EAGAN, Minn. -- After the Denver Broncos defeated the New England Patriots in the 2015 AFC Championship Game, tackle Ryan Harris figured there might be something special he needed to do to get ready for the Super Bowl.
The Broncos went 12-4 during the regular season but were preparing to face the imposing Carolina Panthers, who won the NFC Championship Game by 34 points to improve to 15-1 and were a six-point favorite to win the NFL’s 50th Super Bowl.
So, Harris awaited instructions from Broncos coach Gary Kubiak.
“I’m thinking maybe I should run more, maybe I should be doing something else different to get ready for the game,” said Harris, a former Cretin-Derham Hall star. “But (Kubiak) said to us, ‘Don’t do anything different than what you got you here. Be yourself. Your good is good enough.’ There was a calm explanation of how we’re going to do things.”
The Broncos beat the Panthers 24-10 in what has been the biggest Super Bowl upset this decade.
Kubiak has since taken his calm demeanor to the Vikings, who hired him last January as assistant head coach/offensive adviser. Minnesota’s sixth-year coach Mike Zimmer said the move has been “the best thing that’s ever happened to me since I’ve been here.”
On Sunday, Minnesota plays the Broncos at U.S. Bank Stadium, the first time Kubiak has faced them since leaving the organization. He stepped down as coach after the 2016 season because of health issues, and then spent 2017 and 2018 as a Denver senior personnel adviser.
There was speculation Kubiak would become the offensive coordinator for first-year Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, but Fangio said Kubiak felt “more comfortable” joining the Vikings.
Kubiak declined an interview request. Vikings punter Britton Colquitt, who was on the 2015 Super Bowl-winning team, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Kubiak has mixed emotions heading into the game.
“Heck, yeah, he might. I think he would,” Colquitt said. “Not just because he coached there but because he also played there. There’s a huge history for him there. You always want to win any game, but something like that, it’s pretty cool.”
Kubiak was a Broncos quarterback from 1983-91, the backup all those years for the legendary John Elway. He later served as Denver’s offensive coordinator from 1995-2005.
That included victories in Super Bowl XXXII after the 1997 season and Super Bowl XXXIII after the 1998 season, when Elway played his final game. Those teams were coached by Mike Shanahan, who has a long association with Kubiak.
Shanahan was a Broncos assistant coach when Kubiak played quarterback and recommended him to be quarterbacks coach when he was San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in 1994. After the 49ers won Super Bowl XXIX that season, Shanahan became Denver’s coach and Kubiak followed him there.
“I’ve been around Gary throughout his career, and he is one of the best guys from a family standpoint and from a coaching standpoint,” Shanahan said. “You can’t find a better guy. … He was very instrumental (in the Super Bowl wins). I could trust him. He had great ideas.”
For the first half of Kubiak’s tenure as the offensive coordinator, he had Elway — and he always had impressive running backs. They included 1,000-yard rushers Terrell Davis, a future hall of famer, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and Reuben Droughns.
“There’s no question I knew that Gary would be a head coach,” Shanahan said. “It was just a matter of time.”
That first came in Houston from 2006-13. Not surprisingly, Kubiak was able to develop a strong ground game led by all-pro Arian Foster.
Kubiak went 61-64 in Houston, and led the Texans to their first two playoff appearances, and first two wins, in team history. Fired after a 2-11 start in 2013, Kubiak spent 2014 as Baltimore’s offensive coordinator before the Broncos, with Elway as the general manager, brought him in as head coach.
A ‘what person’
His first regular season wasn’t easy even though Denver had the best record in the AFC. Legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, in his final year, threw an uncharacteristic 17 interceptions and missed six late-season games with a partially torn plantar fascia is his left foot.
Backup Brock Osweiler initially looked good in relief, and it was uncertain who would be Denver’s quarterback in the playoffs. But Osweiler threw two interceptions in the regular-season finale against the San Diego Chargers, and Manning came on to lead the Broncos to a 27-20 win. He then was named the starter for playoffs.
“(Kubiak) let the good wave ride that was going, and Peyton also was able to heal during that time, and get better physically,” Colquitt said. “And it just so happened that on the game Peyton really was physically ready to come back, and you didn’t have an excuse to put him back in yet, Brock had some interceptions. … But everybody knew Peyton was ready to go physically, and that was just the perfect window. Everything worked out.”
In the playoffs, the Broncos defeated Pittsburgh 23-16 and the Patriots 20-18 to get to the Super Bowl. Then Harris was waiting to see how Kubiak would approach the game against the Panthers, who had walloped the Arizona Cardinals 49-14 in the NFC Championship Game.
“The very next day, he goes, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to give you a few days to get your plans going for the Super Bowl. Then come back and we’ll start practicing Wednesday and we’ll put the game plan in,’ ” Harris said. “I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I need some time to plan.’ He wanted to give us some time to refocus, and that was great for us.”
When the game arrived on Feb. 7, 2016, at Santa Clara, Calif., the Broncos got 90 yards from running back C.J. Anderson and slowed down Panthers star quarterback Cam Newton with their formidable defense. That earned Kubiak his first Super Bowl ring as a head coach, and fourth overall.
The next season, Kubiak was rushed after a Week 5 game to a Denver-area hospital after experiencing flu-like symptoms and extreme body fatigue. Diagnosed with a complex migraine, he missed one game, and at the end of the 9-7 season resigned for health reasons.
After two seasons as a Denver consultant, Kubiak felt the itch to get back to coaching and joined the Vikings. That he didn’t need to be a head coach, or even an offensive coordinator, impressed Shanahan.
“He’s there because he enjoys the game, and he loves the game for the right reasons,” Shanahan said. “Gary Kubiak is a special guy. Anybody that takes a role that he does after being a head football coach and winning the Super Bowl, that’s a credit to the type of character he has.”
Harris said Kubiak has no ego. Harris, now a radio talk-show host in Denver and the radio analyst for Notre Dame games, often brings up Kubiak during speaking engagements.
“I often say that people fall into two categories, either they’re a who person or a what person,” Harris said. “Gary Kubiak is a what person. He doesn’t care who gets the credit, he cares about what happens. He cares about if the team plays well and wins.”
That’s the attitude Kubiak has brought to the Vikings, who are 7-3 after last Sunday’s 28-24 upset at Dallas. Kubiak sits in the booth during games and works with offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski, who calls the plays from the field.
Kubiak brought with him to Minnesota three offensive coaches who once served under him in Denver: offensive line coach/run game coordinator Rick Dennison, quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak (Gary’s son) and tight ends coach Brian Pariani.
Tenants of Kubiak’s schemes often include a fullback, and sometimes two or three tight ends. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is running more bootlegs to give him time to throw and being put more under center, where he has been comfortable.
“I think Gary having been a quarterback in this league, knowing how difficult it is, knowing what you need to be successful, I think there’s an awareness of all that has to take place for a passing game and offense to come together and be productive and I think that awareness make a difference,” Cousins said.
Cousins ranks third in the NFL in passer rating at 112.0. Over the past six games, five of them wins, he has thrown 15 touchdowns and just one interception.
When he brought in Kubiak, Zimmer stressed the need to have more balance in the offense, namely by running the ball better. That has happened, with the Vikings being third in the NFL in rushing and Dalvin Cook leading the league with 991 yards rushing.
No wonder Zimmer is so thrilled with having brought in Kubiak. He has the best offense he’s had in his Minnesota tenure, with the Vikings ranking eighth in the NFL in total offense and ninth in scoring.
“Every time my teams competed against his, they were so well coached, they played great, the style they ran I thought was outstanding and I could never beat him, really,’’ said Zimmer, previously a defensive coordinator with Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati. “I just felt like it’d be a great fit for our offense and for our staff. I love how Gary is a very non-ego person, he just fits in with everybody.’’
That includes Stefanski, 37, in his first full season as a coordinator after serving on an interim basis for the final three games last season.
“It’s been great having him around,” Stefanski said. “It’s been invaluable to me, as this is my first year doing this, having someone that I can bounce ideas off of both during the week and during the game.”
Zimmer likes Kubiak’s long-term approach. He said he came in wanting to “keep the offense moving” and that being able to “mentor a young coordinator was really important.’’
For now, Minnesota’s offense is really churning after struggles in the first four games. Shanahan likes what he’s been seeing lately, and is glad his former pupil has been able to help.
“He understands the game, and I think Minnesota was very lucky they hired him,” he said. “That was smart of them to reach out to a guy like Gary.”