Less than 24 hours after their 2014 season ended with a gut-wrenching 35-31 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoff round, the Ravens achieved their first victory of the offseason, or so they thought.
Resisting overtures from the New York Jets and Chicago Bears for their head coaching vacancies, Gary Kubiak vowed to remain with the Ravens after a season in which he directed the team’s offense to new heights.
“It is flattering and humbling to be invited to interview for a number of NFL head coaching positions, and I greatly appreciate these opportunities,” Kubiak said in a statement released by the team on Jan. 11, 2015. “But I have decided to stay with the Ravens. This is a special organization and we, like John [Harbaugh] says, are building something great. I want to be a part of that and contribute in whatever ways I can.”
One day later, everything changed. The Denver Broncos were embarrassed at home by the Indianapolis Colts, their latest playoff disappointment. The relationship between Broncos head coach John Fox and general manager John Elway had soured. On Jan. 13, the Broncos and Fox “mutually” agreed to part ways.
On Jan. 19, Kubiak, a former Broncos player and coach and one of Elway’s closest friends, was named Denver’s head coach and the Ravens were in need of their third different offensive coordinator in as many seasons.
“I know the decision was heart-wrenching for him, especially after he said that he was going to stay,” Ravens running back Justin Forsett said in a phone interview with The Baltimore Sun last week. “I don’t think anybody expected the Denver job to come open. But that was his dream job.”
Kubiak, who spent his entire nine-year playing career as a backup to Elway and then spent 11 seasons as the team’s offensive coordinator, admitted as much, saying that the Broncos’ opening was a “game changer.” He acknowledged that the Broncos’ head coaching job was probably the only position that he would have left the Ravens for following the 2014 season.
His decision to depart certainly altered the immediate fortunes of two franchises. The Broncos are preparing to play the Carolina Panthers Sunday in Super Bowl 50, largely because of a relentless defense. However, Kubiak’s leadership and steadying hand, particularly in the way that he handled quarterback Peyton Manning’s injury and return as a starter, has been a huge factor in the team’s run to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens, meanwhile, are coming off a season in which their offense, which set a franchise record for points in 2014 with Kubiak calling the plays in 2014, struggled to find consistency under their first-year offensive coordinator Marc Trestman. Quarterback Joe Flacco, who had his best NFL regular season under Kubiak, struggled before his season-ending left knee injury. And the Ravens’ running game, the strength of the team the previous year, faltered and finished the season ranked 26th in rushing yards per game.
It, of course, would be totally unfair to put all – or even much of the blame – on Trestman who was forced to direct an injury-depleted offense that played the whole season without first-round wide receiver Breshad Perriman, and significant parts of it without Flacco, Forsett, top wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., starting tight end Crockett Gillmore and starting offensive linemen Eugene Monroe and Jeremy Zuttah.
But it would be foolish to dismiss the loss of Kubiak and the adjustments to the way Trestman saw things and wanted them done as factors in the offense’s uneven performance in 2014.
“We didn’t want to lose him, but I’m happy that it’s worked out for him,” Forsett said, also expressing excitement for former Ravens’ teammate, tight end Owen Daniels, who followed Kubiak to Denver.
Forsett played under Kubiak with the Houston Texans, and developed a strong relationship with the player’s coach.
“I reached a point in my career where not many people were willing to give me a chance and he stood on the table for me,” Forsett said. “He’s one of the reasons I’m in Baltimore.”
Kubiak, 54, is known as a player’s coach. He is an intense and no-nonsense guy, yet he’s also extremely supportive of players both publicly and privately. He’s not prone to blowups at practice or in meetings, and he certainly won’t throw players under the bus to the media.
He hit it off with many Ravens, including Flacco, and he apparently quickly gained the respect and trust of the Broncos’ locker room, which contains many accomplished stars like Manning, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, and cornerback Aqib Talib.
“I know it means a ton to him to be in this situation,” Daniels told reporters last week after the Broncos beat the Patriots to secure a Super Bowl berth. The tight end has played his entire 10-year career under Kubiak in some capacity. “It means a lot to me to share that with him. It was really, really cool.”
Forsett spoke with his former coach not long after he decided to take the Broncos’ job. He said that it was obvious that Kubiak had agonized over the decision to leave. By all accounts, Kubiak had really enjoyed his one season working under John Harbaugh and leading the Ravens’ offense.
He had mentioned on several occasions that it was almost therapeutic for him after a difficult end to his tenure as the Texans’ head coach, and the health scare that he endured late in the 2013 season, when he collapsed on the sideline.
At the news conference in which he was introduced as the Broncos’ head coach, Kubiak didn’t take long before thanking the Ravens’ organization and saying how much he learned from Harbaugh.
“Without that organization giving me an opportunity at about this same time last year, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” Kubiak said. “It was a wonderful experience. … I really can’t explain the value of last year for me as a coach. Being around John Harbaugh, being around that organization, being around Ozzie Newsome, and watching them go about their business, how they go about being successful week in and week out. I take all that as I move forward. I know that I’m a lot better coach now than I was when I left.”
That’s been proven out in the 11 months since.