Friday, January 16, 2015

Is Gary Kubiak Really An Upgrade Over John Fox?

Earlier in the week, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak turned down interview requests with the Chicago Bears and New York Jets.

Then along came the Denver Broncos, who parted ways with John Fox, and suddenly Kubiak is interested.

Translation: Kubiak is about to become the next head coach of the Denver Broncos.

Broncos fans will no doubt have fond memories of Kubiak, as the backup quarterback who could fill in for short periods, developed a close bond with John Elway, ran the offense under Mike Shanahan during the two Super Bowl wins, then continued to run it effectively when the likes of Brian Griese, Gus Frerotte and Jake Plummer were at QB.

We all know that Kubiak can do a masterful job of running an offense. But does that make him the right guy to be the head coach?

Let's take a look at what happened when Kubiak coached the Texans, and how it compares to when Fox was the coach of the Panthers.

Regarding quarterbacks, we know the story with Fox. For most of his seasons, his quarterback was the average-to-good Jake Delhomme. Other QBs who had to take the helm for Carolina were Rodney Peete, Vinny Testaverde, Matt Moore and Jimmy Clausen. Meanwhile, Kubiak spent most of his season with Matt Schaub, but others who played for him were David Carr, T.J. Yates and Case Keenum.

There is, of course, the argument that since Fox's expertise is defense, he didn't really have much to do with getting results out of the quarterback. But then the flipside must be considered, that if Kubiak's expertise is offense, then he really shouldn't get credit for how the defense performs.

Thus, a better measurement would be to consider how good Fox was at finding offensive coordinators, versus how good Kubiak was at finding defensive coordinators. Fox's first offensive coordinator was Dan Henning (2001-2006), whose best ranking achieved was eighth in points scored in 2005. With that said, the offense ranked 22nd in yards, which would suggest it benefited from great field position. Considering that Carolina's defense ranked fifth in points allowed and third in yards allowed, that would certainly suggest the defense was more responsible for Carolina's success (the Panthers finished 11-5 and reached the conference championship).

Jeff Davidson took over in 2007, and in 2008, finished seventh in points and 10th in yards in 2008. The defense ranked in the middle that season (12th in points allowed, 18th in yards allowed), so it is fair to say the offense played a larger part in the 12-4 finish. Otherwise, Davidson's offense never ranked higher than 19th in yards or 21st in points. Therefore, it may be fair to say that one of Fox's issues was not finding the right offensive coordinator.

But this means that, because Kubiak's specialty is offense, that he needs to find the right defensive coordinator. Looking at those who served under Kubiak, you have Richard Smith (2006-2008), Frank Bush (2009-2010) and Wade Phillips (2011-2013). Phillips had the best results, as his defenses were top 10 in yards allowed (second, seventh and seventh) and top 10 his first two years in points allowed (fourth and ninth). In his third year, the defense finished 24th in points allowed, but that can probably be blamed in part on a pedestrian offense that was ranked 11th in yards, but 31st in points.

The other two defensive coordinators, however, did not have much to show for themselves. Smith's units were terrible, never breaking even the top 20 in yards and points allowed. Bush got the team into the top 20 in his first season (17th in points, 13th in yards), then the unit went right back downhill his second season (29th in points, 30th in yards).

If I am a Broncos fan, I would be very concerned about Kubiak's ability to find the right defensive coordinator. While he deserves credit for bringing in Phillips, by that point, it was becoming too late for his offense, as Schaub had exited his prime, as had top wide receiver Andre Johnson.

If Kubiak takes over in Denver, and Peyton Manning does return, he will have a QB that, while better than Schaub at any stage of his career, is still one who is no longer in his prime. Although the top wide receiver (Demaryius Thomas) is in his prime, he will be a free agent.

Are we truly fine with bringing in an offensive mastermind, whether it's to work with Peyton for a couple more years or develop Brock Osweiler, if it means things start falling apart on the defensive side of the ball, because you let the coach hire the wrong defensive coordinator?

We must also consider one of the complaints about Fox: his propensity for conservative coaching. The thought is that Kubiak will be more aggressive in decisions to go for it on fourth down or to drive in the final seconds of a game for a touchdown or field goal, rather than settle for overtime.

Yet consider these writings from the Battle Red Blog, one which tried to dispel the notion that he was a conservative coach, yet found it was the case, and one indicating that while he was solid at clock management, he was far from being one of the best. Needless to say, some of the details presented don't reflect this idea that Kubiak is going to be far more aggressive every time he makes coaching decisions. It might mean it's a little more likely Kubiak will be aggressive than Fox in these areas, but perhaps not enough to satisfy those who believe in going for in on fourth down more often and using time outs as wisely as possible.

There is also the issue of how well the Texans played under Kubiak when facing teams with the reputation of being the best in the NFL -- for example, the New England Patriots. In 2012 -- a season in which the Texans finished 12-4 overall -- they lost to the Patriots 42-14 (giving up 21 points in the first half). They met again in the playoffs, losing 41-28, in which they trailed 17-13 at halftime, only for the Patriots to score 21 unanswered points, before Houston scored again with 11:42 left in the fourth quarter.

In 2013, they lost to the Patriots, but to their credit, it was a 34-31 outcome. But this was a game in which the Texans led the Patriots 17-7 at halftime, and 24-21 entering the fourth quarter, but couldn't put New England away. Perhaps that can be attributed to injuries, though, but it's worth noting that Kubiak lost his job the following week after a 27-20 loss to Jacksonville.

The Texans did beat the Patriots 34-27 in 2010, benefitting from two early New England turnovers, then rallying in the fourth quarter to overcome a 27-13 deficit. (The Texans were 9-7 and missed the playoffs that season.) In 2006, they lost to New England 40-7, but perhaps that can be attributed to being Kubiak's first year, in which he tried to resurrect David Carr's career. But overall, Kubiak is a whopping 1-5 against Bill Belichick's Patriots, so it's not like he's had more success against Belichick than Fox.

What about other playoff contenders? Let's stick with 2012, in which the Texans lost to the Green Bay Packers 42-24 (thanks in part to three turnovers), and to the Indianapolis Colts, in which the Texans led 16-14, then allowed Deji Karim to return a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown, then a 70-yard pass from Andrew Luck to T.Y. Hilton, and lost 28-16. In the Colts game, Schaub threw two interceptions, although it's hard to blame him for the two big plays that gave the Colts a double-digit lead. But this begs the question: If we blamed Fox for not rallying the troops after an opponent gets two big plays for touchdowns, should Kubiak not be blamed in a similar situation?

I believe if Kubiak does become the new Denver Broncos head coach, that the areas we wish Fox had been better at, aren't going to be improved as much as we think they are. The main difference between Fox and Kubiak is their area of expertise. Otherwise, they share similar characteristics: They need the right coordinators to run the area they aren't as familiar with, they tend to be conservative with coaching decisions more often than not (with merely a slight difference between the two), and they can have their problems against some of the better teams in the NFL.

Sure, one can argue that Kubiak can't be judged on just one coaching tenure. And it's fine to say the Broncos needed to move on from Fox. But while it can be argued that Fox needed to be replaced, that doesn't mean that Kubiak will automatically be the better coach. Fans who are pulling for Kubiak are more likely doing so not because he's an upgrade over Fox, but for this reason: Because former Denver Bronco.

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