SAN FRANCISCO – The timing was purely coincidental, of course, but it was impossible to ignore the irony of the moment for two teams in different places on the NFL spectrum.
Gary Kubiak, the Denver Broncos’ coach, was standing behind a lectern Monday morning at the news conference for the presentation of the Super Bowl 50 MVP trophy to his exceptionally talented outside linebacker, Von Miller. Kubiak was talking about the tremendous leadership of his players on which he was able to rely as the Broncos prepared for the biggest of games.
And it was right about then that the Buffalo Bills were issuing a statement about being aware of reports that one of their key players, running back LeSean McCoy, was being investigated for his role in an altercation in Philadelphia that resulted in two off-duty police officers being hospitalized.
Kubiak spoke of how, once the Broncos arrived here on Jan. 31 for Sunday’s game, he made a point of essentially stepping aside and trusting that his players would conduct themselves properly the rest of the week. He mentioned that, before the team left Denver, he spoke with quarterback Peyton Manning and defensive end DeMarcus Ware “about curfews and all of those types of things” intended to try to deter players from doing things off the field that might take away from what they do on it.
“I put it in their hands,” Kubiak said. “I really trusted them.”
The Broncos’ stunning 24-10 victory against the heavily favored Carolina Panthers made a resounding statement that the coach’s trust was well deserved.
Granted, the Broncos were getting ready for the Super Bowl while the Bills are long into an offseason that effectively began before the final two weeks of their regular-season schedule.
Granted, Bills players are on their own time and scattered throughout the country. So are their coaches; Rex Ryan and his brother, Rob, the Bills’ new assistant head coach/defense, were hanging out here to be a part of pre-Super Bowl festivities.
What’s worth noting, though, is that Rex also is big believer in allowing his players to be themselves and lead themselves. No muzzles. No real restrictions of any kind.
What hasn’t been so apparent, however, is just how much leadership the Bills actually have from veterans such as McCoy and other players.
No, there isn’t a single player on the Bills’ roster who comes remotely close to having the gravitas of Manning, whose expected retirement any day means his entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame will occur in 2021, or Ware, another Canton-bound player.
The Bills just have a bunch of players who speak out, usually to complain about how their individual numbers are being hurt by a defensive scheme that doesn’t fit their talents or a lack of targets.
Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who demanded (and received) more passes thrown his way during the season, was also vocal after the season about the team’s need to be more disciplined.
Entering the 2015 campaign, Ryan and Kubiak were in identical situations. Both were getting their second shots at being NFL head coaches, with Ryan having been fired by the New York Jets and Kubiak having been let go by the Houston Texans.
Both also were taking over clubs that were supposed to have had dominant defenses. That played out only for the Broncos, who would go on to rank first in the NFL in yards allowed (while the Bills fell from fourth to 19th) and proceed to smother Cam Newton and the Panthers’ offense on Sunday.
Miller was the easy choice for Super Bowl MVP after twice forcing Newton fumbles that led to touchdowns and registering 2½ of the Broncos’ seven sacks (including one of receiver Ted Ginn Jr.). Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips did a masterful job of devising a scheme that befuddled Newton and Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
But Kubiak should be recognized for doing as strong a coaching job as anyone during the regular season – including the Panthers’ Ron Rivera, voted the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year – and especially the postseason.
It was often mentioned by Ryan and the Bills’ players that they needed their first season together to “learn” each other. Kubiak seemingly got a much quicker handle on the Broncos, and he and Phillips allowed them to thrive with what they did best.
Kubiak also did an excellent job of handling the extremely delicate situation with the declining Manning. During the seven games Manning missed with a foot injury, Kubiak turned to Brock Osweiler, who was able to keep the Broncos on the rails as their defense led the way.
But once Manning was healed, Kubiak, knowing he needed a proven veteran to guide the team the rest of the way, turned to the five-time NFL MVP – physical limitations and all.
Part of that was because Kubiak knew, with that great defense and the 18-year veteran’s computer-like football brain, Manning would be able to do just enough to allow the Broncos to get to the Super Bowl. And part of that was because Kubiak knew the type of leadership he had when his team needed it the most.
What the coach understood the most about his players was the towering standard of accountability to which they held themselves and each other.
“They’ve been great all year,” Kubiak said. “When I asked them to do something, they did it. They were hard on each other. I always told our team, ‘The great teams are really hard on each other, make each other really accountable.’
“They did that through the course of the week. I watched them really lock in, especially when we got to Wednesday and worked towards Sunday, they really locked in. Our meeting the night before the game was one of the greatest moments of my career to be in a room with that group of guys and to see. You felt something special coming. I’m proud of them from that standpoint.
“They took care of business. They did all year long.”