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Gary Kubiak knows the landscape, now expectations await

1/19/2015

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will formally introduce Gary Kubiak as the team’s new coach on Tuesday.

In many ways, it will be an easy move to explain to the team’s faithful. Kubiak is a former Broncos player and assistant coach. He has three Super Bowl rings -- one from when he was an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers and two from his time as an assistant with the Broncos.

Kubiak is a good man, honorable in how he conducts himself. He took out a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle to thank “the players, coaches and staff for their tireless work and commitment’’ and to thank the fans AFTER he had been fired by the Texans in December 2013.

His former players swear by him -- a list that includes the likes of Rod Smith and Terrell Davis, and apparently one John Elway. Former tight end Joel Dreessen has said publicly he would “take a bullet’’ for Kubiak, and Jake Plummer said he wept when Kubiak left the Broncos after the 2005 season.

It’s all there with Kubiak: faith, family and football.

But the Broncos themselves have framed the discussion differently from the moment they parted ways with John Fox. He won 46 regular-season games and four division titles in four seasons in Denver, but it wasn't enough. The Broncos want to win the Super Bowl.

Elway essentially shook hands with a good guy in Fox, telling him two playoff exits as the AFC’s top seed -- a Super Bowl blowout last February to go with the double overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season -- to go with their exit as the AFC's No. 2 seed with the Jan. 11 loss to the Indianapolis Colts would not do.

When Elway announced Fox’s departure, he said: “He’s a very, very good man. He’s got a tremendous heart -- even the new one they fixed is still tremendous -- a guy that I will always have a personal relationship with. When we did get up and he left the room, we gave each other a hug and wished each other the best of luck. That relationship will always remain that way.’’

So clearly it isn't about being a good man, it is about playing football at the highest level. The level that wins championships.

Kubiak has led an NFL team before. His record in eight seasons with the Houston Texans was 61-64. They made the playoffs twice in 2011 and '12, winning a game before losing the next in both cases.

The Texans struggled on defense in Kubiak’s tenure, until he hired Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator. Things also got away from Kubiak at quarterback in his final season. Matt Schaub seemed to to lose confidence after a flurry of interceptions returned for touchdowns, and the losing appeared to take an enormous toll on Kubiak as he tried to make it right.

These are different situations, teams in different places to be sure. When Kubiak took the Texans' job before the 2006 season, they were a two-win team with an atrocious roster.

But his tenure showed how important his defensive staff was to his success. Phillips’ hire snapped the defense in order. Rick Dennison’s hire as offensive coordinator a few years into Kubiak’s tenure also bred success as the team's running game and offensive line play improved. Dennison will be on Kubiak’s staff with the Broncos, but how he fills out the rest of that staff will determine a lot about how things go in the seasons to come.

It is always a question of personnel, coaching or both. The Broncos believe Kubiak is the coach who can take a team Elway thinks has top-quality personnel and keep it playing into February.

Still, if the loss to the Colts showed anything, it’s that assignment discipline matters, schemes matter and players digesting information and playing in the moment matter. The Patriots and the Seahawks, two teams that defeated the Broncos this past season, showed where the get-it-done bar in the league sits right now.

Kubiak’s Texans never played beyond the divisional round and now he has been tasked with taking the Broncos to a championship. He will use what he learned in Houston, where he was expected to win.

But in Denver, he will be expected to win a lot more.