ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—Four months after the Broncos' upset loss to the Colts in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs, some things remain the same at their facility in suburban Denver—and many things do not. Quarterback Peyton Manning is back, of course, after a nearly two-month waiting game to decide his fate, and the team’s defense returns most of its stalwarts from 2014. But notably absent are tight end Julius Thomas (who left in free agency for Jacksonville), receiver Wes Welker (who has yet to sign with a new team) and receiver Demaryius Thomas (who’s holding out after being slapped with the franchise tag last winter). Oh, and the coaching staff. That’s changed, too.
After four years in Denver—and a year removed from a contract extension—John Fox and the Broncos mutually agreed to part ways after failing to make it to the Super Bowl in 2014. The bulk of Fox's staff departed as well, and the Broncos front office opted to go with familiarity when it chose Fox’s successor, Gary Kubiak. Kubiak, who was Baltimore’s offensive coordinator in 2014, got his start in the Broncos organization as John Elway’s backup from 1983-91, served as offensive coordinator for an 11-year stretch that included Elway's two Super Bowl victories and has a close relationship with the star quarterback turned general manager.
On the first day of the Broncos’ voluntary veterans minicamp in April, Sports Illustrated caught up with Kubiak to discuss his road back to Denver and his vision for the team in 2015.
SI: Last January, what was your reaction when you realized the Broncos job could be a fit for you?
Kubiak: I don’t know that I was ever thinking that way. We’d just got through with our season, and I’d made a decision about what I wanted to do, and things are crazy in this business. Within a 48-hour period, things happened, and obviously I’m close with John [Elway], and we had some conversations, and after that, I can’t remember. All things happen for a reason.
SI: When you were weighing the pros of coming to Denver—besides the possibility of coaching Manning—what were they?
Kubiak: It’s a heck of a football team, and I think the biggest thing is the organization. I’ve obviously spent a lot of time with this organization, and I have a strong bond with [longtime Broncos owner Pat] Bowlen and his family. For me, to go back and work for the man who gave me my start, you know, it’s special, every day. Obviously I have a closeness with the city, with the organization, and there’s plenty of good football players here, too.
SI: Has the organization changed much in your 10 years away?
Kubiak: You know what? It really hasn’t. Obviously there’s some big, new, beautiful buildings here, and those type of things, but my secretary was here when I was a player. People up and down the hall are still here. We’re just all a little bit older. This organization’s always been about family and commitment to the Bronco family. It really hasn’t changed much at all.
SI: You and Elway have a long-standing friendship. How has that relationship changed since you’ve entered into this boss-coach dynamic?
Kubiak: It is interesting. We’re buddies. We’re ballplayers and buddies, and through the years, we both had families, and life moves on, and all the sudden we’re back here working together. First off, it’s about respect. He’s got a job to do. I understand that. And I’ve got a job to do. It’s all about respect. But the one thing that’s great, and I’m just speaking as a head coach, when you know that particular guy’s knowledge of the game is what it is—his knowledge of what’s going on gives me a very comfortable feeling. And I know he’ll tell me what he thinks. That’s a good thing. I see him quite a bit. The past six weeks, I’ve been with him every day, preparing for the draft.
SI: How has your spring been in terms of starting to build your relationship with your quarterback?
Kubiak: It’s been good. I’m going to step back and let [quarterbacks coach] Greg Knapp and [offensive coordinator Rick Dennison] do their jobs. They’re with him everyday, and obviously I’m dealing with the football team, but I am an offensive guy, so I’m going to be with him a bunch. You know, it’s just funny how things work in your career. As long as he’s been doing it, as long as I’ve been doing it—I’ve been able to be around some great quarterbacks—and for me to have an opportunity to be a part of his career at this point, I take that very seriously. I’m looking forward to it. He’s a challenge to coach; he’s such a good player and such a smart player. But I think we all need challenges in our lives, and I’ve got a good one.
SI: How have things been going so far in terms of melding your offense with Manning’s skill set?
Kubiak: First off, we’ve got to go do what he does best. That’s the most important thing. But we have some things we want to stand for offensively, some things we want to do, so we’re going to stay committed to that. He’s been very cooperative from that standpoint. We’ve had to catch up with him, and he’s having to catch up with us, and we’re somewhere right in the middle right now. We get a little bit of a head start here today.
SI: How much does his football intellect help with that "catching up"?
Kubiak: A lot, but you have to, when you’ve been playing as long as he has, too, you have to be cooperative to want to do something like this. It would be easy for someone to say, "No, I’ve been doing this like this forever." But he’s been great. He says, "I need challenges to win." His commitment here over the last few months has been as good as it’s ever been.
SI: And on the other side of the ball, it seems like the guys are really excited to switch from last year’s 4–3 into your 3–4 defense. Why do you think this group is so well suited for that change?
Kubiak: Well, number 1, [outside linebacker Von Miller] gets up on the ball, too, so I think that’s something that’s strength of personnel. I think what [defensive coordinator Wade Phillips] does is he’s going to put the best people in position. It’s not a hard defense to learn. I think it’s been pretty simple for them, and now we just have to cut them loose. I think we’ve got some good players on the back end to play man coverage, and that’s the biggest thing pass rushers want to hear, that they have good man coverage on the back end. We’ll see, but I think it’s been a good transition so far.
SI: Speaking of your secondary, how grateful were you when you took the job that the Broncos’ front office had already locked up cornerback Chris Harris early rather than letting him hit the free-agent market?
Kubiak: I haven’t crossed paths with the Broncos here in a few years. We played them back about three or four years ago when I was in Houston. [It was a 31–25 Texans win in 2012; Kubiak had been fired by the time Denver traveled to Houston in 2013.] For them to get a player of Chris’s caliber, who was a [college] free agent, initially, to have him in this position right now, that’s exceptional. I think John’s done a great job of holding the group together, and that’s hard to do in this league nowadays.
SI: In free agency this year, I don’t think anyone expected the Broncos to swing as big as they did in 2014, but what was your approach heading into March? Were you making a conscious effort to bring in guys who know your system?
[daily_cut.denver broncos]Kubiak: When I went to Baltimore last year, when you’re a coach and you bounce someplace, there’s people within organizations, and they’re going to ask your opinions about players. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a coach, it’s that if you’re going to stand up and say, Go put this guy on your team, you better know what he stands for. So really, me standing up for [tight end Owen Daniels] or [tight end James Casey], that makes it easy for me. I know what type of kids they are, how important football is to them, how much they’re going to give this organization. So that’s an easy thing for me to say. Like I told John when we were talking about Owen, I said, "John, you can watch the film, but I can tell you what kind of guy he is. You can make the decision on the football, but I can tell you what you’re getting."
SI: Is it nice to know you have some of your guys in the locker room, maybe to be there as resources during the coaching transition?
Kubiak: It’s kind of like having another coach around. Owen can go in and coach the tight ends. James can go in and coach the backs and tight ends. You’ve got those kinds of things going on, it helps you.
SI: Obviously, this team has a window with Manning. He won’t be around more than another year or two. How do you, as a new coach, stay focused on the goal of winning now while also working to develop for the future?
Kubiak: I just think that’s part of running an organization or a team. That’s something that you’re always looking at, the big picture. But right now, the focus is on 2015 and how good this team can be. I keep that pretty narrow right now, as far as day-to-day and what you’ve got to do that’s best for the team.