Grading Broncos' hire of Gary Kubiak
Gary Kubiak was John Elway's backup at quarterback from 1983-91, a stretch during which Denver lost three times in the Super Bowl. Kubiak left briefly in '92, before returning to the Broncos as offensive coordinator in 1995.
He and Elway then paired together for back-to-back Super Bowl wins, in '98 and '99. So Elway knows better than most what he might have in his team's new head coach.
"I feel very fortunate in having played for the Denver Broncos for several years -- for 16 years -- playing for some great coaches, and saw both sides of it: saw the losses in the Super Bowl and saw what it took to get to that next level," Elway said when announcing John Fox's departure. "Hopefully, those thoughts and the way that we did things when we got to the next level, we can put those things into play here now and with the next coach."
Can Kubiak deliver and again help Denver claim a title?
Not all that long ago, Kubiak appeared as if he might be on his way to a championship with the Houston Texans. After being named just the franchise's second head coach, in 2006, he quickly helped the Texans to the middle of the pack. In both 2011 and '12, they won the AFC South and knocked off Cincinnati in the playoffs.
It all went horribly wrong last season.
The Texans dropped all the way to 2-14, bad enough to secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft. Worse yet, Kubiak's health became a significant issue. He collapsed during a game vs. Indianapolis with a transient ischemic attack, otherwise referred to as a "mini-stroke."
About a month later, the Texans fired Kubiak, as owner Bob McNair labeled the season a complete failure.
"We started with such high hopes," McNair said. "To have this string of losses is unacceptable."
Kubiak resurfaced as offensive coordinator in Baltimore, where he turned out to be the missing piece for a Joe Flacco-led offense. Flacco posted the best numbers of his career during the regular season (3,986 yards, 27 touchdowns), while running back Justin Forsett thrived in Kubiak's zone-read running system.
How Kubiak's scheme will translate to the current Broncos' roster really begins at the quarterback spot, with the future of Peyton Manning.
Manning, 39 in March, was but a shell of his former self down the stretch, culminating in an altogether uninspiring effort against Indianapolis last week. A quad injury that had hampered Manning throughout December was the latest physical ailment to frustrate the future Hall of Fame QB. That said, his performances had been up and down prior to a Week 15 win over San Diego, when he reportedly suffered the injury.
Following the Broncos' playoff ouster, Manning was noncommittal about his 2015 plans. Elway later offered that he believed Manning would return.
"I do," Elway said. "I knew as a player the last thing after that last game that you want to do is talk about your future ... because of what happened on Sunday, in his situation, I told him, 'Let's not even go into the future. Just know how much we want you back but you need to take the time and get away from this.'
"I told him in four or five weeks -- I'm going to stay in touch with him -- we'll get back together and see where he is because the career that he's had, what he's done not only in the NFL but in the short time he's been here with the Denver Broncos, what he's meant to us is tremendous. So we'll continue to monitor that. But the bottom line is we want him back and it's going to come down to what Peyton wants to do."
On the surface, Manning would be a square peg-round hole fit for Kubiak's offense. Flacco, Elway and others like former Texans QB Matt Schaub have been able to take advantage of Kubiak's play calling, which often puts its quarterback on the move off play-action. Manning never has resembled a mobile QB, and he certainly does not qualify as one now.
Where Kubiak's style should fit well, as usual, is on the ground. The Broncos employ a relatively athletic offensive line, in front of a loaded RB corps featuring C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman.
Anderson stepped up as the team's No. 1 back once Ball and Hillman fell to injury. Given Kubiak's history feeding a workhorse starter, Anderson could be in line for a monster 2015 season if he maintains his hold on the position.
Defensively, the Texans finished ranked in the top 10 for each of Kubiak's final three seasons, thanks in no small part to J.J. Watt's presence. Kubiak will inherit plenty of talent on that side of the football, too, starting with another superstar edge player: Von Miller.
The entire Kubiak regime will be measured up against that of Fox, so the question now is if this hire represents an upgrade in any way.
The answer? Perhaps, at least in terms of getting Elway more into a comfort zone with the direction of the team.
Where this goes from here depends first and foremost on Manning's decision regarding his future. If he comes back -- healthy -- for the 2015 season, the Broncos would have to be considered an AFC favorite again. Should he opt for retirement, it would deliver a hit in the short-term, but may allow Kubiak to find a more system-friendly quarterback for the long run.