Gary Kubiak’s departure from Denver would leave NFL’s most desirable coaching vacancy

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 11:  Head Coach Gary Kubiak of the Denver Broncos watches his team warming up before a game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on December 11, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  The Titans defeated the Broncos 13-10.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

If Broncos coach Gary Kubiak indeed steps down Monday because of health concerns, as is the report from ESPN Sunday morning, it could make this off-season all the more difficult for the Bills, Jaguars, Rams and any other team about to can its own head coach.

Why? Because should it become available, the Denver job would stand in a class of its own in terms of desirability. Whereas most available coaching job entail a certain degree of rebuilding, the Broncos are just a year removed from a Super Bowl title and still have quite a bit of talent leftover from that championship roster.

“I love this league, I love the Broncos, I love the work,” Kubiak said this week during a press conference, when asked about his future. “I’m all in on the Raiders right. There will be time for reflection and all that stuff next week, but right now it’s time to focus on what we’re doing.”

Kubiak collapsed during a game in 2013, his final season as head coach of the Texans, with what was later ruled a Transient Ischemic Attack (or a “mini-stroke”). After spending a year as the Ravens’ offensive coordinator, Kubiak landed back with Denver, the franchise with which he played his entire career.

The Broncos finished 12-4 in 2015, then rode their defense to a Super Bowl title.

This year has been far less successful, with much of the heat for Denver’s failure to reach the playoffs falling on Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison for their inability to solve the team’s offensive woes.

Still, for any coach eyeing a potential opening in Denver, there are myriad positives to consider starting with the league’s top-ranked pass defense (187.2 yards per game, 5.8 yards per attempt). Kayvon Webster is the only key member of the secondary set to be a free agent after this season; CBs Chris Harris and Aqib Talib are locked up through the 2020 campaign. The defense also boasts one of the top individual defenders in all of football, OLB Von Miller.

There also are potentially two options already in-house at quarterback: Trevor Siemian, who started 13 games this season, and 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch. The hope is that Lynch will be ready to take over as starter sooner rather than later, but in neither case would the Broncos be starting from scratch.

 

On top of all that, GM John Elway is also looking at close to $40 million in projected available cap space for 2017, per OvertheCap.com. That sort of room could allow him to upgrade at QB, should the opportunity arise—Tony Romo via trade or Tyrod Taylor via free agency are the name you’re likely to hear. He figures to add to Denver’s beleaguered offensive and defensive lines, too.

For all their issues this season, though, the Broncos were sitting at 8-4 and very much in the AFC West race a week into December. Consecutive losses to Tennessee, New England and Kansas City followed, with the offense scoring a combined 23 points in those games.

The current balance of this team—an impressive defense weighed down by an underachieving offense—could send Elway in search of a coach with a similar background to Kubiak’s, heavy on offense. New England O.C. Josh McDaniels almost certainly would be off the list because of his prior, failed tenure in Denver, but other offensive coordinators like Atlanta’s Kyle Shanahan, Washington’s Sean McVay, Arizona’s Harold Goodwin or Buffalo’s Anthony Lynn (if the Bills do not remove his interim coach tag) all make sense on the surface.

It remains to be seen what other changes would be forthcoming for Denver if Kubiak steps down, but it would behoove the Broncos to keep defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, should he want to continue coaching—Phillips will turn 70 in June. Phillips’s presence would go even further toward helping to sell the Broncos’ job.

Granted, the expectations any new hire will face walking into Denver will be significantly higher than spots such as Jacksonville or San Francisco. Kubiak took the job after the Broncos split with previous head coach John Fox, who posted a 46-18 record over four seasons yet came under fire for reaching the Super Bowl just once (a loss to Seattle).

The pressure to win in Denver is swift and omnipresent.

Part of that these days comes from the knowledge that this roster is built to compete. Not every new coach will be fortunate enough to walk into a locker room with Miller and Harris and Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas. There are critical holes on the depth chart that Elway must address in the coming months, especially along the O-line. But there is no reason to think the Broncos will be anything shy of a playoff contender again in 2017.

Because of that, when it comes to surveying the head-coaching candidates, Denver should have its pick of the litter. 

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