Column: Making a case for Gary Kubiak for Coach of the Year

Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak speaks at a news conference in San Francisco, Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. The Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

The NFL season is over. The Denver Broncos have won Super Bowl 50. I still can’t believe it. Watching the way those 19 games played out was both agonizing and thrilling. It’s surreal to me that the Broncos went from having Tim Tebow leading them at quarterback to winning their third championship in just five years.

Two years ago, I was demoralized by what some have dared to call a game between the Broncos and the Super Bowl XLVIII champion Seattle Seahawks. Sure, the Seahawks were the better team in that matchup and defense wins championships. I understood all of that and was willing to accept it. But then I heard it.

“It’s just the start of the Super Bowl. We didn’t prepare very well for that, and it showed,” Wes Welker said after the game.

Welker, a member of that Broncos record-setting offense, was unhappy with their preparation for the game. Maybe he was just disappointed that they lost and was overreacting. Then it got worse.

I remember reading a tweet around the time of Super Bowl XLVIII that said that then-coach John Fox had turned down the sound system at the practices leading up to the big game because he thought it was too loud. Fox made many questionable decisions in his days in Denver — see the 2013 loss in the divisional round of the playoffs as the most glaring — so when he failed to win a championship in 2014, he was shown the door by Broncos general manager John Elway.

I, among others, was worried that replacing Fox with Gary Kubiak wouldn’t be too successful. Kubiak had only ever led a team to victory over the Bengals in the playoffs, and nowadays everybody does that. He didn’t seem to have a great resume as a head coach, with a roughly .500 record coming into this past season. Many analysts and ESPN insiders claimed that the hire was questionable, especially with Peyton Manning not being the ideal fit for Kubiak’s offensive scheme. Some of them even said that it was a pipe dream by Elway, who was just trying to revive the days of his two Super Bowl runs.

A Super Bowl season later, it’s clear to me that Gary Kubiak was not only great, but also the best coach in the NFL. Had the Coach of the Year award been given after the Super Bowl, Kubiak would be holding it right now. A look back at how he handled the season shows what a tremendous job he did.

There were games in which Denver didn’t score an offensive touchdown, and Kubiak kept his team in charge, getting excellent play from his defense to score on their own and maintain leads. The Broncos turned the ball over in each of their first nine games and finished with an awful turnover margin that had them tied for 19th in the NFL.

When thinking about this team, three games stick out to me as signs of how great of a coach Kubiak was this year.

The first was a Thursday night game in Kansas City against the Chiefs, where the Broncos offense sputtered to go down by two touchdowns very quickly. The game seemed destined to be a blowout, until Kubiak decided to let Peyton Manning run the no-huddle shotgun offense that he’s famous for. Denver came back and was down 24-17 with just two minutes left in the game, and in Peyton Manning’s best drive of the season, he converted multiple third downs and threw a wonderful strike to Emmanuel Sanders to seemingly send the game to overtime. 

Then, the Broncos defense forced a fumble on the next play and returned it for a touchdown before it got to that point. It was a phenomenal comeback in a game that could’ve gotten out of hand quickly and showed a lot of resilience.

The other two games were both primetime showdowns in Denver against the two best teams in the AFC. Nobody thought the Broncos would be victorious, but Kubiak made all the right calls and adjustments and led them to thrilling overtime comeback victories over the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals.

The resolve and mental fortitude that the Broncos showed in those games gave them an edge going into the playoffs. They won nine out of the 12 games that they played in the regular 

season that were decided by seven or fewer points. This team thrived on grinding out close games.

Kubiak was ready for the playoffs, managing to the get the top seed in the AFC. Yet somehow, people said the Pittsburgh Steelers would top them. Those people were proved wrong as Denver grinded out a win.

A week later, people said that the Denver defense, which was the best in the NFL this season and one of the best all-time, wasn’t good enough to beat Tom Brady in Denver. Once again, Denver grinded out their opponent for the win.

In the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, it started to seem to me like this was a team of destiny. I looked back to the fumble recovery for a touchdown against the Chiefs, the 48-yard walk-off touchdown by C.J. Anderson in overtime against the Patriots and the timely turnovers against the Steelers and Patriots in the two playoff wins. I wasn’t going to guarantee a win, because the Carolina Panthers were a bad matchup on paper, but it was hard envisioning the blowout loss that seemingly every NFL analyst on the planet seemed to predict.

So the Broncos went out there, tasked with shutting down a great offense, much like Seattle was two years ago. There was little to no trash talk in the days leading up to the game. Kubiak and the Broncos admired the Panthers’ 17-win season and understood the task at hand, but they weren’t nervous.

“There’s no pressure on us, because nobody’s picking us,” C.J. Anderson said at media day last week.

That’s the mindset that the Denver Broncos gave off in their press conferences and interviews, and it’s how they played. Gary Kubiak masterfully took a team that had doubt of making the playoffs, won a handful of games with Brock Osweiler at quarterback and seemingly transitioned back to Peyton Manning at the perfect time, all while avoiding the controversy and doubt that can undermine a great coach.

There’s no doubt that Ron Rivera did an excellent job with the Carolina Panthers, but as the old saying goes, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” and Gary Kubiak finished the season with a bang.