The hardest thing to do in football is lose. Any coach can stand up in front of a team after a win, crack a joke and say, “See you on Monday.” But it takes a real coach with a great understanding of what makes a team click to bring people together after a loss. That’s what Gary Kubiak did, and that’s who he was.
Coach Kubiak retired on Monday after 23 seasons as a coach and nine as a player in the NFL. He was either a player or coach on all three Broncos teams that won the Super Bowl, most recently a year ago, when he led us to victory over the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.
He was a leader who was believable, a man of high character who always had a plan. He used to assign me what I call side missions—after team meetings he’d pull me aside and tell me what he needed from me that day, whether it was raising the intensity level at practice or heightening the focus on the details. I was excited and proud to be called on.
When Trevor Siemian won the starting quarterback job this season, coach counted on me and other veterans to have Trev’s back. I told DeMarcus Ware that we had to show the room it was Trev’s team. We made sure people followed his lead and his example during practice, because when you’ve got a group of stars empowering a guy it has a contagious effect on the locker room. I believe that effort worked, and I believe Kubiak’s trust in us paid dividends.
Kubiak, a former quarterback, knows quarterbacks. He knew he had to bench Peyton Manning for Brock Osweiler during the regular season a year ago in order to get Peyton fully healthy for the playoffs. And he knew when to insert Peyton back into the lineup. It all worked because Kubiak always has a plan. He’s not the sort of man who throws something against the wall and waits to see what the outcome will be. He always forecasted his moves and knew exactly what he wanted to happen.
Knowing that, it’s understandable that he would walk away from the game the moment he felt he couldn’t put 100% effort into preparation. For him, coaching is an all-or-nothing deal, and he’d rather walk away than offer less than his best.
I didn’t know that much about him two winters ago. I only knew that he had also attended Texas A&M. What I found out very quickly was that he was going to give me the freedom to discover what sort of player and person I could become.
He treated me like a trusted member of the staff, not a commodity to be monitored and steered into production. Knowing very little about me, he gave me enough rope to hang myself with, while at the same time keeping my goals and aspirations out in front of me. I’ve always been the class clown in school and in locker rooms, but the freedom Kubiak offered made me start thinking about legacies and Hall of Fame speeches. I started doing the little things, like staying at home and resting my body during training camp. He helped me see the light.
At the team level, he did the impossible right out of the gate, winning a Super Bowl in his first season back in Denver. He did that by navigating the thin line between keeping players rested and healthy for January and being competitive on Sundays in the fall. When Kub got here we had the team; he just wanted us to be that team in the playoffs. In that first camp, veteran players would practice one day and have the next day off—a first for almost all of us. I was used to going out there every day, pushing through it, getting to the wall, and pushing through that wall. But coach wanted to keep that wall away, and it worked.
And when this season didn’t work out as we had hoped, missing the playoffs for the first time in my career, he did the hard things that great coaches do. In private, he talked to his players straight up, communicating clearly his expectations and corrections. In public, he took the blame for everything—even things that weren’t his fault. Every football team has little pods and little groups that can splinter off when you hit obstacles, but he did a great job of keeping everyone together when the ship felt like it was sinking.
So I’ll keep doing his work, fulfilling the missions he gave me, and I will always remember the trust and respect he had for me from the first day.
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