Broncos president/CEO Joe Ellis, new coach Vic Fangio and general manager John Elway at Fangio’s Dove Valley
introductory news conference on Thursday. (Associated Press.)
We assumed wrong.
Former Broncos quarterback, assistant coach
and head coach Gary Kubiak won’t be joining Vic Fangio’s coaching staff — not as an offensive consultant,
not as offensive coordinator, and not as anything else.
Clearly, a possible Kubiak step back into coaching was part of the discussion
when John Elway met with Fangio on Monday in the Chicago area and then settled in on the Bears defensive coordinator as the
choice to succeed the fired Vance Joseph.
Fangio and Kubiak eventually met, and it was clear they couldn’t get on the
same page. 9News’ Mike Klis reported that Kubiak, who had come around to a full-time return to coaching as a coordinator,
apparently wanted to bring back other former staff members as part of his strategy. That and other issues convinced Fangio
it wouldn’t be a good fit.
This is not a knock on Kubiak, a proven coach and an even better man: It would have been a mistake
to bring him back to the staff. That came into sharp focus as the idea was floated in the media. It would have undercut Fangio.
He is finally getting his head-coaching chance 40 years into his career. He is not a co-coach, not half of a two-headed command,
either in reality or perception. The head coach will not have a man who guided the Broncos to a Super Bowl championship
looming over his shoulder, so to speak.
Many have pointed out the similarities between this and the successful model I researched
and wrote about in “’77: Denver, the Broncos and a Coming of Age.” John Ralston, a brilliant personnel man
who deserves credit for building the corner-turning roster, was fired as coach following the 1976 season. The natural
choice to succeed him, defensive coordinator Joe Collier, didn’t want anything to to with it because he didn’t
enjoy his stint as Buffalo’s head coach and preferred to be the brilliant mad scientist left alone to run what became
the renowned “Orange Crush.” He had been adaptive, going to a semi-revolutionary three-man front the year before,
when Lyle Aldzado suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the 3-4 was magic.
Collier and Red Miller, then the Patriots’
offensive coordinator, had coached together as far back as at Western Illinois, and Collier essentially recommended and signed
off on hiring Miller for his first-ever pro head-coaching job.
In the magical 1977, Collier ran the defense. Red, with only
nine assistants and no listed offensive coordinator, pretty much ran the offense. (With seven, the Nuggets have almost as many assistant coaches.)
That worked for the Broncos then, but Miller and Collier’s
long-time friendship and trust made it an extraordinary situation.
This would have been different, and not only because more
than 40 years have passed. While Fangio will demand an offensive approach more in line with the RPO trends of the times, he
still is more old-school than new-wave. I actually don’t buy into the oft-expressed notion that Kubiak should be viewed
with suspicion in 2019 because his offensive philosophy — still somewhat on display with the Broncos — is archaic.
He hasn’t coached since 2016, and he should at least be given a chance to adjust before he’s pronounced intolerably
With Fangio’s age so often being brought into play, you’d think he will have to use a walker when he
comes down from the press box to the sideline on game day. He won’t. (Not that there’d be anything wrong with
that … and keep in mind that Elway himself is 58.) But Fangio has paid his dues, he is carrying the flag for veteran
NFL assistants whose kids have attended seven schools in seven cities before graduating from high school, and he deserves
to be given as much control of his own fate as possible.
In some ways, that’s where Joseph was treated unfairly in his first head-coaching
chance. He had input, but so much — including personnel and draft decisions made before he was hired and the lack of
an elite quarterback— wasn’t of his doing.
Fangio decided not to get the band back together. That’s especially savvy
because he wasn’t part of the band that would be reunited.
I’m a believer in the CEO head coaching approach. Hire
elite coordinators and let them do their jobs, with input — but not sabotaging interference — from above. Many
first-time head coaches tried to follow that model, but then jump in on game day and foul everything up. In that sense, it’s
preferable to have the head coach wholeheartedly act as his own coordinator rather than occasionally leap into the process
and undercut the chances for success. I’m still uneasy, though, about Fangio calling the defensive signals and
running that side of the ball, even if the coordinator title eventually is bestowed on someone else for cosmetic reasons and/or
a means of helping an assistant out with his resume and justifying a raise.
First and foremost, he has been an effective coordinator
from the birds-eye view in the coaches’ booth at the press box level. Operating as the head coach from there is out
of the question. So he will be on the sideline, and it will require an adjustment period for Fangio. Most likely, he also
will seek and hire an assistant he knows and trusts to act as his eyes from above as the defensive decisions are made in the
time it takes to snap fingers. Others have been their own coordinators, whether that’s acknowledged in the coaching
staff titles or otherwise. It can work. But it would be more efficient to have Fangio concentrating on putting his stamp on
this team as a head coach. Period.
There are other reasons Kubiak returning to the staff didn’t make sense.
One is that,
depending on the model, it often is at least as hard and is more time-consuming to be an offensive coordinator than
to be a head coach. Klis and others portrayed Kubiak as having decided he could handle the return to coaching full-time. There,
the lights stay on late in the office, though the digital age has made it much easier for entire football operation staff
to assemble, summon and study scouting footage. The argument used to be that coordinators don’t have to deal with the
media. That’s no longer close to the truth. Coordinators speak to the media once a week and no longer are shadowy figures,
and many coordinators’ cell numbers are in the contacts of national and local media members.
Pressure on head coaches is immense.
Kubiak, who is going to consider other offensive coordinator possibilities, not so long ago recoiled from that part of the
job. It imperiled his health, including when he suffered a mini-stroke in 2013 with the Texans and headache issues with the
Broncos in 2016.
It wouldn’t have been much different if he jumped back in as the effective co-coach. If he immersed himself
in the job, which coordinators must do to be effective, the health risk would have been virtually the same as if he was the
official head coach again. Kubiak is savvy. I assume he knows that some of the sleep-in-the-office dogma is ridiculous and
often more showmanship than it is necessary. But, still, no coach — including a first-time head coach — can abide
a coordinator whose heart won’t be (and won’t remain) 100 percent into the job.
A better idea was Kubiak returning
as head coach. If that wasn’t possible, for whatever reason, it was time to completely move on.
And let Fangio be completely in
charge … at least of the staff.