Gary Kubiak, John Elway led Broncos to glory in familiar fashion

SAN FRANCISCO -- Joe Ellis might not have needed the affirmation in the first place, but Gary Kubiak gave it to the Broncos president in a big way on Dec. 20.

The team was backsliding. Denver had built a 27-13 halftime lead over the Steelers, only to see Pittsburgh roar back to win with a 21-0 second half. The defeat was Denver's second straight, and the playoffs were no sure thing. The quarterback situation was messy. The defense was clawing to hold up under the weight of the offense's struggles. The vibe of a 7-0 start was a memory. Even 10-2 seemed distant.

Someone needed to take the wheel. That someone became man in his first year leading Denver.

"Gary got real emotional -- it was just short of anger," Ellis recalled late Sunday night, in a quiet corner of the Broncos' locker room. "He said, 'Guys, are you in this with me or not?' I'll never forget it. The team went out and took care of business the last two weeks. We were in jeopardy of not making the playoffs, and it came to a crescendo; we became a rising team at the right time. And what a surge, defensively, but Gary really had his finger on the pulse of this team."

Seven weeks later, it was proven again with Denver's third world title.

But the point of this particular anecdote isn't to prop up the job Kubiak did. Quite frankly, he doesn't need anyone to vouch for him after the year he just had.

No, this is more about the winding road the Broncos took back here to championship glory, and how the team's past connected to its present and future in a unique way at Levi's Stadium on Sunday afternoon and into the night. It's the way general manager John Elway brought things full circle -- saying, "This one's for Pat," to honor ailing owner Pat Bowlen, the same way Bowlen honored him on the same stage 18 years ago -- by eventually getting around to bringing the old band back together.

And it's also the manner in which they won Super Bowl 50, carrying a wily, old veteran quarterback with a team built to be capable of winning without 300 yards through the air every week.

Suffice it to say, dusting off the old formula worked, and it wasn't just about the zone run game, or Wade Phillips' simple, aggressive defense. It was more so about people.

"The advantage is we all know each other and trust each other," Elway told me. "There's a lot of trust there. I think that shows. That's why I'm happy for them; they did such a tremendous job."

Elway, of course, was the Broncos' quarterback for 16 years. Kubiak was his backup for nine of those seasons (1983-1991) and his offensive coordinator for four (1995-98), which were the first four seasons of the coach's 11-year run in that position.

Phillips was the team's defensive coordinator for four years (1989-1992) and head coach for another two (1993-94). Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison played for the Broncos for nine seasons (1982-1990) and came back and served as an assistant coach for another 15 (1995-2009). Tight ends coach Brian Pariani served in that role for 10 years (1995-2004) before returning in 2015. Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis spent the first four years of his NFL career (1989-1992) with the Broncos. Ellis started with the team in 1983, was there for three seasons and returned in 1998.

"There was just so much there when we went back together and we put our group together," Kubiak said on Monday morning. "There was a lot of blood in that room already, through our years with the Broncos. I don't know if that makes it any different. I mean, there are great organizations everywhere. But it's really interesting that we were able to get a bunch of guys back in there who'd been a part of it before."

So here's where Ellis believes the difference is tangible: There was an understanding of the atmosphere set long ago by Bowlen, and the expectation everyone will put ego aside to help create it.

Maybe that's why, after dark moments like the second half of that Pittsburgh game, the team pulled together. Maybe that's how a group that played 12 one-possession games during a 16-game regular season wound up winning enough of them to secure the AFC's No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Maybe it's the reason a potentially divisive quarterback situation was handled without much of a blip.

And maybe it's why a transcendent-looking defense lifted up its scuffling counterpart by answering a difficult question (How in the world can they keep this pace up?) with a very simple answer: By doing whatever the team needed to win.

"I'm not big on the word 'culture,' but I get that they understand what principles Pat laid down, what his blueprint was, and what he expected out of people in terms of how they conduct themselves," Ellis said. "I think Gary has witnessed that as a player, as an assistant coach, and now he's the head coach. John, of course, played and has worked under Pat for five years. The other guys, they know what we're all about.

"It just kinda helps create the right atmosphere. You don't question how we do our business, because so many of them are familiar with it. They just do the right thing."

DeCamillis affirmed as the music still blared at Levi's Stadium that "there's no egos on this staff." Phillips added that "the city demands a good team, and that helps you get better."

The challenge just to get better was, indeed, a daunting one when this reunion took shape roughly 12 months ago. After all, Denver made the playoffs in each of previous coach John Fox's four years, and the Broncos were in the Super Bowl just two years ago. The clock was also ticking on Elway's goal of creating the kind of team around quarterback Peyton Manning that Mike Shanahan once built around him.

Returning to the old winning formula didn't come without risk. But it sure did produce a heck of a reward.

"I didn't look at it as a reunion," Elway told me. "I looked at it as creating a possibility we could come back and be world champs. This gave us that opportunity. And it worked out."

After Kubiak came off the podium from one last meeting with the media early Monday morning, I asked the coach if this meant more to him, given what the Bowlen family has gone through.

Normally reserved and careful to pick his words, Kubiak gave a response that was visceral and reflexive.

"Hell yeah," he said. "Absolutely."

See, to the guys here -- all of them who were here then and are back now -- the way this all came together is a tribute to the 71-year-old owner, now locked in a battle with Alzheimer's. The way they did it in 2015 is strikingly similar to the way they did it in the 1980s and again in the Broncos' heyday of the late 1990s.

As they see it, that's the right way, which is Bowlen's way.

"For all he's done for John, for me, for my family, there's more than a dozen guys that have been in that camp for a long, long time," said Ellis. "I'm short on numbers on that; there's just a lot of people that he's done so much for. I wish he were here to enjoy it. That would be better. That would be a lot better. But I know the family will take the trophy back and put it in front of him, and he'll smile, because he'll recognize it."

To be sure, there's plenty he'd recognize about what went down on Sunday.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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