Ku­biak’s en­durance looks like a stress test

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KISZLA Denver Post Colum­nist

The Bron­cos have not been the same foot­ball team since the mo­ment an am­bu­lance hauled coach Gary Ku­biak from the sta­dium in Oc­to­ber, af­ter a home loss to At­lanta knocked the aura of in­vin­ci­bil­ity off the Su­per Bowl champs.

A mere co­in­ci­dence? Maybe so. But I think not. Since Ku­biak fell ill with flu symp­toms that were quickly di­ag­nosed as com­plex mi­graine con­di­tion, the Bron­cos have lost their mojo, gone 4-4 and now are in real dan­ger of miss­ing the play­offs.

This group of proud Denver play­ers, like their coach, won’t stop bat­tling. But the fight has taken some­thing out of Ku­biak and the Bron­cos. When Ku­biak has talked about his team be­ing fa­tigued, was the coach re­ally ad­dress­ing the fact that de­fend­ing a cham­pi­onship is drain­ing on ev­ery­body in the or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­clud­ing him­self ?

De­cem­ber in the NFL is the time to

grind, when ev­ery play­off con­tender is beaten up. On Thurs­day, I asked Ku­biak how much the pres­sure of games with play­off im­pli­ca­tions is a grind for coaches, as well.

“Ac­tu­ally, this is the fun time of year. Once you get to this point, all the games are so im­por­tant,” Ku­biak said.

“It’s time to cut it loose and play. There’s noth­ing left there at the end, if you don’t step up and find a way to be suc­cess­ful. This is what you work for.”

But the stress shows in the worry lines etched on Ku­biak’s face. Chew on these facts, and ask if it wouldn’t give you in­di­ges­tion as coach of the Bron­cos:

At the most im­por­tant po­si­tion in foot­ball, Trevor Siemian is about to make the 12th start of his pro ca­reer against Tom Brady, one of the great­est quar­ter­backs who has ever lived. Ku­biak has no run­ning game be­cause gen­eral man­ager John El­way’s re­con­struc­tion of the of­fen­sive line was a botched job. And now line­backer Brandon Mar­shall, a glue guy on de­fense, is hob­bled by a ham­string in­jury.

Af­ter a re­cent 13-10 loss at Ten­nessee, Ku­biak said all the right things. But Ku­biak was emo­tion­ally spent, as beaten up as a heavy­weight fighter who had gone 15 rounds, when he said: “We’re go­ing to keep bat­tling. I’m a bat­tler.”

Denver has all the mark­ings of an av­er­age NFL team that Ku­biak has coaxed into play­off con­tention, yet be­cause the Bron­cos are de­fend­ing champs, their fan base de­mands to know what went wrong? With an 8-5 record, I main­tain that Denver has ac­tu­ally over­achieved rather than been a dis­ap­point­ment.

The chal­lenge that awaits Denver dur­ing the fi­nal three weeks of the reg­u­lar sea­son, be­gin­ning with New Eng­land, is daunt­ing. The Pa­tri­ots (11-2), Kansas City (10-3) and Oak­land (10-3) will give the Bron­cos the tough­est clos­ing stretch any NFL team has seen since 1978.

Ku­biak takes win­ning and los­ing very per­son­ally. It’s a trait that can’t be faked and a pas­sion that gen­uinely en­dears him to his play­ers. An NFL coach can­not be faulted for car­ing too much. But car­ing too much might not be best for a 55-year-old coach’s health. In 2013, while coach­ing the Hous­ton Tex­ans, Ku­biak col­lapsed on the side­line at half­time of a game against In­di­anapo­lis from a mini-stroke, which is no small mat­ter of con­cern if you’re a loved one of the foot­ball coach in the back of the am­bu­lance.

So at a time when all the cool kids in Bron­cos Coun­try are bash­ing Ku­biak for stub­bornly cling­ing to the same out­dated of­fense that won Denver the Su­per Bowl less than 12 months ago, par­don me for not hop­ping on that bus to Hot Takeville.

It’s not the Bron­cos’ play­off chances I’m wor­ried about here.

What I won­der about is how much longer the grind can be worth the stress to Ku­biak.

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