Gary Kubiak was a daring and innovative coach who never oversold himself, never spoke of “my system” and never claimed it was perfect.
I remember when he was introduced as head coach of the Houston Texans, in 2006, at a time when football, college and pro, was turning pass-crazy. Here was a former quarterback who said he preferred the running game.
He was going to implement a zone-blocking scheme, with linemen who were quick on their feet, rather than massive in size. He was asked by a reporter if these smaller, quicker linemen could give his quarterback maximum protection.
Much to my surprise, he said, “Maybe not. This will be a run-first offense.”
As it turned out, Duane Brown, drafted on the first round in 2008 to be a zone-blocking left tackle, turned out to be one of the best pass protectors in the NFL. Kubiak’s teams were never among the leaders in sacks allowed.
He tended to do more than he promised. When he shocked the football world with his retirement announcement Monday, he had accomplished plenty in his 10 years as a head coach. He won 52 percent of his regular-season games, and he was 5-2 in the postseason. And best of all, his Broncos won the Super Bowl last February.
CBS Sports’ Steve Beuerlein, who was formerly coached by Kubiak, said, “He’s going to go down as one of the greats.”
Kubiak claimed that at 55 his “health is fine,” but that “the demands of the job are no longer a good fit for me.”
Broncos players said he often appeared exhausted this season, as they headed for a 9-7 record that left them short of the playoffs.
Kubiak suffered a mini-stroke in 2013 while coaching a game for the Houston Texans, and he was carried by ambulance from a game this season when overcome by a migraine headache.
It won’t be easy to replace one of the last enthusiasts of the running game.
But it wasn’t just that he made a star out of an undrafted runner like Arian Foster or a retread like Justin Forsett. Yes, Kubiak’s teams could run the ball, but he was even more impressive as a designer of the passing game.
He took less than great passers such as Matt Schaub, Joe Flacco and Brock Osweiler and elevated their play. Unfortunately, he never got to coach a mobile quarterback who could benefit from his beautifully choreographed bootleg plays.
It seemed unlikely he could thrive with a retirement-bound Peyton Manning, and indeed, nothing looked sillier than Manning on a bootleg. But Kubiak adapted to Manning more than the other way around, and the Broncos won their rings.
This was a coach who made the most of what he had. Under his guidance as Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator in 2014, the slow-footed Flacco threw a career-high 27 touchdown passes.
He threw 19 the year before, when Kubiak was not coaching him. He threw 14 the season after Kubiak left. He missed the final six games of that season after suffering a knee injury, in a Marc Trestman offense designed to protect the passer more than run the ball.
Osweiler was the only quarterback Kubiak had who showed a semblance of mobility. And indeed, Kubiak got much more out of Osweiler in 2015 than Bill O’Brien – an alleged quarterback guru – has summoned from him this season.
Kubiak was truly a “players’ coach.” His players publicly referred to him as “Kubes.” But he was a disciplinarian, not one to put up with fumbles, interceptions and senseless penalties.
He was that rare coach with a soft touch that worked. He made friends everywhere because he treated people well: players, assistants, reporters and fans. When he was fired by the Texans after the 2013 season, he bought a full-page newspaper ad to say good-bye to the city of Houston.
He’s given much to the game, and it’s given much to him. So now he’s going to spend time with his family. He will still be tuned to football, with his son Klint being an assistant coach for the Broncos, after coaching wide receivers last season at the University of Kansas.
Hopefully, Gary Kubiak can find a balance of work and relaxation that will bring him a long life. Leaving football now was the right career move.