When the coaching carousel began spinning this offseason, Gary Kubiak’s name was among the most frequently mentioned. Despite being just one year removed from getting fired in Houston, Kubiak received interview requests from both the Bears and the Jets—requests he put on hold until his Baltimore Ravens were eliminated from the playoffs. And once that happened, Kubiak announced he would turn down any other opportunities to remain with the Ravens.
And then his old pal John Elway called.
Kubiak was the Broncos’ eighth-round pick in 1983, the same year Denver acquired first-overall selection Elway in a draft-day trade with the Colts. Not just teammates but roommates for almost a decade, after which Kubiak served as Elway’s offensive coordinator for two Super Bowl wins, the Denver duo are figuratively joined at the hip. So when the franchise opted to part ways with John Fox following the Broncos’ earlier-than-expected playoff departure, it made sense that Elway call Kubiak—and Kubiak to revisit his decision to stay put.
“Gary’s been there,” Elway said at the presser introducing Kubiak as the Broncos’ new head coach. “Gary’s done it, he’s seen it. He understands, he’s been there; he’s won a World Championship with Mike [Shanahan].”
Perhaps more importantly, Kubiak has done it alongside Elway. And when the Broncos fell short under Fox this season, Elway opted to go with a guy he trusts fully—a guy who isn’t necessarily a “yes” man but who has a similar approach to taking Denver to the upper reaches of the NFL.
At this point we’re all familiar with Kubiak’s systems, from his 11 seasons directing the Denver offense to his head coaching stint in Houston to last season with the Ravens.
In the ground game you’ll get plenty of zone blocking, a scheme that’s been in Denver to some degree for most of the past two decades. With a pair of starting offensive linemen scheduled for free agency the Broncos may do some personnel shuffling, but the current group has used at least some zone concepts and the adjustment shouldn’t be difficult.
Same goes for the backs, where C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman should both thrive in the one-cut-and-go system. Montee Ball should also fit the system, giving Denver an abundance of wealth in the backfield—to the point that multiple sources speculate Juwan Thompson will bulk up and move to fullback. You can expect the ground game to see plenty of work as well, perhaps similar to the way the Broncos went run-heavy over the final month of the season to protect Peyton Manning’s injured thigh.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest question Kubiak’s hiring raises in Denver: is this an offense Peyton can—or wants to—run? In its fullest form, Kubiak uses play action and bootlegs to isolate matchups in the passing game. Manning may not be much of a bootlegger at this stage in his career, especially coming off a torn thigh muscle; does the hiring of Kubiak send him off into the sunset?
Probably not. While Kubiak’s basis is in “the system” he’s always been willing to adapt to his personnel. Matt Schaub wasn’t particularly mobile in Houston while running Kubiak’s offense and for the most part that went well. In fact, Kubiak’s allegiance to Schaub was the reason Manning wound up in Denver rather than Houston, his first choice for a new NFL home after his neck surgery and subsequent release by the Colts.
And the good news for Denver is that Kubiak’s scheme is a perfect fit for backup Brock Osweiler, who can understudy for a year or two before making the Broncos’ post-Peyton transition a seamless one.
On the heels of Manning’s decision is the Broncos’ tight end situation. The top three tight ends on Denver’s depth chart are free agents, including fantasy stud Julius Thomas, and with noted TE-lover Kubiak coming in there’s fantasy value to be found here. However, Kubiak also asks his tight ends to block, a skill that is not among Thomas’ strengths. Will Denver shell out the money Thomas will command, or will they go another route? Owen Daniels followed Kubiak from Houston to Baltimore; is a Rocky Mountain time zone his next destination?
It’s worth noting that Kubiak brings with him tight ends coach Brian Pariani, who served in that same role under Kubiak in both Houston and Baltimore.
Also helping Kubiak with the offense will be new OC Rick Dennison, who is as attached to Kubiak as Kubiak is to Elway. A tight end at Colorado State, Dennison played linebacker for the Broncos for nearly a decade. After retiring he coached in Denver for 11 years before spending time on Kubiak’s staff in Houston and then following him to Baltimore, where he was the Ravens’ quarterbacks coach last year. Given that time line it should come as no surprise that Dennison’s “scheme” is identical to Kubiak’s: run-oriented, zone blocking, with play action and bootlegs in the passing game.
In addition, there’s word that zone-blocking sensei Alex Gibbs may rejoin the Broncos’ staff as an offensive consultant to reinforce the scheme. It’s like taking guitar lessons from Jimi Hendrix.
Oh yeah, the defense. As of this writing the Broncos were waiting to see if they’d be allowed to hire Bengals assistant Vance Joseph as their defensive coordinator; if not, Wade Phillips is the backup plan. Under either coach Denver would shift back to a 3-4, something they should have the personnel to do—especially if they bring back Terrance Knighton to play nose tackle. And under Kubiak, either coach would be left to his own defensive devices.