AFC West: Denver Broncos

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The Denver Broncos, given they are not one of the two teams that will get down to their Super Bowl work in Arizona next week, are in the business phase of the offseason.

They have a substantial list of 17 prospective free agents, restricted and unrestricted combined, to work through. That includes some of their front-line players -- nine starters -- and two of the five team captains in wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.

But the big picture shows that the Broncos have plenty of core players, including all of their players in Arizona for the Pro Bowl, under contract well beyond next season.

[+] EnlargeDemaryius Thomas
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesDemaryius Thomas is a free agent, but the Broncos could still put a franchise tag on him.
None of the Broncos’ eight players taking part in the Pro Bowl practices this week leading up to Sunday’s all-star game are prospective free agents. Demaryius Thomas (ankle, toe), tight end Julius Thomas (ankle) and quarterback Peyton Manning (thigh) were also selected for the Pro Bowl, but elected not to participate because of injuries.

Of those three, Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas will be free agents while Manning, signed through the 2016 season, has not stated whether he will return for the 2015 season.

Of the other Broncos in the Pro Bowl:
Of the Pro Bowl group, only Manning (38) and Ware (32) were older than 28 this season. So if the players stay reasonably healthy, it means the Broncos have several key players locked up for two or more seasons, before most become 30-somethings. Demaryius Thomas will almost certainly get the team’s franchise player tag if no long-term deal is worked out this offseason, so that’s another player to mark down for 2015.

Julius Thomas’ representatives have made it clear they’re interested in negotiating in the highest-paid-player-at-the-position area, as you would expect, and that might prove too daunting for a Broncos front office that is already planning for a potential salary-cap squeeze in 2016. And, as the Pro Bowl list shows, Miller will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2015 season and Anderson will be a restricted free agent, free to get offers that the Broncos can match, if they wish.

Miller and Anderson are both players the Broncos are going to want to keep, but they'll have to open the checkbook to do it.

The Manning question looms as well on the business side with a $19 million salary that is guaranteed if he’s on the roster on the last day of the league year, March 9.

Another business item that will bear watching among the Pro Bowl selections is if the Broncos will take a look at Clady’s contract for a future reduction. Tight end Jacob Tamme, a prospective free agent in the coming weeks as well, took a contract hit before this past season.

Clady, who struggled with groin and thigh injuries this season and hasn't yet shown his form of 2012 since a season-ending foot injury early in 2013, is slated to count $10.6 million against the cap next season, $10.1 million in 2016 and $10.6 million in 2017. He also has already received the bulk of his guaranteed money, with a $3 million signing bonus in 2013 to go with a $10.5 million roster bonus in July 2013.

That combination always puts a player in the crosshairs for a re-do. Clady’s base salary for 2015 -- $8 million -- is also guaranteed in the fifth day of the new league year, which will be March 14.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – By the time this past season was over, the Denver Broncos' 2014 draft class had been split down a very easy-to-see line.

If you were a defensive player, you were in uniform on game day, you were on the field, you contributed in some way. And if you were an offensive player in that draft class, you practiced a lot. But play in games? Not so much.

Roby
And when Mel Kiper Jr. re-graded the 2014 draft for every team in the league, it was a distinction he made as well as he dropped the grade from the C-plus he gave the Broncos this past May.

Cornerback Bradley Roby (first round) gave the Broncos all they hoped for as he quickly became a regular and a player the Broncos trusted enough to lock up in man coverage against some of the league’s more accomplished receivers.

Roby, who played 805 snaps in regular season on defense, was also a willing participant in run fits as well, as he finished as the third-leading tackler on the team with 64 tackles, including five tackles for loss. He looks every bit a future starter and will likely play even more next season if he makes the expected jump from his rookie season to Year 2.

Linebackers Lamin Barrow (fifth round) and Corey Nelson (seventh round) played sparingly in situational roles on defense – 49 snaps and 109 snaps, respectively – but both were regulars on special teams, with Barrow playing 74.4 percent of the snaps on special teams and Nelson 65 percent.

On offense, however, the rookies had mostly a watch-and-learn year. Wide receiver Cody Latimer (second round), despite his potential to contribute in red-zone offense because of his size-speed combination and willingness to win a contested ball, could not overcome the Broncos’ desire for him to be able to handle all of the fine points in a complex offense with a highly-productive position group that included two 1,000-yard receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.

Latimer played just 37 snaps on offense all season.

But that was far more than tackle Michael Schofield (third round), who was a game-day inactive for every game of the season and center Matt Paradis (seventh round), who spent the season on the practice squad.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In all the words that have been written or spoken about friendship, the simplicity of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend," might be the bottom line.

And in the NFL, people hire their friends all of the time, familiarity being a powerful lure for folks trying to make high-risk decisions into low-risk ones. But those who hire a friend must also be prepared to fire a friend.

Which brings us to John Elway and Gary Kubiak. Elway is the Denver Broncos' executive vice president of football operations/general manager who hired Kubiak as the 15th head coach in the franchise’s history. The two really didn't need an interview to get the lowdown on each other.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway and Gary Kubiak
The Denver Post/AP ImagesJohn Elway and Gary Kubiak have known each other for over 30 years.
They have been friends for more than three decades, since both were rookie quarterbacks for the Broncos in 1983. They’re former roommates and Kubiak was Elway’s offensive coordinator for four seasons. Elway, many who know him believe, has wanted Kubiak to be the coach since Pat Bowlen and Joe Ellis hired Elway in 2011 to resurrect the Broncos.

If it goes well, it is the kind of homecoming, put-the-band-back-together story Bowlen always endorsed when he ran the day-to-day operations of the team. If it doesn’t work out, well …

“We don't talk about risk," Kubiak said this week. “We understand the business. We understand it's a battle every day and it's stressful. But we have great respect for each other. We know it's going to be tough. But it's going to be fun being tough with somebody with that you know he had so much confidence in, so much trust in, as a football mind. And what John's done here in a brief period of time with this organization has been tremendous for me."

Since the Broncos and John Fox "parted ways" the day after the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Elway has said he and Fox disagreed on how the team would take the next step, from playoff contender to title winner. And while Fox did not address that thought in his news conference in Chicago on Monday, there are those who believe he wanted a little more say on personnel matters, or at least be kept in the loop. Fox also balked at potential coaching staff changes.

Of all the things Elway said following Fox’s departure, the phrase "like-minded," might have been one of the most important. In short, there may be no more like-minded person for Elway when it comes to football than Kubiak.

“Gary’s done it, he’s seen it. He understands, he’s been there; he’s won a world championship with Mike [Shanahan]," said Elway, when asked why Kubiak is the right coach to take the Broncos to the next level. "And so he’s seen it. He’s been with the Baltimore Ravens, who have won several world championships. He’s seen how they do it. ... We talked about comments that this is a place that it’s win a championship or nothing. That’s how it’s always been. Nothing’s changing there. That’s what Pat Bowlen wants. And that’s why it’s great that Gary’s experience here being a Denver Bronco, he understands that."

And there you have it. Kubiak understands that Elway’s goal and the Bowlen family’s goal is to win a Super Bowl. Sure, that’s everybody’s stated goal in the NFL, but to state the goal is one thing, to part ways with a coach who won four consecutive division titles to go with 46 regular-season games in four years is another.

Still, like a lot of things you ask Kubiak about, he is unfazed by that thought. And when you’ve spent as much time with Elway as Kubiak has, he knows it’s just a given with his boss.

“John's the most competitive human being I've ever been around, whether you're playing cards or ping pong, it doesn't matter," Kubiak said. “And that's not going to change. I think I'm very competitive, too. That's probably why we're still standing in this league because if you're not, you're not going to hang out for very long. I think this will be 31 or 32 years for me in the National Football League and I'm sure it's the same, well, it would be the same for John. So, just to get together and battle together every day is something that is very special and something I look forward to."

The jury is out, until games get played and seasons go by, as to whether it works the way Elway and Kubiak want it to -- long-time friends help win Super Bowl trophy for Bowlen -- but Kubiak, more than anyone else the Broncos could have hired, knows exactly what he has signed up for.

As he said: “I want to be part of expectations."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There could be times Sunday night when the Pro Bowl actually feels like August for a few Denver Broncos players.

When, much like a training camp practice, cornerback Aqib Talib could be locked up on wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders or left tackle Ryan Clady could trying to slow down Von Miller in a third-and-long situation.

When the Pro Bowls rosters were completed Wednesday night, Talib and Clady were on a team selected by Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin while the other six Broncos who are slated to play in the all-star game, including Sanders and Miller, will be a on team selected by Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin.

The team Irvin selected will be coached by the Dallas Cowboys’ staff and will also feature Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., defensive end DeMarcus Ware and safety T.J. Ward.

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (thigh), wide receiver Demaryius Thomas (ankle, toe) and tight end Julius Thomas (ankle) had been selected for the game, but elected not to play because of injuries. Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are each scheduled to be unrestricted free agents on March 10.

Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Gary Kubiak said Tuesday he wants to finish out his coaching staff "as soon as I possibly can."

As Tuesday drew to a close, Kubiak had completed his staff on offense to go with the hiring of special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, but was still looking to finalize deals for his defensive assistants. DeCamillis, who was the Chicago Bears' special teams coach last season, had an entry-level coaching position with the Broncos in 1990 and 1991, Kubiak's last two seasons as the team's backup quarterback.

In terms of his staff on offense, Kubiak retained three coaches from John Fox's staff in running backs coach Eric Studesville, wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert and tight ends coach Clancy Barone, who will coach the offensive line for Kubiak. Kubiak has also added Rick Dennison as offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Brian Pariani -- both were on the Baltimore Ravens staff with Kubiak this past season.

Dennison is a former Broncos player and was an assistant coach on both Mike Shanahan's and Josh McDaniels' staffs with the Broncos. Pariani is a former Broncos' assistant as well.

Defensively many in the league believe Kubiak would like to hire Bengals defensive backs coach Vance Joseph as the Broncos' defensive coordinator. Joseph, who was an assistant on Kubiak's coaching staff with the Houston Texans, interviewed with Broncos officials this past week, but as of Wednesday morning the Broncos had been informed the Bengals would not let Joseph out of his current contract despite the Broncos' job being a promotion.

At that time, the Broncos were still hoping to get a reversal of fortune and be able to hire Joseph, but they were also moving forward with other possible candidates for the job.

"The wheels are turning," Kubiak said Tuesday. "But I really think we stay away from that right now. I'd hate to jeopardize anything we have going on. I do want to get it done as quickly as I possibly can."

Broncos linebackers coach Richard Smith is expected to be retained. Smith was an assistant coach on Kubiak's Texans' staff.

As of late Tuesday night, the Broncos were believed to be sorting through candidates from around the league to coach the defensive line and the secondary. One of the Broncos' defensive backs coaches -- Cory Undlin -- accepted a job with the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday.

The Broncos also retained strength and conditioning coach Luke Richesson and his staff.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Over 17 games, five months and more than a few bumps, injuries and dilemmas along the way, the Denver Broncos discovered some things about themselves and why they didn't earn a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Today is the fourth installment of a week-long look at those lessons, both good and bad, as the Broncos began with such high hopes in September only to be so cruelly disappointed in January.

And while the team's executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway has said he likes the roster, there figures to be more change than usual this offseason.

[+] EnlargeGary Kubiak
John Leyba/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesNew coach Gary Kubiak could be the first of many changes for the Broncos this offseason.
The Broncos are still pretty young overall with 24 players on the season-ending roster who were 25 or younger and 38 players who were 27 or younger. But on the contract side, the Broncos -- with a new coaching staff in place -- will have plenty of decisions to make.

The team has 17 players who are scheduled to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents. And part of the list reads like a who's who of the starting lineup: wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, guard Orlando Franklin, tight end Virgil Green, linebacker Nate Irving, center Will Montgomery, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and safety Rahim Moore.

That's not even the entire list, but those are eight players who started games this past season for the team and it doesn't even include tight end Jacob Tamme, who is slated to an unrestricted free agent as well and played 24.5 percent of the offensive snaps this season.

Toss in a new head coach in Gary Kubiak, the potential for new playbooks on both sides of the ball with two new coordinators, and uncertainty surrounding Peyton Manning, and there is potential for plenty of change.

Still, Elway said: "I like this roster. … We've got a good base of guys for the most part … so I feel great about our football team."

Because of last season's spending binge in free agency -- the Broncos signed four players selected to this year's Pro Bowl in Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Emmanuel Sanders -- and a watchful eye that the Broncos already have on their tightening salary cap situation in 2016, expect them to stay in-house this time around.

Most of their attention and any money spent will be on their own players. If no long-term deal can be worked out with Demaryius Thomas, it is expected the Broncos would use the franchise player tag on him for a one-year deal that would be guaranteed for the average of the top-10 salaries at the position.

Last year the franchise player tag for a wide receiver meant a one-year deal for $12.312 million. That number is expected to rise a bit this time around.

"You hope they can keep things together," Knighton said. "This is a good group … you want it to be together. I believe the grass isn't always greener and I want to stay. But John Elway is building a team and they're going to make decisions they believe are right, the decision on me included."

The offensive line, with two free agents among the starters, figures to get a long look as well. The line struggled to consistently keep pass-rushers off Manning and the running backs faced first contact at or behind the line of scrimmage on about a third of the team's rushing attempts this season.

Elway said this week that Kubiak would have at least some say on personnel matters as the team formulates its offseason plan in the coming weeks.

"We're going to go through all those meetings, we're going to have all those meetings, and I guarantee, Gary and I are going to come out of the room with the right decision for the Denver Broncos," Elway said. "Gary's going to have a great influence on this team and how we shape this team. So yeah, Gary's going to have a huge influence on that. We'll get through it. We haven't had time, it's been a whirlwind. But we'll get into the meetings and look at the things, what he's looking at as far as offensive linemen, defensively, and we'll get into all those meetings with the coaches. So that'll be coming up."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Yes, John Elway was going to always keep Peyton Manning apprised of the Denver Broncos' search for a new head coach.

Yes, Elway is going to give Manning plenty of room to make a decision about whether the quarterback does, or doesn’t, play in 2015.

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
AP Photo/Jack DempseyJohn Elway has to make decisions on 17 Broncos scheduled to become free agents this offseason.
And yes, the Manning decision is certainly the team’s biggest question at the moment, at least in the public domain. But Elway made it clear Manning is not the only player the team is thinking about right now.

“I’m not talking to Peyton about what his plans are because I don’t think he’s ready to talk about it,’’ Elway said Tuesday as the Broncos formally introduced Gary Kubiak as the team’s new head coach. “ … I will say this: I talked to Peyton Saturday and said we were going down to talk to Gary on Sunday and it’s been a whirlwind since then. I also want to emphasize there’s 52 other guys we’ve got to worry about here. And I think we build this thing as a team. … Sure, we do want Peyton’s input, I do want to understand Peyton’s side of it, what he wants to do, but really there is 52 other guys on this roster, 10 guys on the practice squad and now guys we’ve signed to future contracts. And those guys are really, really important, too. This organization is important.’’

Following the Broncos’ Jan. 11 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in an AFC divisional round game, Manning said he could not say if he planned to return for the 2015 season. It was a departure from his statement Christmas Eve that he did plan on coming back next year “if the Broncos will have me.’’

Manning and the Broncos do face at least one deadline in the decision. Manning’s $19 million salary for the 2015 season is guaranteed if he is on the roster on the last day of the league year, which is March 9. Free agency opens and the new league year begins March 10.

Beyond Manning’s decision, the Broncos also have 17 players scheduled to be free agents -- unrestricted and restricted combined.

“So my job, as I say, sure I want to try to help and do everything I can to help Peyton with his decision. But it’s also very important that we take care of those other guys that are under contract with us that are on this football team because they’re just as important,’’ Elway said.

Kubiak said he, too, would be looking to put a hard sell on Manning, but to let the 14-time Pro Bowl selection make his decision.

“Yes, we have talked. We talked a couple of days ago at length,’’ Kubiak said. “We talked a little bit [Monday] night via text and those type of things. We talked about a lot of stuff. But the bottom line is we’ve basically come to the conclusion that -- I know he’s got some things going on, family things right now, and obviously I’ve got a lot going on here the next couple of days -- we’re going to get together and sit down. The thing I want to do, I want to be the best support system I can be for Peyton.’’
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It was a strange few days for Gary Kubiak.

One moment he had just finished his first season as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, offering it was “flattering and humbling" to be considered as a head coach after the end of the Ravens’ season -- a divisional-round loss to the New England Patriots -- and Kubiak said he had “decided to stay with the Ravens."

Kubiak
That was before the Denver Broncos job was open, which came the following day, and Kubiak said it brought a change of heart.

“I had a couple opportunities come up real, real quick," Kubiak said Tuesday just after he was introduced as the new Broncos head coach. “Rhonda [Kubiak’s wife] and I talked about it, you now, what I went through the year before, I thought I was in a good place, I liked what I was doing, I knew I was learning a great deal. And I just kind of said to myself, ‘hey Rhonda I’m going to make this decision, we’re going to stay (with the Ravens). We’re going to go take a vacation, take a break. Obviously there’s been no vacation."

Kubiak played for the Broncos for nine seasons as the backup quarterback to his current boss -- the team's executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway -- and was an assistant coach for the team for 11 more years, including the team’s back-to-back Super Bowl winners to close out the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

Kubiak said when the Broncos job opened after the team "parted ways" with John Fox after Denver's 24-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, and the Broncos had expressed interest, that he met with Ravens head coach John Harbaugh and other team officials, including general manager Ozzie Newsome.

“Just a game-changer," Kubiak said. “This place is special to me, I started my career here and hopefully this ia chance -- I think I have a lot left in me -- to hopefully end my career here ... Just a totally different scenario for me and I know the Ravens understood that."

And it’s why nine days after saying he planned to stay with the Ravens as offensive coordinator, Kubiak was officially named the 15th head coach in Broncos’ franchise history.

“Tremendous motivation for me to come here and work for [the Bowlen] family, be a dream come true for them to hold that trophy again," Kubiak said. “[I] hope to get a chance to visit with Pat [Bowlen] here shortly."
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Now that Denver Broncos coach Gary Kubiak has had all of one day to get acclimated to his new office, the rather enormous question that hangs over him and his offense is whether or not quarterback Peyton Manning will be in the huddle.

But Kubiak made one thing abundantly clear on Tuesday. He will not force-feed a playbook on his quarterback. Rather, he will build a playbook for the quarterback behind center -- and that includes Manning.

Shortly after Kubiak finished his introductory news conference, Manning’s name came up again in a question. Manning is, after all, the proverbial elephant in any room since he expressed uncertainty about his playing future after the Broncos’ divisional round loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Kubiak was asked about how Manning, in the shotgun, throwing almost exclusively from the pocket, fits the version of the West Coast offense Kubiak has always called plays in. The offense, after all, includes rollouts, throws on the move and naked bootlegs with the quarterback looking to throw deep and back across the field.

“He threw 35 touchdowns last year,” Kubiak started, only to be told Manning threw 39 touchdowns.

“Thirty-nine? Was it 39? Holy smokes. Look what he continues to do," he said. "The offense Peyton runs, he’s tremendous at it. In the gun, controlling the game, controlling the line of scrimmage, nobody’s ever done it better. I mean he’s the master of that. I’m looking forward to learning the style of that system that he has.”

Kubiak was channeling his days as a former Broncos quarterback. He knows how it feels to have a new playcaller and coaching staff.

“We’re going to do what the team does best, what our players do best,” Kubiak said. “If Peyton Manning’s playing ... you’re never going to get away from that. I’m looking forward to it, looking forward to spending that time with him.”

The Broncos are not building a team to persuade Manning to return for his 18th season, and fourth in Denver. They didn’t hire Kubiak to influence Manning’s decision one way or another.

They are building a team to make the jump the Broncos have been unable to make, the one from playoff team to championship team.

Kubiak is now charged with making it happen. One of the biggest messages he sent Tuesday was if Manning doesn’t come back, Kubiak is still ready to call plays in a productive offense. In his career as a playcaller, Kubiak’s offenses have featured the league’s leading rusher, leading receiver and leading passer at varying times.

And, if Manning decides to return, Kubiak said he’s ready to construct what will work for Manning.

“It’s about fitting your system to what the players do,” Kubiak said. “We’re going to run the Denver Broncos' offense, not Gary Kubiak’s offense. ... I think Peyton’s done a little bit of everything.”

There is a "yeah-but" in all of this, however. There will be concessions on Kubiak’s part and on Manning’s part if he returns. The Broncos' offense under Kubiak will likely include a significant run-game component.

Quarterbacks in the offense will have to be on the same page with the staff about how that looks on game day.

“Extremely important,” Kubiak said. “I think being physical in this league wins consistently and that gets back to running the ball.”

In the end Kubiak, general manager John Elway and the rest of the Broncos have said they will talk to Manning as often as the league’s offseason rules allow, but that they will give the future Hall of Famer plenty of room and time to make the call.

And when he does, they will prepare the team to run the plays that best fit with whatever Manning decides.

“That’s easy to build a playbook for him, he’s been a master at it for years,” Kubiak said. “He’s a Hall of Fame player, Hall of Fame person. ... This is his time, his decision.”
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will formally introduce Gary Kubiak as the team’s new coach on Tuesday.

In many ways, it will be an easy move to explain to the team’s faithful. Kubiak is a former Broncos player and assistant coach. He has three Super Bowl rings -- one from when he was an assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers and two from his time as an assistant with the Broncos.

Kubiak is a good man, honorable in how he conducts himself. He took out a full-page ad in the Houston Chronicle to thank “the players, coaches and staff for their tireless work and commitment’’ and to thank the fans AFTER he had been fired by the Texans in December 2013.

[+] EnlargeBaltimore's Gary Kubiak
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGary Kubiak's career record as a head coach is 61-64.
His former players swear by him -- a list that includes the likes of Rod Smith and Terrell Davis, and apparently one John Elway. Former tight end Joel Dreessen has said publicly he would “take a bullet’’ for Kubiak, and Jake Plummer said he wept when Kubiak left the Broncos after the 2005 season.

It’s all there with Kubiak: faith, family and football.

But the Broncos themselves have framed the discussion differently from the moment they parted ways with John Fox. He won 46 regular-season games and four division titles in four seasons in Denver, but it wasn't enough. The Broncos want to win the Super Bowl.

Elway essentially shook hands with a good guy in Fox, telling him two playoff exits as the AFC’s top seed -- a Super Bowl blowout last February to go with the double overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season -- to go with their exit as the AFC's No. 2 seed with the Jan. 11 loss to the Indianapolis Colts would not do.

When Elway announced Fox’s departure, he said: “He’s a very, very good man. He’s got a tremendous heart -- even the new one they fixed is still tremendous -- a guy that I will always have a personal relationship with. When we did get up and he left the room, we gave each other a hug and wished each other the best of luck. That relationship will always remain that way.’’

So clearly it isn't about being a good man, it is about playing football at the highest level. The level that wins championships.

Kubiak has led an NFL team before. His record in eight seasons with the Houston Texans was 61-64. They made the playoffs twice in 2011 and '12, winning a game before losing the next in both cases.

The Texans struggled on defense in Kubiak’s tenure, until he hired Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator. Things also got away from Kubiak at quarterback in his final season. Matt Schaub seemed to to lose confidence after a flurry of interceptions returned for touchdowns, and the losing appeared to take an enormous toll on Kubiak as he tried to make it right.

These are different situations, teams in different places to be sure. When Kubiak took the Texans' job before the 2006 season, they were a two-win team with an atrocious roster.

But his tenure showed how important his defensive staff was to his success. Phillips’ hire snapped the defense in order. Rick Dennison’s hire as offensive coordinator a few years into Kubiak’s tenure also bred success as the team's running game and offensive line play improved. Dennison will be on Kubiak’s staff with the Broncos, but how he fills out the rest of that staff will determine a lot about how things go in the seasons to come.

It is always a question of personnel, coaching or both. The Broncos believe Kubiak is the coach who can take a team Elway thinks has top-quality personnel and keep it playing into February.

Still, if the loss to the Colts showed anything, it’s that assignment discipline matters, schemes matter and players digesting information and playing in the moment matter. The Patriots and the Seahawks, two teams that defeated the Broncos this past season, showed where the get-it-done bar in the league sits right now.

Kubiak’s Texans never played beyond the divisional round and now he has been tasked with taking the Broncos to a championship. He will use what he learned in Houston, where he was expected to win.

But in Denver, he will be expected to win a lot more.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- With one big decision down for the Denver Broncos, one major decision remains.

In the week since Denver's loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Broncos mutually parted ways with coach John Fox and then hired a new coach in Gary Kubiak, according to an Adam Schefter source. That’s a lot of business in a seven-day span.

The Broncos are expected to officially announce the hiring of one of their own Tuesday. Kubiak, a former player and assistant coach for the franchise, will almost certainly tell the gathered media the job is one he’s been waiting for his entire football life.

Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway will almost certainly explain why Kubiak is the right man for the job, why Kubiak has the “championship” pedigree the Broncos wanted. He is the coach the Broncos picked to take what has been a playoff team the past four seasons to a championship.

[+] EnlargeGary Kubiak
AP Photo/Charles KrupaGary Kubiak has always coached a version of the West Coast offense. What happens next with the Broncos' offense depends on Peyton Manning's decision on whether to return for another season.
And, oh yeah, both guys will be asked about the four-ton elephant that is in all the rooms. What’s the future of quarterback Peyton Manning? And does Kubiak’s hire help, hinder or have no impact on whether Manning will return for the 2015 season?

On the surface, it looks like trying to fit a square peg into a decagon hole. Kubiak has always coached a version of the West Coast offense.

Manning doesn’t play the West Coast offense. He plays the Manning offense, the one constructed for him to run at the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t throw on the run, run naked bootlegs or roll out. He doesn’t do the things quarterbacks in the West Coast offense do.

In fact, Manning suffered a right thigh injury on one of the few rollouts he attempted this season on Dec. 14 in San Diego. The injury affected him the rest of the way, including in the Broncos’ loss to the Colts in the divisional round.

“I don’t think everybody should just think Kubes and Peyton can’t make it work,” said former Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, who played with Kubiak as his offensive coordinator in 2003, 2004 and 2005. “Kubes is so smart, and Peyton is Peyton -- one of the best of all time. They both would know they could help each other do it.”

Manning is great at play-action, one of the best of all time at tucking the ball into the running back’s torso only to pull it back and make a throw over linebackers who got reeled in. Kubiak’s offense is full of play-action plays, but they include rollouts, throws on the run to either the left or right.

They are plays based on flow and coming back against the grain. And that’s where the compromises would have to come.

Plummer said he didn’t know if Manning had the arm strength to come back across the field on play-action. And throughout the Broncos’ last nine games of the regular season as well as the loss to the Colts, defenses repeatedly put their lot into the idea Manning did not have the arm strength to beat them if they left their defenders on the sidelines in single coverage.

Colts defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois even said the unthinkable following last Sunday’s game in Denver -- that the Colts wanted the outcome in Manning’s hands. They wanted to take away the run and make Manning beat them. Manning’s decision on whether to come back likely depends on if he thinks he can still change the outcome of the game.

Kubiak would certainly protect Manning better with a quality run game and plenty of zone-blocking schemes. The Broncos’ offensive line is getting a makeover no matter who is at quarterback. Kubiak would have to adjust his game plan to the rest.

Plummer points to Kubiak’s Texans offense with Matt Schaub as an example of how he has done it in the past. “Look at those years,” he said. “Kubes would adjust if he has to. It wasn’t like Matt Schaub could move around like a lot of guys Kubes had.”

Schaub ran for 52 yards in 2007, his first season with the Texans. In 2008, he threw for 3,043 yards and rushed for 68. In 2009, Schaub threw for 4,770 yards and ran for 57. Granted, the last time Manning rushed for more than 45 yards in a season was 2002 -- 148 yards -- and last season he had a robust minus-24 yards rushing on his 24 carries/kneeldowns.

So, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that Manning could return for one more season, dig in and do the work required to play at the level he believes he needs to reach to be competitive.

It wouldn’t be easy; it would take everyone involved being invested in making it work, starting with Manning and Kubiak.

But, as Plummer said: “Hell yeah, it could be done. If they both want to do it, it can be done. But the thing is they both have to want to do it.”

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos loaded up a private plane and sent it to Houston this weekend. The idea is it will return to the airport just up the street from the team’s suburban Denver complex with a new coach in tow.

Broncos CEO Joe Ellis, executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway, director of player personnel Matt Russell and director of pro personnel Tom Heckert traveled to Houston to meet with Gary Kubiak, one of the Broncos’ top targets for their head-coaching job. They will discuss everything from Kubiak’s impending contract to player personnel. The group hopes to return to Denver with Kubiak early in the week.

Kubiak, who just finished his first season as the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, is the front-runner to land the job that was vacated by John Fox this past Monday. He's such a front-runner that as soon as Kubiak said he would interview, two of the other candidates stepped away.

Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and former Bills head coach Doug Marrone each canceled interviews with the Broncos as soon as it became clear Kubiak was in play. Kubiak had issued a statement last Sunday saying although it was “flattering and humbling to be invited to interview for a number of head-coaching positions,” he intended to stay with the Ravens.

But that was the day before a longtime friend, former teammate, former roommate and the guy Kubiak coached for four years wanted to talk to him about the Broncos.

This is all classic Elway. If an executive can throw deep on third-and-long with no timeouts, Elway has now done it twice.

He went all-in to sign Peyton Manning in 2012, with his now-oft-repeated “there is no Plan B.” And this year the Broncos, after a 12-win season, were the last team to part ways with their head coach, because they were still playing in the divisional round. That meant their options could have been limited.

But Elway had his target locked in. And it is no surprise to those who know Elway and Kubiak. From the moment Elway accepted Denver owner Pat Bowlen’s offer to be the Broncos' GM in January of 2011, it was expected in league circles that, someday, he would hire Kubiak to be his head coach.

Kubiak and Elway would be “like-minded,” which Elway said was needed when he talked about Fox leaving in a Tuesday news conference. Kubiak is a proven playcaller and offensive strategist whose players have lined up to praise him.

Jake Plummer, the ultimate of NFL free spirits -- the smart, accomplished, go-against-the-grain, challenge-authority guy -- said last week he wept when Kubiak left the Broncos in 2005 to be the head coach of the Houston Texans.

“No doubt, tears in my eyes, man,” Plummer said. “Kubes is tough when you need tough. He’ll explain where he’s at, talk you through it, but he’s so smart. A guy like that you wake up every day seeing he wants the best for you and that maybe you disagreed at first, but you see he’s right and you’re not. He pushes you, I mean, hard, man, but doesn’t bully you, and you see for yourself he’s right. A guy like that you want to play for until you can’t play anymore.”

Still, with all of the good Kubiak has done as a coach -- with the strength of the résumé he has built, with Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach from his time in San Francisco and Denver -- there will be some risk for Elway.

The one major criticism of the GM is he can be too quick to surround himself with friends, a golf outing of sorts, with football games on Sundays. Kubiak’s impending hire fits that narrative, so some will use it again.

For his part, Elway has said he believes in the people he hires and he will “always make the tough calls if it’s the best thing for the Denver Broncos.”

Kubiak will coach the team, whether it’s sooner or later, in the post-Manning era. That era will be the litmus test for the personnel plan and team’s roster. Those who know him well have said Elway believes in his heart that Kubiak is the right coach for the job and that this will lead to a Super Bowl win.

So although it is a risk and, again, there is no real Plan B, this is what Elway has always wanted.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have opened their search for a new head coach in earnest. And the elephant in the room is that John Fox is no longer the team’s head coach after four consecutive division titles, 46 regular-season wins, and one Super Bowl trip.

So if that’s not what executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway wants, what kind of coach would fit the bill? Well, it will be one who better know the job description.

A guy who understands the key words

[+] EnlargeJohn Elway
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJohn Elway demands a high level of success from his head coaches, something the new Broncos coach must be able to handle.
Since Fox and the Broncos “parted ways," there has been some surprise by the move from Elway. Perhaps folks just weren’t paying attention.

On the day Elway was first introduced in his current job -- Jan. 5, 2011 -- he said this;

“When you go back to the culture of the Denver Broncos -- and the culture is winning, and the culture is competing for World Championships -- we have been there before and we know we can do it."

He said this at Tuesday's announcement of Fox's departure: “I look for a guy that’s very smart, that’s competitive, that is aching to win world championships like I am."

Moral of the story? If you don’t want to live the Super-Bowl-or-bust life, don’t accept the job.

A guy who can work with Elway. A guy Elway wants to work with.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh is really the only guy who lives a life similar to Denver's coach, as his general manager is Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome.

Elway casts a big shadow in this city; he’s a Super Bowl winning quarterback who's led the Broncos to countless comeback wins. He’s seen his Super Bowl dreams shattered more than once, lived life in the fishbowl, and has felt what it took to finally hoist the trophy.

As a result he’s going to have some ideas on the topic. The buzz around the Broncos’ complex is that Elway and Fox were drifting apart on personnel matters a bit, and there were some who believed Fox didn’t think his voice was being heard enough on those matters.

That’s often the tone of the discussion after a football divorce, but either way Elway and new head coach have to get on the same page -- that “like-minded’’ area Elway talked about Tuesday.

A guy who knows expectations await

The Broncos have 10 players in the Pro Bowl. There’s plenty to work with on a roster that has won 38 regular-season games over the last three seasons. Elway and Fox shook hands and parted ways not because of how things went between September and December, but because Elway and team CEO Joe Ellis did not like what the playoff exits looked like.

“I think if there is one thing that you would like to have and you want to feel, at least in the last game, you want to feel like you go out kicking and screaming," Elway said. “When you’re right there and I think two years in a row it didn’t feel like we went out kicking and screaming because of the fact the way we played the last game."

A guy who can embrace some change

The Broncos have 17 free agents. The list includes two of the team’s Pro Bowl selections in wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

But it also includes starters such as defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, safety Rahim Moore, wide receiver Wes Welker, guard Orlando Franklin, tight end Jacob Tamme, tight end Virgil Green, and linebacker Nate Irving.

Add in the will-he or won’t-he decision quarterback Peyton Manning will make, and the Broncos will have to show plenty of flexibility as they usher in a new coaching staff to go with plenty of new faces on the roster.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Whoever the Denver Broncos hire as head coach, he could get a good look at some of the team's high-profile members in the Pro Bowl.

Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders became the Broncos’ 10th Pro Bowl selection Thursday, when he was added to game to replace Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. Sanders, who was part of the team's offseason free-agent haul, finished the season with career-bests in catches (101), receiving yards (1,404) and touchdowns (nine).

Sanders
Sanders’ catch total and yardage total were both fifth in the league. Sanders, who had not had a 100-yard receiving game in his four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers, had seven for the Broncos this season. Sanders has repeatedly called his signing in Denver as a career move "to wide receiver heaven."

Sanders now joins quarterback Peyton Manning, left tackle Ryan Clady, cornerback Chris Harris Jr., linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, tight end Julius Thomas, safety T.J. Ward and defensive end DeMarcus Ware as Pro Bowlers.

Sanders, Talib, Ware and Ward were all free-agent signings this past offseason, and only Ware is older than 28.

It is why when executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway described the Broncos' head coaching opening as being so attractive earlier this week.

“I feel real good about our roster," Elway said. “I think contrary to what everybody thinks we’ve got a good roster here. We’ve got a relatively young roster ... So I feel great about our football team."

Of the Broncos’ Pro Bowl selections, most will be back with the team next season. Manning has yet to formally announce if he will be back -- Elway told him to take “five-six weeks" to make the decision -- while Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.

Elway has said he’d like to work on new deals for both players, but the Broncos figure to use a franchise player tag on Demaryius Thomas if a multi-year deal can’t be worked out.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As several teams line up to interview Adam Gase for their offensive coordinator jobs, the Denver Broncos moved quickly to talk with him about their head coaching job.

[+] EnlargeAdam Gase
AP Photo/Eric BakkeAdam Gase will talk with John Elway on Thursday about the head-coaching job with the Broncos.
Gase, who met briefly with Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway on Wednesday, was set to interview for the job Thursday afternoon and into the evening, if necessary.

Detroit Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin will interview with the Broncos on Friday. They have formally requested permission to talk with Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. As of Thursday afternoon, the Broncos were still waiting to hear back from Kubiak, who announced this past weekend -- before the Denver job was open -- that he intended to stay with the Ravens.

For Gase, the Broncos interview comes as several teams had begun to express interest in him as an offensive coordinator.

Three of the four teams Gase interviewed with during the Broncos’ playoff bye week -- the 49ers, Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears -- have either hired head coaches or are closing in on a candidate. The Bears are nearing a deal with Fox, while the Bills hired Rex Ryan. Gase also interviewed for the Falcons’ head coaching job, which has yet to be filled.

Those in and around the Broncos say Gase has drawn interest in recent days from a wide-range of teams to be their new offensive coordinator, including two (49ers and Falcons) who interviewed him for their head coaching jobs. The St. Louis Rams and Jacksonville Jaguars have also expressed interest.

In the two seasons Gase has called plays for the Broncos, they have averaged 34 points per game, including an NFL single-season record of 606 points in 2013. The Broncos also topped 40 points 10 times in the past two seasons combined and topped 50 three times, including in back-to-back games early in the 2013 season.

What about the inevitable question about how Gase would fare without Peyton Manning as his quarterback? Well, Manning has said Gase would raise the level of any offense. His 55 touchdown passes in 2013 were an NFL record and six more than he had thrown in any other season. Manning has also reached out to other teams, including the Cleveland Browns last season, to vouch for Gase.

"I don't think you need me to sit up here and campaign for him," Manning said. "Last year I talked to a couple teams on the behalf of him that reached out to me. That may happen again, so I'm certainly glad to share my thoughts ... He deserves it, I think teams that he talks to will be impressed.''

Gase is also respected in football circles. He's had stints with Nick Saban at Michigan State and LSU and former Rams coach Mike Martz in the NFL. He was also instrumental in the deconstruction of the Broncos' offense in 2011 to build a read-option look for then-starting quarterback Tim Tebow.

If the Broncos went with Austin as their head coach, he would be far more apt to try to keep Gase on his staff. Kubiak would be more involved in the offense, and many with the team believe he would want to bring Rick Dennison, the Ravens wide receivers coach and Kubiak’s former offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans, with him to Denver if Kubiak were hired.

And as far as the other teams hoping to get a shot at Gase? The Rams have an unsettled quarterback situation and will likely ask Sam Bradford to restructure his contract. He is coming back from ACL surgery. Meanwhile, the Jaguars offer Blake Bortles, who threw 11 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions this past season as a rookie starter for a 3-13 team.

And for the 49ers and Falcons, Gase is known to have thoroughly outlined to those teams’ decision makers how he would help elevate the play of Colin Kaepernick or Matt Ryan.

But first, he gets his shot to talk with the Broncos.

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