KUBIAK TOO MODEST? Mark Kiszla:
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak too busy accepting blame.
Gary Kubiak would be a candidate for NFL coach of the year if he had more of an ego. But good, old Kubes has been too busy humbly taking the blame for all the worrisome things about the Broncos that aren’t really his fault. Fair or not, we all know how the story goes in Denver: The coach’s conservative game plans, not skills diminished by age, made quarterback Peyton Manning look bad.
Kubiak took the hit for the problems of a patchwork offensive line when his boss refused to trade for Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas, because Broncos Country loves John Elway.
And should the Broncos somehow lose a playoff game to the battered Pittsburgh Steelers, whose injuries make Denver a prohibitive favorite? Heaven forbid. His name no longer would be Kubes in this town. It would be dirt.
So I asked Kubiak: Do players or the coach face more pressure in the playoffs?
“That’s a good question. I’ve never really thought of that. … Of course, when I was a player, I wasn’t starting many of those playoff games,” replied Kubiak, poking fun of his status as the backup quarterback to Elway from 1983-91, with his usual selfdeprecating good humor.
“Being a coach? I don’t know. Your preparation is the same. Obviously, the stakes get higher, but that’s why you’re in the business.”
Beat the Steelers? This is the game Kubiak was hired to win.
The Broncos parted ways with John Fox for a number of reasons, from the painfully slow development of young draft choices such as Cody Latimer and Michael Schofield to the perception that Fox’s coaching staff was more interested a year ago in landing that next job rather than beating Indianapolis in the playoffs.
But a team with Super Bowl aspirations has been shocked twice in its opening postseason game during a three-year span. If you want to know why Kubiak is here, that’s got to be No. 1 on the list.
So Kubiak cannot lose to the Steelers. Otherwise, what was the point of hiring him?
While coach of the year honors will go to Ron Rivera for nearly leading Carolina to an undefeated season or Andy Reid for rescuing Kansas City from the depths of a 1-5 start, what Kubiak has done with the Broncos is remarkable in a more subtle way.
Yes, Denver’s offensive production dropped from 482 points in 2014 to 355 points during Kubiak’s first season as coach, slippage of more than a touchdown per game. But from the moment Elway slashed Manning’s pay, this felt like a transition year, yet Kubiak coaxed the No. 1 seed out of the Broncos, despite losing Ryan Clady and Tyler Sambrailo, his top offensive tackles, to injury.
Not long ago, I mentioned to Manning it must have been difficult to accept a pay cut, and the veteran quarterback abruptly ended the conversation by saying “I don’t want to get into all of that” in a tone that suggested it remains a touchy subject. While Manning deserves full credit for battling back from a foot injury that burdened him with the embarrassment of a 0.0 quarterback rating during a November loss to Kansas City, it should also be underscored how Kubiak doggedly kept the faith in a fading quarterback whose pride took hard hits all season long.
Give Wade Phillips kudos for the Broncos finishing first in total defense, but try not to forget that Kubiak hired a 68-yearold defensive coordinator who was out of work a year ago.
Coming off a bye, the first playoff game for a No. 1 seed is tricky, because it is the ultimate everything-to-lose situation. Despite the benefit of rest and home-field advantage, the top seeds in the postseason tournament are an alarmingly modest 11-9 in their playoff openers during the past 10 years. My theory? Football coaches do feel the pressure of winning a championship, and in that first step on the long road to the Super Bowl, the coach of a No. 1 seed often tries to manage risk rather than boldly playing to win.
During the playoffs, as players are coached to not say anything controversial, it becomes more common to parrot the message heard in team meetings. And it’s obvious that mistake-free football is being preached to the Broncos.
But big moments call for bold action. And it’s hard to win big with the mantra: Don’t mess up. So I asked Kubiak how he balances the desire to play clean football with the necessity of letting talent flow in a big game.
“I talk about being aggressive,” Kubiak said. “I want their aggression, as a football team and a player. I want their confidence. We’re going to make mistakes in the game. You’re going to make them, but come back and make the next play. I want them flying around and having fun, because like I said: They deserve the right to play this game.”
There’s only one way for a big favorite to pound a wounded underdog into submission: Swing that hammer. “Let’s go get after it,” Kubiak said.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has faced numerous challenges in his first season in Denver, but the playoffs are the reason he was brought in. The Broncos have been upset in two of the last three seasons in their first playoff game. Denver Post file