John Elway has his guy, and the hire is either going to prove he's a genius or eventually get him fired.
When the Denver Broncos general manager canned former head coach John Fox, he got rid of one of the most popular men in the NFL—both with players and with other coaches. Fox wasn't a perfect head coach (no one is), but he was generally regarded as one of the top leaders of men in his profession and was a heralded hire almost immediately in Chicago, where the Bears are more than happy to pick up "one man's trash" as their treasure.
This wasn't about Fox losing a playoff game.
Fox Sports' Jay Glazer made it clear that the working relationship between these two men had been deteriorating for a long time. While many can posit their own theories about what the root causes are for that poor relationship, it's not hard to connect the dots between this hire and an interview Elway did with Phil Simms on CBS's The NFL Today, in which he talked about being happy that he's still the head honcho off the field that he was on it.
S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated connected some of those dots for us in this profile of Elway. He talks at length about Elway's competitiveness, from the itch of quarterbacking that still runs through his veins to the fact that he demanded to be a captain of schoolyard games all the way back in kindergarten. Price recounts the following story about Elway from after a Super Bowl loss as a player:
This is easier for him to talk about than you'd imagine. Elway felt 'obliterated,' as one friend puts it, by the tsunami San Francisco laid on him. It was his third trip to a Super Bowl, and each had ended worse than the previous. He was 29. 'They'll never forgive me for this,' Elway said that night, staring into a bathroom mirror. 'They'll never let me live this down.'
Elway's Type-A personality is a darn good thing, and it's one of the personality traits a person can find in almost all of the great athletes out there (not to mention coaches and front-office executives). But it's also easy to see where that might get in his way or help drive decisions like this.
Rather than treating this like he's the CEO or COO of a multibillion-dollar business, Elway is treating going to work in the morning like he treated every single Sunday during his playing career, carrying the joy of victory and the agony of defeat as if he were Atlas and the rest of the organization is just the world on his shoulders.
As a quarterback, that kind of zero-sum thinking can drive a man crazy. As a general manager, it can lead to quick action and very little in terms of proverbial leash length for one's employees. Fox was not Elway's guy, and Fox did not win a Super Bowl. So he had to go...at least in Elway's mind.
Gary Kubiak is Elway's guy, make no doubt about it.
Kubiak has been Elway's guy since 1983. That year, he was drafted in the eighth round of the NFL draft—seven rounds after Elway was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts before forcing his way onto the Broncos. (There's that Type-A personality again.) He played his entire career as Elway's backup, and the two have remained friends.
Here's Rick Reilly (then with SI) on the relationship of Kubiak and Elway back in 1992:
As Elway got ready to drag himself back onto the field one more time, Kubiak yanked on his arm. 'Pick me up, Wood,' Kubiak said. In sportsese, 'pick me up' means 'save my bacon.' Wood is what Kubiak calls Elway, Wood being short for Elwood, Kubiak's handle for Elway. To Elway, Kubiak was always Koob. Drafted the same year—Elway the shiny first pick in '83, Kubiak the 197th—Kubiak always knew what the score was in Denver. He would sweep up after Elway's parade.
Still, they became roommates and best friends. In Elway's first few tumultuous years in Denver, the years when he felt hounded, confused and ready to quit, nobody dealt out more hang-in-theres than the Texas farm kid, Kubiak.
Later, Kubiak would be Elway's offensive coordinator and quarterback coach behind Mike Shanahan, and the two won Super Bowls together.
How much Kubiak contributed to those championships with a Hall of Famer in Elway under center and another A-type/micromanager at head coach in Shanahan, the world may never know, but Kubiak's resume was enough to get him a head coaching shot in Houston.
In Houston, that same resume was enough to give him miles and miles of leash that Fox never got in Denver. At 61-64, Kubiak was not exactly a coaching savant in his early years, leading the Texans to their first winning season of his tenure in Year 4 (9-7 in 2009) and making the playoffs for the first time two years later.
He also remains 2-2 all time in the playoffs and has never been past the divisional round.
This past performance may not entirely indicate future results, but it certainly flies in the face of the high standards Elway appears to have for himself as the leader of this franchise and that he applied to Fox's coaching tenure. It also makes zero sense in light of this statement from Elway about the hiring, per DenverBroncos.com:
Having coached on three Super Bowl champions and 11 playoff teams, Gary knows what it will take to deliver another World Championship to Broncos fans. Coach Kubiak is all about winning and doing things the right way, which are values that have always been most important to the Broncos and Owner Pat Bowlen.
Was Fox, who owns better overall records in the regular season and postseason, not "all about winning?" Is there some magic about losing in the playoffs in Houston and then as an offensive coordinator in Baltimore that makes it more palatable than Fox losing in the playoffs in Denver?
Last year, Kubiak's Ravens offense was behind Denver in points per game, total yardage and passing yardage. It was only in rushing yardage that Kubiak's offense bested what Denver was already working with, and much of that has to do with the mentality of the two teams. Toward the end of the season, it was even arguable that Kubiak's Ravens were rushing better than a Denver scheme suddenly featuring C.J. Anderson.
For those zero-sum, "just win, baby" advocates out there, let's not forget that Kubiak's team barely made the playoffs with 10 wins, while Fox led the Broncos to 12.
There is simply no way to look at the comparative resumes of Fox and Kubiak and come away from the exercise believing Kubiak is the better man for the job.
Let's call this move what it is: a lateral move at best, but a move that consolidates Elway's power.
I've seen the comparison elsewhere, but Joe Caporoso of Turn On The Jets provided the meme on Twitter, and it's an apt one. Following the playoff loss, the past weeks have been akin to the baptism scene in The Godfather. No, it's not that Elway is offing people or "breaking bad" like Michael Corleone did.
No, rather, it's that he's establishing his control and getting rid of people who may have been problems for him. In turn, he's elevating his people to those now-vacated positions of power. One doesn't feel the need to micromanage or second-guess each decision if he completely trusts the people he's hired to do a job.
It was a kind of complete trust Fox did not have. He probably never could have earned it in a way that Kubiak already has because of his history with the man in charge.
I won't go so far as to call Kubiak a "yes man." Indeed, he (like most NFL head coaches and former quarterbacks) has that same Type-A personality himself. He won't let Elway coach from the executive suite, nor will he back down when the two disagree. However, he's a man Elway knows how to work with and knows he shouldn't have to often work against.
The two come from such similar backgrounds, and that background helped shape the ideas and values both have as football minds today. That means less friction and (hopefully for Elway and the Broncos) being on the same page could mean more success.
What if it doesn't?
Seriously, but what if it doesn't?
What happens if quarterback Peyton Manning is done and Brock Osweiler falls flat on his face? What happens if the Broncos turn, then, to young passer Zac Dysert (whom Elway has publicly complimented a number of times) and he fails as well? What if they draft a guy, groom him and he doesn't pan out either?
That would be Elway's quarterbacks failing with Elway's chosen head coach—a supposed quarterback guru.
What if the Broncos don't make the playoffs next season? What if they're one-and-done again, with or without Manning still taking the snaps? What if the proverbial window closes and there's simply nothing that can be done about it?
The answer to all those hypotheticals is that Elway would be done.
Elway continuing to be the "quarterback" for the franchise is an apt analogy, but remember that the quarterback only controls a team's destiny so far. Joe Ellis sits above Elway on the org chart as president, chairman and CEO of the Broncos. Above him sits the Pat Bowlen Trust, which runs the organization since Bowlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Elway's power is consolidated but not yet absolute.
It never can be in an NFL where everybody answers to somebody.
If Elway fails, it will be a total washout. He's not just trading his cards in. With his hire, he's also pushing all of his chips toward the center of the table. He wanted his people, and now he's got them, starting at head coach and with hires that will trickle down through the coaching staff.
If it doesn't work, he'll be the next one looking for a job.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.