, the very first pick of the same draft was John Elway, who came to the Rockies a few days later through a trade with Baltimore.
Elway’s presence in Denver ended Kubiak’s chances of being a starting quarterback, but it was the beginning of a long friendship and business partnership. After backing up Elway from 1983-91, the cerebral Kubiak went into coaching. After stints at his alma mater and with the San Francisco 49ers, Kubiak became Denver’s offensive coordinator in 1995 under coach Mike Shanahan (who he worked with on the 49ers’ Super Bowl-winning team), and stayed there until he became the head coach of his hometown Houston Texans in 2006.
Kubiak’s hiring in Houston was lauded as the return of the hometown boy. His tenure in Houston has to be categorized as just so-so. The Texans went 61-64 under Kubiak before he was fired late in the 2013 season. The Texans were 2-2 in the postseason under Kubiak.
Well respected around the league, the quiet, mild-mannered Kubiak was quickly gobbled up as offensive coordinator by Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh in 2014. The Ravens offense instantly excelled under Kubiak’s guidance, especially quarterback Joe Flacco. Yet, the general consensus around the league was that Kubiak was one of those coaches who were probably better served being a coordinator and not a head coach. Many coaches have that reputation, including Norv Turner on offense and Wade Phillips on defense.
Good thing Elway didn’t buy into that theory.
After an early playoff exit in the 2014 season, Elway – who went from being a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback for the Broncos to a wildly successful general manager of the team – quickly fired coach John Fox.
The Broncos were a consistent winner under Fox, as they won the AFC West in all three of his seasons in charge. But Elway was looking for his team to have a better focus and to be more prepared, especially in the postseason. Elway quickly turned to Kubiak.
After they were teammates, Kubiak was Elway’s offensive coordinator for his final four NFL seasons, the last two of which ended with Super Bowl titles. Now, their long relationship continues with Elway and Kubiak being the leaders of the Broncos, in different capacities.
It was the perfect pairing for everyone. Kubiak got his second chance at being a head coach that many didn’t think he’d get. Elway got a coach he felt comfortable with. The results were immediate and dramatic as Kubiak led Denver to its third Super Bowl title last season.
“This thing is working because Gary and John know each other so well and they work so well together,” longtime NFL executive and now league analyst Gil Brandt said. “There’s an incredible comfort level there.”
I covered Kubiak in Denver when he was the offensive coordinator. He was polite and friendly and he knew his place. He was a lieutenant under Shanahan. Now, more than a decade later, it is clear Kubiak knows he’s running the show. He is very comfortable in his own skin as the leader of the Broncos.
It’s also clear he is reveling in his second act as an NFL head coach. New England’s Bill Belichick and Seattle’s Pete Carroll are two prime examples of coaches who took advantage of multiple head-coaching opportunities. Flame-outs the first go around, both Belichick and Carroll won Super Bowls with their current teams and both are considered elite coaches.
A longtime associate of Carroll said his success in his second NFL head coaching job is partly attributed to him knowing himself better and knowing how to handle situations better. Thus, he learned from the mistakes he made earlier in his career.
It is clear Kubiak is handling his role in Denver as an experienced head coach. He maneuvered through the delicate Peyton Manning benching and his return for the playoffs last season. Kubiak perfectly handled the three-man quarterback battle this summer. When starting middle linebacker Brandon Marshall became the first player to protest during the national anthem in a regular season game, Kubiak dealt with that situation with leadership and grace.
With Denver’s solid roster and strong leadership, there is reason to believe Kubiak’s second-act success will not be fleeting. The longtime Broncos player and former coordinator has a chance to have another long tenure as the head coach.
“Gary is going to be in Denver a long time,” Brandt said. “It’s just where he belongs.”