On Jan. 19 , 2015 John Elway introduced the Denver Broncos 15th head coach in franchise history. It happened to be his longtime friend and former teammate, Gary Kubiak. The move was applauded by most, but some wondered if it was too good to be true. Two friends working together trying to bring back the “glory days” instead of simply finding someone who could get the job done.
Elway, a shrewd businessman and the ultimate competitor, did both. Kubiak not only came back and returned the Broncos to their eighth Super Bowl (tied for the most appearances all-time), he also brought some familiar faces to meld with some prized holdovers from recent Broncos staffs. The result is an experienced group that knows what it is like to lose the big game but more importantly, what it takes to win championships.
“It makes the transition – I don’t know if I’d say easier – maybe faster. When you all of a sudden put a group together in late January, February, which most people are doing right now, you’ve got to be ready to teach in mid-April nowadays. The fact that we had been together before, [we] knew exactly the direction we wanted to go,” Kubiak said Saturday of the importance of having former Broncos coaches back.
Kubiak and Elway built a coaching staff that included coordinators Rick Dennison, Wade Phillips and Joe DeCamillis, to name just three. Those five men combine for 77 years of service with the Broncos organization. Super Bowl 50 will be Elway’s seventh trip, Kubiak’s seventh, Dennison’s sixth, DeCammillis’ third and Phillips’ second. They have lost several, but also brought home the Vince Lombardi Trophy as well.
“Yeah, it’s kind of cool for all of us. A lot of us have passed through here somehow, some way. Rico [Dennison] and I spent a lot of time here as players and coaches. Joe grew up here under his father-in-law, [Ring of Fame Head Coach] Dan [Reeves] and became a heck of a coach. There are a lot of us guys – [tight ends coach] Brian Pariani passed through here for a long time. It is special to come back. We shared this opportunity before as colleagues and stuff. To share it again here, going into this football game has been special,” Kubiak said Friday.
The Panthers have experienced coaches as well. The Broncos coordinators alone combine for 59 years of coordinator experience for most in the NFL, just ahead of the Panthers coordinators’ 41 combined years, 27 of which belong to special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven. Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is in his 19th NFL season as a head coach after playing nine seasons in the NFL as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears. This will be his third appearance in the Super Bowl (second as a coach) and DeHaven’s fourth as a coach. Several other Panthers coaches have been to the big game but not nearly as often as the Broncos play callers.
Though there are experienced coaches on both sides, Phillips, the longest tenured coach of them all, will participate in only his second Super Bowl (both with the Broncos as defensive coordinator), one he has waited 26 years to get back to.
“It’s been tremendous. You look at his track record, and how many times has Wade gone to an organization, team and real fast done things? It tells you what type of teacher he is, and that’s the whole group, the coaches, as well. I’ve known Wade for a long time, known his family, knew his dad, grew up under his dad as a kid. For me to share this opportunity with him is really special. I’m very proud of him, the job he’s done, the career he’s had. I know he’s really soaking up this week or these two weeks, really enjoying it,” Kubiak said.
Phillips has gone from possibly the most questioned coaching move in the offseason, after he spent a season out of the NFL at age 68, to being one the of the biggest reasons the Broncos have made it back to the Super Bowl.
“No. 1, Wade is a great people person. When he walks in a room, you give him 100 new people to walk in a room, he’s going to be very impressive. He can lead groups real fast. Guys trust him,” Kubiak stated. “I just think he’s been very consistent in his career as a coach, whether it was as an assistant or a head coach. He’s just been very consistent as a coach and a person.”
Phillips has received much of the praise for the Broncos top-ranked defense while the offense’s struggles have landed squarely on Kubiak’s shoulders. Dennison, who has joined Kubiak on every stop of his professional coaching career, admitted last week he is not satisfied with the where the offense is presently, but maintained they have what it takes to win one more game. Kubiak certainly has appreciated Dennison’s companionship as both a player and a coach since they meant as members of the 1983 Bronccos.
“Rico and I have come up together under [former Broncos head coach] Mike [Shanahan]. Rico was an offensive assistant and became the offensive line coach. He was the special teams coordinator. You name it, Rick has coached it, and he is an engineer,” Kubiak said of their time together. “Rick and I have been together a long time. Our preparation together, getting players ready to play, calling the game—he’s become a very good play caller, in my opinion, and [quarterbacks coach Greg] Knapp has been with us, too. That’s been a very good group to work with.”
In addition to Elway, Kubiak and the coordinators, ten other coaches and assistant coaches remain from the Broncos Super Bowl XLVIII loss in 2014. The recent memory of the blowout loss has fueled coaches Knapp, [offensive line coach] Clancy Barone, [wide receivers coach] Tyke Tolbert and others to come home with a trophy this time around.
“I think one of the most important things about our coaching staff this year that hasn’t been stated enough is the fact of the guys that stayed with us. You talk about [running backs coach] Eric [Studesville], you talk about Tyke [Tolbert], you talk about [assistant offensive line coach] James [Cregg], you talk about Clancy [Barone]—those guys, with new guys coming in, they embraced us. They stayed with us. They really helped us make the transition, so those guys deserve a great deal of credit.”
So much of Super Bowl 50 will be dependent on coaching, preparation and not getting distracted by the gravity of the moment. The Broncos coaches have that experience from top to bottom. Elway’s “reunion tour” of coaches may have looked more like favoritism to the outside world but inside the locker room they bring the expertise to get the job done. On the field Feb. 7, execution will be king. In so doing, Elway and his friends can reunite with one more beloved member of the crew in just a few days; the Vince Lombardi Trophy is all that is missing from this reunion.