Tag Archives: Gary Kubiak

Lingering Thoughts on a Super Bowl Sunday

I have to be honest, it’s been awhile since my last confession post.  The hiatus was not without its reasons, notably fatigue.  Another championship, another year without a dog in the fight.  They tell me I had one in June, and they’d be right about my hometown, but I don’t even know how many NBA Finals have been played.  With the Super Bowl, it’s in your face.  Fifty of them, and we’re not even forced to translate an L into a number this year; thanks Super Bowl marketing folks.  Fifty without a participation for trophy for the Cleveland Browns1To be fair, there were three they weren’t eligible for, due to not not fielding a team for some odd reason in the mid-90s., but I digress…

I don’t know if I just made this up in my head, or if I actually heard it somewhere, conversation of a Buffalo/Baltimore swap between divisions in the AFC.  With apologies to Toronto and Tampa Bay, that gives you the best pieces of the American League East in a football division.2I know, I know, it’s not the same.  ESPN and CBS trying to make it so doesn’t make it so.  Jets-Patriots is often a fun game, but Yankees-Red Sox it is not.  That’s not even what excites me, beyond the idea of not getting mandatory Ravens twice a year, it’s the fire you’d get in that part of the world if the Browns, Bills, and Steelers are all good at the same time.  I don’t imagine Steelers fans would miss the purple, and I don’t much care if Bengals fans have an opinion on the subject.

Calvin Johnson is walking away from football, walking away from the Detroit Lions.  This sounds familiar.  I’m sorry Lions fan, just because I suffer, don’t think I forget what you also go through.

Nothing like something awful at the end to ruin what was nice.  49-15 is going to sting in Arizona, especially if the follow-up is more indicative of a hangover than a mission.  Locally, I’ve heard them compare the season after, between this year and the Super Bowl, and again, the quarterback’s age limits the openness of the window.  There’s also something to be said for what Kurt Warner can do on the big stage, versus what Carson Palmer has shown ails him in the moments of truth.

On to the Super Bowl…

Look, I’m white.  I was once labeled by a giant Polish teammate for being as white as they come on a pretty culturally diverse high school football team.  I deserved the tag, having grown up in the suburbs.  I didn’t exactly absorb the inner-city, but I walked some of the same streets and breathed the same air as the lifers, though my time within the city limits was short.  I’d go as far as to say that in a blind-study, I’m one big, steaming pile of privilege.  Knowing that, I am not bothered by Cameron Newton, and really think we should all be past the fear of a black planet quarterback.

I caught the 30-for-30 on the Bad Boy Pistons on ABC a few weeks ago.  First of all, I miss that NBA, the game where you knocked people down when they came at you.  Second, Isaiah Thomas said something silly about Larry Bird, and then he followed it up with sillier stuff.  Frankly, I think Isaiah is very likeable, and at the end of the day, outside the heat of the moment, he knew there was more to Bird than being some kind of Great White Hope.  That’s one of those incidents you look at retroactively, and think about the circus that would have become of a sound byte like that in 2016.

So, if Cam was white.  Same skillset, same celebratory tactics, same philanthropic efforts.  Wait, what was that last part?  We were so distracted by his devilish dancing and mock-selfie-taking obnoxiousness, not to mention the outrageous act of giving away footballs to children, of all people, that we haven’t acknowledged the good things the man does when the cameras aren’t rolling.  If Cam was white, he’d be more of a deity, but perhaps the power of what he represents wouldn’t speak the volumes that they do.

The game is the game, and the sociological issues aren’t the game, but someone once told me not to stare at the TV and tell you it’s not on.  It’s an exciting time to be alive, and let me qualify this by saying that I’m far from a bleeding-heart type; we have reporters of sport revealing their sexual preference without incident, women coaching men at the highest level of professional sports, and we may be on the brink of our most prominent black quarterback to lead his team to a Championship.

If I’m Doug Williams or Russell Wilson, I take no shame in playing a different role as the starting quarterback than Newton.  Not every championship is built the same way; I’d be proud to be a champion, no need to distinguish myself by race or football role there.  I don’t recall either player trying to be the bad guy, and that seems to be the assertion with Cam.  If that’s part of being the hero, to be rebellious, you have to let him spread his wings and say the things he wants to say when he wants to say them.  Just a word of advice, it’s difficult to play the moral clause when defending lack of championships on the barstool.

Manning.  There’s no right point of view on him.  I’ve long believed him to be the better quarterback, when it came to him and Tom Brady, but the wins are the wins.  In a team sport, measuring a player by team wins (even guys like Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson) is a fair approach, though it might seem unfair in a lot of cases.  Manning didn’t get it done when he probably should have, and as likeable as he tends to be, my sadistic entertainment value seems move more favorably when Archie’s kid falls apart.

The thing is, he’s so much better than Eli.  Everyone know that, even Giants fans, but Eli got it done…twice.  Two for two, not two for four.

Peyton Manning’s decision to go to Denver aggravated me.  The opportunities in San Francisco and Arizona just seemed too obvious.  Then again, I would have preferred to see him retire, having worn a Colts uniform his entire career.  He made a good argument for moving on the different pastures the last couple of seasons.

Gary Kubiak has quietly been part of just about every era of the Broncos’ success, going back to my childhood.  He held the clipboard while Elway drove, he held the football as Karlis kicked it somewhere near the vicinity of the goal pasts in OT, and he held a spot on Mike Shanahan’s staff when the organization took home its first two and only two Lombardi trophies.  He coached in Houston and Baltimore, proving there was more to Kubiak than just being in the right place at the right time, and it seemed like a natural add to upgrade from John Fox.

Fox won a playoff game with Tebow.  He took the Panthers to their only prior Super Bowl.  He was an integral part of a Giants team that reached the Super Bowl between the reigns of Parcells and Coughlin.  He’s got Chicago on the right track.  Don’t read too much into his former employers doing quite well without him.

This year’s Broncos arguably stumbled their way to 12-4.  They were lucky not to lose to the Browns in Cleveland.  Peyton Manning looked either broken or incapable, and Brock Osweiler looked well and appeared to have Wally Pipped his Hall of Fame mentor.  They learned balance, and they learned to let the defense win games and stay out of the way.  These curses turned out to be blessings.

Carolina playing without Kelvin Benjamin all season.  Subtract D’Angelo Williams from the running game.  Seventeen wins, one meaningless loss.  We should have taken you more seriously, Panthers.  How were we supposed to know that?  I just came around to how dumb it is to refer to him as Scam Newton last October.

Carolina has its stars, and you know their names by now.  Josh Norman, hopefully known nationwide for more than the dust-up with Odell Beckham Jr., him you know.  Luke Kuchely is the leader of that defense, and even if you weren’t fully aware of him coming out of Boston College, you should know him by now.  Thomas Davis had his arm in a sling the last we saw him; it’s okay to believe in next man up, but the injured linebacker is active and expected to start on Sunday evening.

Denver’s secondary and Carolina’s receiving corps will be an interesting matchup, but I think the way the Broncos run the ball in the second half dictates how this game winds up looking in the books.  I have no desire to see Elway or his lifelong lieutenant Kubiak raise a trophy, but that’s how I see it going.  For that entire region on the east coast, known as Carolina, I hope I’m wrong.

…and if Cam Newton wins and finds a way to take down White Supremacy in the process, the way Rocky ended the Cold War, I’d find that to be a mutually-desired result for the majority of us.

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1. To be fair, there were three they weren’t eligible for, due to not not fielding a team for some odd reason in the mid-90s.
2. I know, I know, it’s not the same.  ESPN and CBS trying to make it so doesn’t make it so.  Jets-Patriots is often a fun game, but Yankees-Red Sox it is not.

Zone-Blocking Is Back With Kubiak Back in Denver

Peyton Manning doesn’t need to be told, I’m sure. No one wins without help. It’s a fact of life in the National Football League. Few, if any, team in the NFL can win without a quarterback, but no one will ever accuse a team that employs #18 of suffering that dilemma. Manning doesn’t need an all-star ensemble of receivers, though he always seems to be blessed with a corps that draws envy from around the league. Simply put, the guy needs a solid enough running game to keep defenses honest with his arm, which clearly is not what it used to be.

In John Fox, he had a coach that knew how to play to his strengths; in Denver’s case, it was the defense, before and after Manning signed with the Broncos via free agency, after he was released by the Colts in 2012. Casual fans tend to make the mistake of branding a guy as offensive or defensive, based on how one climbs the coaching ladder to the rank of head coach, but the best head coaches are simply coaches of the game, regardless of how long they spend as specialists on one side of the ball or the other. Fox left it to his lieutenants, Mike McCoy and then Adam Gase to engineer an offense to its own strengths, with varied levels of success. For failing to return to the Super Bowl or even the conference championship, Fox was shown the door, and Gase wasn’t far behind.

Enter Gary Kubiak, stage left. Kubiak is a Denver Bronco, through and through. From being drafted by the team late in the 1983 Draft and being John Elway’s understudy until he retired from playing in 1991, to returning to Mike Shanahan’s staff as an assistant in 1995 after winning a Super Bowl as Steve Young’s quarterbacks coach in San Francisco, to returning to the Rockies for the job that always felt like his destiny, no one will ever question Kubiak’s familiarity with the organization. Two years before Shanahan and the Broncos parted ways, Kubiak was named the head coach in Houston, where we improved the team overall, right up until a brutal 2-11 start cost him his job before the end of the 2013 season. A lot of things that worked in Denver ended up not translating to other organizations, but the zone blocking scheme (ZBS) the Broncos ran worked with an undeniable level of success for Kubiak and the Texans.

Even with the stable of weapons that Manning has to catch the ball, their success tends to hang in the balance, based on whether or not they can run the football well. With few exceptions, you need that type of balance to succeed in the NFL. In CJ Anderson, many believe the Broncos have their man to pound the rock and open things up downfield for the likes of Julius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, and Wes Welker. Manning isn’t foreign to the idea of help, nor was his boss in the front office, John Elway, before him. There’s a difference between a quarterback making you very good and quarterback with the right complimentary pieces making you great. For Elway, it was the difference between handing the ball to Sammy Winder for 700 yard seasons and Terrell Davis for 1500+ yard seasons. It was the difference between being AFC Champs and the World Champions.

Now, Manning got into his own way a lot in Indianapolis. So, let’s not smear Edgerrin James in pointing out that Joseph Addai’s efforts as a rookie in 2006 and contribution to the offense in the subsequent post-season played a definite role in getting Manning his only Super Bowl ring to date. James was a fierce competitor and a certain upgrade from the likes of James Mungro and Dominic Rhodes, but he had the unfortunate distinction of watching his former teams play in Super Bowls. Addai split carries with Donald Brown, but still had the lion’s share of the touches on offense, catching 40 passes for 325 yards, to accompany his 1000 yards or so on the ground. In the years after the Colts beat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI, the support from the running game wasn’t there, and it showed the most in Manning’s final game as a Colt, a 2011 Wildcard Game loss to the Jets.

Rex Ryan’s defense continually forced Manning to check down to the run, and Addai and Rhodes weren’t up to the task. They combined for 93 yards on 17 carries in a game where Manning completed just 18 passes on 26 attempts. It all equaled a 1-point defeat, and with Manning’s neck issues, he never suited up for Indianapolis again. In three seasons in Denver, he’s had a caravan of running backs behind him, most notably Knowshon Moreno, who left for Miami via free agency before the 2014 season. When Moreno was on, 18 didn’t have to throw for 400 yards to keep his offense on the field and his team in the game. When he wasn’t, the whole thing went plop, and it was most notable in a 43-8 Super Bowl loss to Seattle.

Now, even with a lot of the pieces returning to the 53, Denver has a new identity. They have the personnel to do it, but the Kubiak factor cannot be overlooked here. It took him a few years to get everyone to buy-in in Houston, but after inheriting Ron Dayne and Wali Lundy for the first two seasons, he made Steve Slaton a thousand-yard back and ultimately made Arian Foster a household name. After some tough breaks in Texas, Kubiak needed to take a stepping-stone job as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator, and 1200 Justin Forsett rushing yards later, he was on Pat Bowlen’s short list to replace Fox in Denver. His first task in Denver, now that Manning confirmed his intention to return, must be to get a new group to buy into zone-blocking.

The sample size is small with Anderson, but it came during gut-check time. As the weather got worse, Anderson got more carries and led the team in most rushing categories, seeing his success play out over the second half of the season. We’ve seen this work with Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, and Reuben Droughns in Denver before, and CJ Anderson is more than just a warm body. He’s a legitimate guy to watch, and Gase even ran some zone-blocking in 2014, so the idea isn’t completely new to anyone involved.

Behind Anderson, the Broncos have options. Montee Ball was expected to back-fill the production lost in Moreno’s departure, but injuries and fumbles have factored into him being a disappointment. Speaking of hit-and-miss, Ronnie Hillman remains an enigma. Hillman has had his flashes of brilliance, but it’s tough to judge who exactly he is, since he missed time to injury in 2014. Still, the former regime liked him, and with good reason. More Than A Fan’s own Dan Armelli explains on Denver’s Fansided page, Predominately Orange.

The Broncos will also be returning Ronnie Hillman, who gained the necessary weight in effort to become more durable. In a cruel twist of fate, he ended up missing the same amount of games in 2014 as he did in his first two years combined (8).

Even still, Hillman showed great improvement and proved to be an asset on this team. He can play on any down (though probably not every down), averaging a career high 4.1 yards per carry. Most of his 434 yards on the season came at a point where the Broncos offensive line could not run block worth a lick. Hillman was the perfect back at the time with his ability to bounce runs outside if and when it got messy between the tackles.

He was also able to earn the coaches’ trust on 3rd downs and passing situations. According to Pro Football Reference, Hillman improved on his pass block efficiency (which calculates how efficient a RB is when it comes to limiting sacks, hits, and hurries) from 88.5% in 2013 to 93.8% in 2014. Moreover, Hillman was targeted more in 2014 (34) than in his first two years combined (12, 14).

In another reboot of sorts for the Broncos, former head coach Wade Phillips will return to the charge of Kubiak, after serving as his defensive coordinator for three years in Houston, serving in the same role with Denver. If you’ve experienced the trauma of Phillips being your head coach, try to understand that he’s out of the way enough calling the defense, and he does that well. Jack Del Rio is a big loss for the players, but Phillips will have the unit ready to go without missing a beat once September rolls around. Overall, you expect some improvement from the 2015 Broncos.

They might even be able to afford some of the anticipated regression from Peyton Manning, and still be a better team, thanks to what Kubiak and the ZBS bring to the table.