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Gary Kubiak’s Retirement Puts the Broncos in a Dangerous State of Flux

Instability in the coaching ranks and holes on offense and defense alike could spell a serious setback in Denver

Gary Kubiak (Getty Images)
Gary Kubiak (Getty Images)

Following a day of speculation and his team’s season-ending 24–6 win over the division-rival Raiders, Denver head coach Gary Kubiak has reportedly informed the Broncos that he’s retiring, a surprising decision apparently stemming primarily from a series of health concerns. Kubiak battled a complex migraine condition this season that caused him to miss Denver’s Week 6 loss to the Chargers, and he suffered a mini-stroke while coaching the Texans in 2013. While no one (at least no one with a sense of decency) can fault Kubiak or his family for prioritizing his well-being, his choice to walk away from a five-year deal after just two seasons at the helm means that more changes are in store for Denver, with the upcoming overhaul bound to amplify already pressing questions about the Broncos’ weakening position as a major power in the AFC.

While Denver disappointed this season, missing the playoffs after capping the 2015 campaign with a Super Bowl victory, Kubiak looked likely to be a source of much-needed stability while addressing roster concerns this offseason, not a source of more upheaval. Instead, Denver now finds itself in a distressingly familiar position, because despite its typical on-field success in recent years, it’s been no stranger to turbulence during John Elway’s tenure as general manager. In the six years since he took over (after the Josh McDaniels/Eric Studesville regime was shown the door), the team has weathered coaching changes (McDaniels/Studesville to John Fox to Kubiak), quarterback changes (Tim Tebow to Peyton Manning to Brock Osweiler to Manning again to Trevor Siemian to Paxton Lynch to Siemian again), and identity changes (going from an offensive juggernaut to a team almost completely powered by defense), yet has somehow remained one of the NFL’s most consistently successful franchises.

Kubiak’s departure will challenge the Broncos’ ability to continue overcoming setbacks, though, because despite again fielding a star-studded pass defense, Denver actually had a lot to fix this offseason even before learning that it would also have to replace its head coach. The complete defense that won them the Super Bowl fell back to earth in 2016, with a leaky run defense in particular proving to be a major liability. The unit still features foundational pieces like Von Miller and Chris Harris Jr., but losing a few key pieces in free agency last summer — namely Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan — hurt the D’s depth and thus its dominance. The defense remains capable, but that’s not the same as being able to single-handedly power a championship run.

There’s even more work to do on offense. Most alarmingly, there’s no clear starter at quarterback, where Siemian isn’t the long-term answer and Lynch clearly isn’t ready. The run game also struggled badly this season, and the offensive line was largely ineffective, entering Week 17 29th in adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders. Combined, those limitations made the Broncos offense one of the league’s worst this season, ranking 28th in DVOA entering Week 17.

All of these issues could be exacerbated by another coaching change, which as a rule creates uncertainty around potential shifts in offensive and defensive schemes and the personnel required to execute them, in addition to more general tweaks to organizational philosophy, leadership, and culture. Even if the Broncos move to bring in a head coach who preaches a similar zone-blocking-based offense — Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s name is already being floated, and Seattle offensive line coach Tom Cable is another potential candidate who falls into the Mike Shanahan/Alex Gibbs zone-blocking coaching tree — any coaching change still means new personality quirks and chemistry adjustments, and for a team facing this many updates to the roster, that’s no small thing.

Maybe Elway will make these fears look foolish by going out and trading for Tony Romo this offseason and flipping the script yet again to return the Broncos to offensive dominance. More likely, Kubiak’s early exit, which would be a setback even if the team had advanced to the postseason and looked poised to continue contending for championships, will prove to be another serious blow to the quest for much-needed continuity. That might seem like a strangely alarmist view on a team that has won five division titles, two conference championships, and a Super Bowl under Elway, but at some point, the GM will run out of rabbits to pull out of his hat, and thus run out of ways to keep the Broncos competitive despite sweeping changes to personnel and identity.