Gary Kubiak never flinched.
If the 2015 season took place in the Old West, he was Wild Bill Hickok. You knew you would lose. In fact, you knew you had no chance.
Kubiak remained true to himself, his players and the organization he's been a part of most of his adult life to thrive. It was Kubiak's leadership in moments of crisis that showed his team it could succeed. That it would succeed. No matter what it faced, the team was prepared.
Without Kubiak, the Denver Broncos don't win their third Lombardi Trophy.
With all he encountered and faced to get here, it's pretty remarkable.
When John Elway fired, err, mutually parted ways with quitter John Fox and pegged his former roommate as the replacement, if it didn't end with confetti it was a failure.
No matter what the Broncos did over the course of the regular season, it didn't matter.
No matter what the Broncos accomplished in the postseason, merely playing in Super Bowl 50 was not enough.
Make no mistake, that pressure wasn't from the fans but the organization itself. It was from Elway. It was internal.
It drove Kubiak. The pressure forced him to rise to the occasion, just like every gunfight faced by Wild Bill where one mistake could spell the end. It drove him to become even better.
I've mentioned this before, but we all got the lightbulb-moment this would work in training camp. It wasn't a play or moment in practice, but with the media afterwards.
The media noticed Kubiak had his players working on field goal returns. Field goal returns? Why practice something you probably wouldn't face that season, let alone any season?
"The season's about recall," Kubiak said back in training camp. "You can't stand out here every day and keep your guys out here doing those things every day, but you've got to throw it to them and talk about how you handle situations. There has to be great recall during the course of the season. We're going to hit it all.
"We've got what we call ‘mock situations' all the time where we're putting players through mind games, in a lot of ways, and coaches. So I don't know if you noticed, but I've got (Director of Football Analytics) Mitch (Tanney) out there with me. If we're moving the ball or we're doing formatting, I've got Mitch with me because he's going to be on the headset, so we're trying to practice. Everything's going to happen on game day."
Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome on Gary Kubiak: pic.twitter.com/7AFfJdsSDj— Nicki Jhabvala (@NickiJhabvala) February 24, 2016
That showed no situation would prove too big for Denver. It showed his players they would never get caught off guard by what might happen in a game. They were prepared for any and all situations.
Above all else, it showed the players Kubiak was prepared.
That's the mark of a great leader, and that's why it's so difficult. You not only have to make the people around you better, you have to make yourself better. When you do both, that's when trust is earned and players would be willing to run through a brick wall for you.
The other aspect of a great leader is to make the tough decisions, and then have the resolve to stick with what is decided.
Kubiak faced two of those this season.
The first came in November when he benched a future Hall of Famer. Yes, it seemed like the easy and right move at the time, but this is Peyton Freaking Manning. How many in that moment question themselves and back down? Yet Kubiak did it and then he did what was best for the team over the next seven games. In the process, it was what was best for Manning.
Before that, most thought it would take a miracle for Manning to see the field again.
"It was only 9 months, but I'll remember it for a lifetime."— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) March 7, 2016
- Broncos HC Gary Kubiak on his time w/ Peyton pic.twitter.com/QYmBaz25NG
It wasn't so much a miracle as it was a stagnant offense that had just turned the ball over for a fifth time to a putrid football team. Kubiak told himself his offense and team needed a spark. It's not Brock Osweiler's fault, but there's too much at stake here with home-field advantage on the line.
Again, it was the easy and right move at the time, but you have a young quarterback who may pout and have his confidence shattered. How many in that moment question themselves and back down? Yet Kubiak did it and then did what was best for the team over the next three games.
As the Broncos continue the work to put the 2016 roster together, one piece is still there. It's the most important one, at least in terms of on-the-field success. It's also the one most overlooked.
Despite what you might hear this offseason, Kubiak and the Broncos won't get caught with their back to the door.