ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Call it the executive equivalent of throwing deep on fourth-and-1 with a two-point lead and two minutes to play.
The Denver Broncos were in pretty good shape, but John Elway wanted more because he thought Pat Bowlen would have wanted more too.
When the Broncos as an organization and, specifically, Elway as the team’s top football decision-maker, decided to part ways with John Fox, a coach who had led the team to four consecutive AFC West titles and one Super Bowl appearance, it was a major roll of the football dice.
The message: The playoffs are nice, but trophies are the goal.
For instance, the Lombardi Trophy the Broncos brought back to Denver from Super Bowl 50 and displayed in front of an estimated one million people Tuesday at the team’s parade and rally. The trophy Gary Kubiak was hired just more than a year ago to help the team win.
At one point in the days leading up to the AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, Elway described the situation he brought Kubiak into as “hotter than any seat in the league.’’
But under Kubiak, the Broncos -- sometimes ugly, sometimes dominant, but always “grinding,’’ as the coach put it -- went 12-4, earned the No. 1 seed in the AFC and rode a historic defense to the franchise’s third Super Bowl win.
“This team kind of embodies [Coach Kubiak's] personality, in my mind: tough, gritty, selfless and hardworking,’’ team president and CEO Joe Ellis said. “With his leadership, we grinded it out, as he likes to say. He did an unbelievable job this season of keeping his finger on the pulse of this team.’’
Clearly, the Broncos' surprising gamble worked out exactly as they hoped it would.
The Broncos had their share of injuries: Two left tackles (Ryan Clady and Ty Sambrailo) went on injured reserve, DeMarcus Ware missed five games, T.J. Ward missed three games, special teams captain David Bruton Jr. finished the regular season on injured reserve, and quarterback Peyton Manning missed seven starts with a left foot injury.
Kubiak managed the Manning-Brock Osweiler situation as well as it could be managed, many Broncos players said. Kubiak made a point of talking to the quarterbacks each week before addressing the team while the Broncos started their preparations for the upcoming game.
The Broncos played a high-end schedule that included seven regular-season games against teams that would make the playoffs. They won five of those games. Including the playoffs, 11 of the Broncos' wins were by seven or fewer points. All season, the team played in only five games -- Sept. 27 win over Detroit, Nov. 1 win over Green Bay, Nov. 15 loss to Kansas City, Dec. 6 win over San Diego and Sunday’s Super Bowl win -- decided by more than seven points.
“Coach Kubiak, man, he kept us solid,’’ cornerback Aqib Talib said. “He came in here and was straight with us, told us how it is and put us in position to play.’’
It was quite a turnaround for Kubiak, who was fired by the Houston Texans after the 2013 season because some thought he didn’t have the resolve to push the Texans toward a rebound for a 2-14 finish that year. He spent one season with the Baltimore Ravens as John Harbaugh’s offensive coordinator, fully intending to “stay there and learn how they do it, how John does things, how [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] does things,’’ until Elway called with hot seat in hand.
“I dreamed that I would get back in that position,’’ Kubiak said this week. “Did I think that I’d end up here a couple of years later? No, I can’t sit here and say that. It’s really a blessing, but I think as a coach, you understand the business. I have had a lot of confidence in myself throughout my career -- not just now. I knew when that opportunity was lost that there was another great one out there for me, and I wanted to keep going.’’
With the Broncos making a record-tying eighth trip to the Super Bowl, they have more Super Bowl trips than losing seasons during Pat Bowlen’s tenure as owner. Kubiak is now one of seven current head coaches to have won a Super Bowl as a head coach. He joined Harbaugh, Bill Belichick, Mike Tomlin, Mike McCarthy, Pete Carroll and Sean Payton.
“I love what I do. I love teaching. I love being around guys like John and Joe and the battle in this business,’’ Kubiak said. “I think I have a lot left in me. I just feel very, very fortunate that I got this opportunity. I understand that. I count my blessings every day. It’s been great. Hopefully, there are some more to come.’’