Gary Kubiak Is the Perfect Hire for the Denver Broncos
So now we have a new head coach, who was a former offensive coordinator, taking over for a former head coach who is now a new head coach, and prior to that, he took over from a new head coach after he himself was a head coach.
You followed that, right? Like JJ Zachariason’s article about Gary Kubiak in Baltimore last year so eloquently states, the coaching carousel is alive and well in 2015, and this year’s iteration has been having some far-reaching shockwaves.
NFL teams are poaching coordinators left and right, and new Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak is no exception. With the Broncos unexpectedly cleaning house after a one-and-done playoff result, they were in need of an intelligent and strong presence to lead their locker room. Kubiak -– once the head coach of the Houston Texans -– may be just the guy for the job. What does he bring to the table?
Big Shoes to Fill
Gary Kubiak’s entire career has been a story of filling large shoes and overcoming huge expectations. His first NFL job was that of an eighth-round selection in the historic quarterback class of the 1983 NFL Draft, by –- go figure –- the Denver Broncos. Yes, the same Denver Broncos who also traded for Hall-of-Fame quarterback John Elway in the aftermath of the draft, the same John Elway who is now the general manager of those Denver Broncos. Kubiak’s time as a player was occupied as a backup and spot starter for the legendary Elway, which is an almost impossible feat to request of anyone (just ask Matt Flynn how he feels playing behind Aaron Rodgers).
After his playing career, his big NFL break came in 1994 as the quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers. That season, he guided quarterback Steve Young to production that would lead to his second NFL MVP award and a Super Bowl title. Young, as we all know, was still overcoming the mammoth shadow of the legendary Joe Montana, and Kubiak became a huge part of his development and success.
His first coordinator role came with his original organization in football, as in 1995 he was named the offensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. This was where Kubiak would engineer two Super Bowl-winning offenses led by, of course, his former teammate, John Elway. Even his first head coaching stint with the Houston Texans followed up famed defensive mind Dom Capers’ tenure, and now he has to follow up the historic Adam Gase and Mike McCoy offenses of the past two years in his third trip to Denver.
Can Kubiak continue his legacy of success after following up some of the all-time greats of the game, or is he actually underwhelming as a team leader? Let’s dig into the numbers and find out.
Next Man Up
Here at numberFire, we don’t just look at coaches’ win-loss records in order to evaluate their performance, or even the box score statistics accumulated under their watch. Those are important factors to consider, but just as important is putting a more careful eye on the production that teams actually achieve on the field. For this, we turn to Net Expected Points (NEP), a metric that assigns weight not just to how many yards were gained but how they were gained versus what was expected. A one yard rush on 1st-and-10 is all good and well, but a one yard gain on 4th-and-1 is much more productive and crucial for the team. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.
How have Kubiak’s teams matched up in NEP over the years? The table below shows his teams’ ranks in Adjusted NEP (and Adjusted Defensive NEP for years as a head coach) since 2000. Is he just backup material, or does Kubiak deserve the spotlight for once?
|Year||Team||Role||Adj. NEP Rank||Adj. Pass NEP Rank||Adj. Rush NEP Rank||Adj. Defensive NEP Rank|
There’s no exact pattern to the production of Kubiak’s NEP data, no true narrative arc we can pull out of it. However, we can notice a few very important things about his years as a coordinator and coach. When Kubiak was in Denver, his offense had four top-five finishes in Adjusted NEP out of the six years he was there, even multiple years after Elway had retired. That speaks to a great amount of stability even as his quarterbacks changed from Elway to Brian Griese, from Jake Plummer to Jay Cutler, all with unique skill sets that Kubiak had to adapt to.
In his time with the Houston Texans, we do see the team improving every year he was there until quarterback Matt Schaub finally began to fall apart in his decision-making and running back Arian Foster’s injuries got the best of him for multiple seasons. The lasting image of his Texans’ tenure is unfortunately that of an offense ranked lower than 25th in every Adjusted NEP category. What truly plagued him in his time there, however, is a lackluster defensive unit that only popped twice, with two top-10 finishes in eight years. Kubiak is an offensively-geared coach, however, so I think some of that has to be forgiven.
Out of the Shadow
The truly interesting thing to me is the long record of offensive success. Only twice did Kubiak’s offenses ever finish in the bottom half of the league, and he had seven top-10 finishes in Adjusted NEP. That’s astounding stability with different quarterbacks, different prior team situations, and so many other factors. Gary Kubiak is probably one of the most underrated coaches in the National Football League right now for what he’s been able to achieve offensively. Consider how poor the Ravens’ rushing attack was in 2013: Kubiak took a unit that was dead last by a mile and made it into a strength with the simple addition of Justin Forsett and a revamping of the blocking scheme.
Kubiak goes to Denver, where he’ll find waiting for him a formidable stable of runners in C.J. Anderson, Montee Ball, and Ronnie Hillman. A former quarterback himself, Kubiak will have no trouble working to Peyton Manning’s strengths and letting the veteran do what he does best. In addition, this is one of the best hires I could imagine for the continued development of backup quarterback and heir to Manning, Brock Osweiler, who may be re-signed in the upcoming season.
The front office, headed by Elway, is going to give him all the support he needs in personnel, so all Kubiak needs is to find a strong defensive coordinator to take care of the other side of the ball. With a unit that has been in the top half of the league every year in the past four, I don’t think it will be a hard sell. The defense was his one bugaboo in Houston, but if he gets it figured out in Denver, we could be on the verge of another Orange Crush dynasty.