HOUSTON -- John Elway saw the wheels turning.
He watched the way his backup and road roommate Gary Kubiak functioned, and knew his playing career was only the start of something.
“He was a student of the game while he was playing,” Elway said. “Gary had visions of what he wanted to do when he was done playing and took advantage of that while he was playing, and I think with the background that he’s built up and the success that he’s had in the game, I’m not sure there is a better offensive mind in the game.”
Of course, Elway is going to say good things about a close friend. But the Hall of Fame quarterback isn’t going to toss around such high praise lightly, either.
Search the league for offensive innovators and you might find Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy; Jim Harbaugh and his coordinator Greg Roman in San Francisco; Washington’s Mike Shanahan; Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg in Philadelphia; San Diego's Norv Turner; Detroit coordinator Scott Linehan; New Orleans’ Sean Payton and his coordinator Pete Carmichael; Carolina coordinator Rob Chudzinski; Cincinnati coordinator Jay Gruden; and even Buffalo’s Chan Gailey.
My sense is Kubiak isn’t on most lists. My sense is he should be.
While I visited the Houston Texans' training camp recently, I spoke to the three most important offensive players about their head coach. QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster and WR Andre Johnson all spoke of how the Houston system is tailored and revised to help them thrive.
Schaub: “He just has such a great feel for what a defense is doing and how we can counteract it. It’s one thing to recognize it. But to be able to attack it the next play or the next series, not wait. We do so much with formations and motions from week to week that is a great help for attacking defenses, and he has a great feel for how to do that but still keep our concepts the same. It’s nothing new for us; we just have to learn where our spots are and then run our plays.”
Foster: “I think he’s a guru. As his career progresses he’ll get a lot more notoriety for what he’s able to do in this league and what he’s able to see out there. I just think his offensive mind is up there with the best of them. He’s one of the best chess players I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how much that means with me saying it. I’m not saying that just because he’s my head coach. I like to take my emotions out of any opinion that I have. And I feel like he’s one of the best out there offensively.”
Johnson: “He’s great at what he does. He does a good job of game-planning against things they see on film, finding little mismatches here and there. For me, he’s helped my career out a lot. Just moving me around. Before he got here, I just pretty much stayed in one place; I was the split end, the X receiver. When he got here, they just started moving me around a lot trying to find ways to get me the ball.”
The thing that strikes me most about Kubiak’s play calling is his ability to find the right moments for deep shots. The Texans will run inside. But their bread-and-butter is the zone stretch play, where Foster tests a defense going wide as the line moves laterally. He then potentially finds a cutback lane.
As defenders get used to flowing to the ball carrier and start to get a feel for getting off those blocks, Schaub will run play-action and fake the handoff to Foster. And while the defense starts to flow to the ball carrier again, the quarterback will have rolled the other way, reset with pass-rushers chasing him from a distance, and have time to loft a pass to a receiver who’s broken open.
With 22 players on the field, the Texans will have reduced the play to Schaub’s throw beating the first rusher to chase him down and Johnson or another receiver likely taking on just one defensive back.
It can be beautiful.
Houston veteran center Chris Myers said Kubiak’s chess game “is pretty magnificent to watch.”
It’s a great system for Schaub, who’s back from a serious foot injury. He’s developed a very close relationship with Kubiak and this will be their sixth year together. Not the most mobile quarterback, Schaub is completely comfortable running the bootlegs and rollouts that are so vital to what the Texans do.
“As a quarterback, you love it because of the diversity of it,” Elway said. “The defense really can’t sit and tee off on anything. With the zone concept that they developed with Mike [Shanahan] while they were here in Denver, and now in Houston, I think it really puts a lot of pressure on the defense. …
“And very rarely do you see any negative yardage plays in the running game. Very rarely do you see a second-and-12. When you’re trying to run the football on first down, there is always positive yardage with it.”
Houston averaged a league-best 6.57 yards on first down last year. Second-and-3.43 is a dream down for anyone on any offense in any football league.
So what’s the downside to Houston’s offense? I admit it’s hard to find something negative while working on a piece like this and to find someone, even with no name attached, to pick apart a guy like Kubiak.
ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said he likes Kubiak more as offensive coordinator than head coach. Asked what he did not like about Kubiak’s offense, Williamson offered this:
“Well, generally, the offensive line is undersized and relies on quickness and leverage. That can be a problem when trying to grind out the tough yards or simply trying to outmuscle the opponent. I also think it is telling that Kubiak really only features one wide receiver -- and everyone knows it. They have not put a premium on finding a wide receiver opposite Johnson because that isn’t a featured player in their offense.”
Kubiak’s work last year got him an extension that runs through 2014.
He could have gotten a longer deal, but he lined up with his assistants and joked with owner Bob McNair about how much more he will be worth the next time he’s talking contract.
As an offense-minded coach, he’s pretty much given coordinator Wade Phillips complete control of the Texans' defense, a unit that made a huge leap last season.
That doesn’t suggest, however, that Kubiak doesn’t have a good feel for the other side of the ball.
“You have to understand what defenses are doing, and once you do you’re able to attack them, and he has a great feel for that,” Elway said. “That to me is what separates good head coaches and good offensive coordinators from great ones -- the fact that they have a knack for the right call at the right time, that they are aggressive at the right time, they know on third-and-1 when to throw and when to run.
“It’s an innate knack that separates the good ones from the great ones. And Gary has that.”