Gary Kubiak is uniquely qualified to assess Atlanta and New England and shares his keys to the big game. Plus a look at the Raiders’ options past Las Vegas, two draft studs on the rise and five names to watch Sunday

By Albert Breer
February 03, 2017

HOUSTON — Gary Kubiak was preparing to lead the Broncos onto the greatest stage in North American sports at this time a year ago. The goal: to help give Peyton Manning the kind of sendoff befitting an icon.

This year? There’s no team logo to be found on Kubiak, no players surrounding him, no podium in sight. Instead, he’s leaning back slightly in his chair, wearing a button-down, jeans and sneakers, looking as relaxed and healthy as he has in some time. He’s holding court in Room 320C of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

And a month into his retirement from coaching, he’s got perspective few can bring to Super Bowl 51. Not only was he in this spot 12 months ago, his Broncos played both the Patriots and the Falcons in 2016, and he has a decade-and-a-half coaching against New England’s Bill Belichick under his belt, as well as three years working with Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

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“The first thing that stands out to me is just how well they’re both playing,” said Kubiak. “To get to this game in this league, there’s a lot of things that have to fall right, but these two teams are playing extremely well. I’m excited like anyone else to watch this football game.”

I grew up reading Will McDonough in the Boston Globe, and before big games, Willie would enlist coaches in the know to get an inside feel on what each teams needed to do to win. So I figured—this being the Super Bowl and all—I’d try to give you guys the kind of perspective on this game that McDonough once gave me and so many others.

And there was no one better to help me pull it off than Kubiak.

Bill Belichick got the better of Gary Kubiak in the Broncos-Patriots game late in 2016.
Jack Dempsey/AP

In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll look at what’s next for the Raiders; the new man in charge in Indianapolis; the next commander of the Jets offense; whether Matt Ryan would ever fall again to the third overall draft pick; and why John Lynch made sense for the Niners, according to the man who hired John Elway in Denver.

We’ll start, though, with the big game, through another coach’s eyes.

The Broncos lost 23-16 to the Falcons on Oct. 9 and 16-3 to the Patriots on Dec. 18. But Kubiak’s Broncos also were the last team to beat New England away from Gillette (they did that twice in 2015), Kubiak was in the same division as Shanahan in 2014 and coached against then-Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as Texans coach during the Seahawks’ 2013 title year.

Bottom line, Kubiak knows these teams well. And so he outlined a half-dozen keys to watch as a world champion is crowned Sunday night. In no particular order…

• Atlanta will have to adjust. There will be things thrown at Quinn and Shanahan and their players that probably aren’t on film yet. The Falcons need to be ready.

“You have to prepare your team for the unexpected,” Kubiak said. “And what I mean by that, from a mentality standpoint, convince your team that you’re gonna compete against some things that maybe I can’t prepare you for as a coach. They do a lot of unexpected things. That’s building the confidence in your football team to work through those hurdles on game day.

“And if we see something that we haven’t prepared for, ‘That’s OK, we’ve got a good football team.’ I think psychologically getting your team prepared for the many things that Bill does, and does better than anyone else, is part of it.”

• The Patriots have to find Julio Jones. It sounds simple, but this is where Shanahan has made the Falcon force-of-nature even harder to deal with. Jones is moving around the formation more than he ever did in his first five seasons.

“What Kyle’s done, to me, the most tremendous job of is making Julio play all over the place,” Kubiak said. “People say they’re gonna take him away but if he’s able to move him the way Kyle can move him, it’s hard to do. … Kyle’s gonna play him everywhere. It’s not like he’s just gonna be on the left side or he’ll just play X or Z. Julio’s gonna play everywhere.”

That’ll make him harder to double, which means the Patriots will need contingencies in place—as they play Where’s Julio?—on how to stop him when Atlanta does things to free him.

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• The Falcons need an unsung hero. What Belichick does as well as anything is force offenses to play left-handed. So there figure to be chunks of the game Sunday where Ryan will be relying guys like Austin Hooper and Tevin Coleman rather than Jones. That dynamic, in fact, was a big part of how Denver beat New England last January.

“As you put in schemes to coach against Bill and his teams, when you practice, there are only so many reps you get in practice,” said Kubiak. “So you may be repping for the ball to go to Demaryius (Thomas) or to Emmanuel (Sanders), but they’re gonna force it to go somewhere else. Those are the type of things you have to prepare your football team for.

“Owen (Daniels) made some big plays for us in the championship game, and we weren’t necessarily built up for him but that’s where they made the ball go in certain situations. That’s part of playing their team.”

• The Patriots will have to win with coverage. The attention Jones commands has routinely generated favorable matchups elsewhere for Ryan to exploit. And so in certain spots, New England will have to simply win those against the Falcons’ down-the-line skill players.

“Atlanta’s ability to beat you a lot of ways—what Matt has done, the way he can throw the ball, we understand that,” Kubiak say. “But Kyle can run the ball, he’s got two good backs, and Bill’s gonna make you do something different, and Kyle’s ability to adjust over the course of the year, and not only this year but as an offensive coordinator in general has been exceptional. So it’ll be interesting to see.”

• The Falcons have to hit Brady. The teams to beat the Patriots in the playoffs (the Ravens, Jets, Broncos and Giants) have done it by cutting off the head of the snake—knocking Brady into oblivion. That, of course, is easier said than done.

“He’s really hard to get to,” Kubiak says. “We were a man coverage football team. We weren’t gonna change, so that’s what we did. And if you ask me, probably the most important thing was that we got a lead in the championship game. It’s hard to go get Tom when you’re playing from behind. We were fortunate enough to get the lead in that game.”

• The Patriots have to control the Falcons’ backs. Atlanta can run the ball as well as anyone, but just stopping the run isn’t enough; the ability of Freeman and Coleman in the passing game has become an extension of the run game. One example: Freeman’s only rushed for 97 yards on 28 carries in the playoffs, but has eight catches for 122 yards. Another: Coleman had four catches for 132 yards in Denver.

“I think one of the big keys in the game is gonna be Atlanta running the football,” Kubiak said. “They’re capable of running the ball. But Kyle’s gonna move them around; you saw what they did to us in Denver. One kid had over 100 yards receiving. He’ll get the ball in his playmakers’ hands. He knows how to do that.”

As for a prediction, Kubiak wasn’t going there, except to say that now as a consumer he’s just like the rest of us, anxiously anticipating kickoff. And he did allow that he thinks this one will be worth the wait.

“One team’s got a ton of experience, all the experience in the world, can’t have any more. And the other team is young and confident right now, and doing a tremendous job,” Kubiak said. “It’ll be interesting. I think we’ll see a great football game.”

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The Patriots’ secret weapon? Dion Lewis could play a big role in the Super Bowl.
Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

• This is an opportunity for a signature moment for Kyle Shanahan. As Kubiak says, the key will be the Atlanta coordinator’s early adjustments. After that, the Shanny/Belichick chess match is on.

• The Patriots held back Dion Lewis early in the year to make sure they could unleash him late—and he has 64 touches from scrimmage in his last five games. Can Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell get Lewis to the ground?

• Two years ago, Dan Quinn’s Seattle defense, with a few tweaks, spent three quarters on top of Tom Brady. Then Cliff Avril got hurt, and the team crumbled in the fourth. Can Quinn use that experience with Atlanta’s young D?

• Speaking of Super Bowl 49, Logan Ryan was the Patriots’ fifth corner in that game. He’s come a long way. If the Pats follow their pattern in covering big receivers, Ryan will draw Julio Jones with safety help—a pretty big assignment.

• Which Vic Beasley shows up? Yes, the Atlanta sophomore had 15.5 sacks this year, but they all came in nine games, and 6.5 of them were against shaky lines in Los Angeles and Denver. In Atlanta’s other nine games, he was shut out.

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The Falcons selected Matt Ryan with the third overall pick in the 2008 draft.
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

1. Would Ryan fall to the third pick in today’s NFL? The Miami Dolphins picked Jake Long with the first pick in the 2008 draft, because Bill Parcells felt the need to fortify his offensive line and viewed taking a left tackle as safer than drafting a quarterback. The Rams took Chris Long second overall, and didn’t even consider going quarterback because Marc Bulger was in the second year of a six-year, $62.5 million deal in St. Louis. And so the Falcons—who’d settled on Boston College’s Matt Ryan as their guy a month earlier—watched a franchise quarterback fall right into their lap.

Chances that a player like Ryan would fall to the third pick in 2017? Probably somewhere around zero. “No. No way,” said Dimitroff, conceding that they’d have had to try to trade up the way it is today. “I would never imagine that.” And that’s not even about Ryan. It’s about the environment in the NFL today at that position.

Last year at this time, the consensus on the draft quarterbacks was there was no Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston in the 2016 crop. And the Rams and Eagles traded a ton of draft capital to get Jared Goff and Carson Wentz anyway. In the weeks before that, Brock Osweiler got $18 million per in Houston and Sam Bradford got $18 million per in Philly. In September, Philly flipped Bradford to Minnesota for first-round and fourth-round picks.

So if you take that atmosphere and teleport it to 2008? Someone probably trades up for Ryan. And Dimitroff knows who that someone might’ve been, because that team was the only one that made him nervous about sitting tight at 3 and hoping Ryan would be there for Atlanta. “Down the stretch, there was a rumor about Baltimore moving up,” Dimitroff said. “I remember, to (coach Mike Smith’s) credit, sitting in my office and getting a call from (agent) Ben Dogra, who’d mentioned he’d heard there was a rumor that Baltimore was moving up. I hung up and looked at Smitty and he said, ‘Do your thing, let’s stay the course.’”

I think we can all go ahead and guess the reaction to such a rumor nine years later, in a similar circumstance, would be just a little different.

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2. Vegas option drying up for Raiders. First Sheldon Adelson backed out of the Las Vegas stadium proposal; he’d committed $650 million of his own money and served as the engine in securing $750 million in public funding. Then, Goldman Sachs’ investment, which was to replace Adelson’s and is part of the Raiders’ pending relocation application, evaporated. And now, while the NFL won’t come out and say, it looks the idea of Las Vegas Raiders is about to disappear into the Nevada desert, dead before it ever got off the ground.

For their part, league officials maintained Wednesday that, despite all the movement over the past couple weeks, they’re just waiting for word from the team, which hasn’t (yet) withdrawn its application to move. “We were never involved in negotiations,” NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman told. “They submitted the application and we’re evaluating the application. They haven’t changed anything in the application. I think we have to understand that Sheldon Adelson was instrumental in getting that legislation passed, and that was the tool that really cracked it open for this to be a potential opportunity. All the work that we have to do still has to be done. We weren’t involved in the negotiation. So unlike Los Angeles, which was a strategic priority, this relocation was really up to the team to make the case. The team held the negotiation, we were just told how it was going.”

So there are a few things I’ve been able to glean about the team’s future over the past few days. One, the league really likes the Bay Area, and would love to keep the Raiders there to continue to tap into the affluent East Bay and North Bay areas, which are now further separated from the Niners in the South Bay. Two, San Diego is a real option. The NFL didn’t want to leave that market, and the Raiders have a strong base in Southern California and being near the border would allow them (and the league) to further tap into the team’s strong contingent of Mexican fans. Third, if it’s not Oakland or San Diego, the idea of San Antonio/Austin—broached in the recent past by the Raiders—would be the next logical option.

One way or another, it’s acknowledged that the team needs a fix. And looking at that now, the Chargers’ feeling that they had no other option but to go to LA makes a lot more sense.

3. Ballard is the man for the job in Indianapolis. The feeling in the scouting community has been for some time that Chris Ballard was ready to run his own team. And that was bolstered by the number of inquiries he got, and walked away—from Lovie Smith wanting to bring him to Tampa as GM in 2014 to Ballard deciding to pass on a shot at the Niners job this year. That’s one aspect of why this is so huge for the Colts. The guy had legitimate options and so, in a way, Ballard chose the Colts as much as the Colts chose him.

Why? It starts with Andrew Luck. But it’s also about Ballard’s desire to stay in the Midwest, and in a smaller market like Kansas City, where he spent the past four years. And that match goes both ways. The Colts felt like they needed to fortify their scouting infrastructure, and the connected Ballard should be able to assemble a deep staff (one name to watch, and maybe not until after the draft: Seattle’s Ed Dodds). “I think it’s really important that guys have college background going into these jobs,” said one NFC GM, back when I was compiling my annual future GM list. “And Ballard has that, but he also has background on the pro side.” Another NFC GM added that Ballard has some of the same strengths that Tennessee’s Jon Robinson has, especially in carrying a level personality built to handle all the bumps of the job. “He’s just an impressive young guy. He knows players, he’s savvy and sharp,” the other NFC GM said. 

As for the immediate change the Colts will see, I’d imagine fortifying both lines of scrimmage will be the first priority, something that Ballard referenced directly during his introductory press conference. “Look, in this league, you win up front,” he told reporters. “You win on the o-line and the d-line. And if you’re not good up front, it’s very difficult when you get into December and January.” That approach is good here, because both areas need serious upgrades in Indy.

4. Fueling the Jets. Think about this: The Jets have had two top 10 offenses over the past 23 seasons. Two! One was the 2015 group with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall, which ranked 10th. The other was the 1999 offense, which ranked fourth and was led by Vinny Testaverde and Curtis Martin.

Could John Morton, the team’s new offensive coordinator, flip all that history? He’s got a lot of work to do. Coach Todd Bowles liked Morton’s energy and football know-how as he made the decision to pick the Saints receivers coach over ex-Houston coordinator George Godsey (Detroit’s Brian Callahan and Oakland’s Todd Downing are two names they’d earlier pursued). And Morton has more experience than his on-paper résumé shows. He was Pete Carroll’s coordinator at USC before becoming receivers coach for Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. There, with the Niners, Morton became a de facto pass-game coordinator over his four years and, by the end, became involved in calling pass plays. Of course, he was among the coaches fired because of the organizational acrimony in San Francisco, but he landed on his feet in New Orleans and helped to develop second-round pick Michael Thomas into the best rookie receiver in the NFL last fall.

Now, he’ll need some help in coordinating the run game and setting up pass protection, but that learning curve should be workable. The first task is obvious: Get answers on the quarterbacks. With Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith likely gone, the Jets’ overhauled offensive staff has to get a read on where Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty are as players, and then help GM Mike Maccagnan set a path for their 2017 plan at the position. Fixing that, of course, will be imperative to erasing all that bad history.

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Brock Osweiler finished 2016 with more interceptions (16) than touchdowns (15), a 59.0 completion percentage and a 72.2 passer rating.
Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

• Houston owner Bob McNair said earlier in the week that the Texans would look to draft a quarterback, and that falls right in line with the prevailing thought that Brock Osweiler has an uphill climb to be the team’s starter again in 2017. And it’s not just his play. There were issues with Osweiler’s attitude during the season, and word is he wasn’t easy to work with and didn’t handle his benching particularly well. Stay tuned.

• Larry Fitzgerald coming back for one last go-round means that Arizona likely will get one more season with Fitzgerald, Carson Palmer and Bruce Arians. Late in the season, there was a feeling around the NFL that the futures of those three were tied together—Fitzgerald wouldn’t want to be back in the QB-less wilderness he spent 2010-12, and Arians likely wouldn’t stay around for a rebuild. Of course, because it was a story this season, this again will be a story at the end of 2017.

• On Wednesday, the NFL announced that the Patriots and Raiders will play in Mexico City next fall. But the exact date and time won’t be released until the schedule comes out in April. Likewise, the four London games won’t be officially slotted (they’re now in two-week windows) until then. That’s part of further testing of international markets. The thinking: if there were ever to be a team overseas, then it wouldn’t get special treatment in when it gets its schedule, so the league might as well test if it affects selling the game now.

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After an outstanding Senior Bowl week, Zay Jones has made a name for himself in NFL draft circles.
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

1. East Carolina WR Zay Jones (Senior Bowl). Jones had a strong week in Mobile, and capped it with six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown in the game on Saturday—and also had another touchdown negated by a penalty. As scouts saw it, it was the culmination of a great week of work for the 21-year-old. “He got better as the week progressed and finished strong,” said one AFC college scouting director. “He’s got good size, strong hands and he makes tough catches. He’s not a blazer but he runs good routes and got open at all three levels.” Jones also was wildly productive in 2016, leading FBS with 158 catches, good for 1,746 yards and eight touchdowns during his senior year. A good 40 in Indianapolis, because of the question about his speed, could help push Jones to another level.

2. UCLA CB Fabian Moreau (East/West Shrine Game). This year’s draft class is bottlenecked with strong corners, which explains to some degree how a guy who could wind up sneaking into the first round wound up in a second-tier all-star game. And Moreau spent the week competing like someone who had a chip on his shoulder about it. “He’s a great kid off the field,” said an NFC college scouting director. “He has all the athletic traits and performed well enough during the season. But he was head and shoulders above the rest at his position at the East/West game.” Listed at 6-foot, 194 pounds, Moreau has the height and length that so many teams are seeking in corners these days. Now, he just has to compete with very talented and deep pool at the position.

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In his new role with the 49ers, John Lynch hopes to follow a similar path that John Elway walked with the Broncos.
Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

To many, the 49ers hiring John Lynch as GM seemed to appear out of thin air. To Broncos president Joe Ellis, it most certainly did not.

And that’s because when Lynch first started toying with the idea of blazing a new career trail, it was Denver’s setup he studied. As Ellis explains it, a few years ago, Lynch (a former Bronco who was living in the area) came to the team’s Englewood headquarters to be a fly-on-the-wall during draft meetings. Later, Lynch was a training camp as a guest of John Elway’s. It quickly became clear to those in the building that this wasn’t just fantasy camp for Lynch.

Now, Ellis didn’t get a heads up this was happening ahead of time, so the 49ers’ hire did catch him a little off guard. But he figured Lynch would eventually pursue work with a team. “I’ve talked to him about this and he is gonna be good,” Ellis says.

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Why? Well, the first part of relates right back to Ellis’ experience in courting Elway at the end of the 2010 season. At that point, Ellis had used Elway as a consultant on different levels for five years, with the arrangement becoming more formal over the 12 months leading up to that point. And so as Ellis looked for a way to hire Elway full-time, they discussed a number of roles he could serve.

“We’d actually offered John the opportunity to come dip his toe in the water and still be a consultant and not do it all at once,” Ellis said. “He wanted no part of that; he wanted all-in right from the start. He knew what he didn’t know, but he was gonna roll up his sleeves and learn from the people around him—(GM) Brian Xanders, (college scouting director) Matt Russell and others. Everybody pitched in.

“He understood what the organization’s culture was, how Mr. Bowlen liked to operate. He just jumped right into the job on Day 1 and never looked back. John Lynch will take that same approach. He’s not gonna dabble. He’s not going in halfway.  He’s going all the way.”

Obviously, the Niners’ hope Lynch is more Elway than Matt Millen, but there’s also the recognition that the Elway/Lynch comp isn’t perfect. Elway has more power (pretty much all of it) in Denver than Lynch will have, and Elway had more business experience going in, having run car dealerships and an Arena League team.

Still, as Ellis sees it, conceptually, the Niners’ objectives now are similar to the Broncos’ objectives when they hired Elway.

“We were in a situation where we had to gain back the trust of the fans and the community as an organization,” Ellis said. “We’d faltered a little bit for two years. And John was the right guy to come in and do the job from a football standpoint. But from a presence standpoint, in the community, his stature carried a lot of weight with the people.”

Five division titles, two AFC championships and a world title later, Elway has clearly done more than just restore the image of the Broncos’ organization.

Still, there was a learning curve Elway faced. He actually didn’t take on the GM title until his fourth season. Denver’s key was having people like Xanders, Russell and then-national scout Adam Peters, guys he could lean on as experienced talent evaluators. (It’s probably no coincidence that Lynch hired Peters to be his top lieutenant, given that Peters saw Elway grow into a similar role.) In that way, as Ellis sees it, this is like anything else. Smart people surround themselves with, and rely on, other smart people.

“We had to make sure John had all the resources he needed in terms of people in his personnel department and with the coaching staff,” Ellis explains. “As time goes along, you begin to trust the judgment of people working for you and understand where they’re coming from. There is a learning curve on the administrative stuff, but the 49ers have a lot of smart people in place that’ll be able to handle that portion of it for John.

“On the personnel side, both John Lynch and John Elway say they know what they don’t know, but they also know what they know when it comes to players.”

Conversely, Ellis said Elway had qualities that you can’t teach. And he sees those in Lynch too, which is why he didn’t raise an eyebrow to the Niners’ move the way so many of the rest of us did.

“Intelligence, communication skills will be really good, he’ll over-communicate to the organization’s advantage, and I just think he understands the game and the players within the game and the coaches,” Ellis said. “Listen, everybody has great talent and there are a lot of really good coaches, but it’s the little things you can find and figure out that make the difference in winning games and sometimes winning a Super Bowl.

“Both guys have the knack for that.”

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