Super Bowl coaches Gary Kubiak and Ron Rivera gave their teams room to thrive

Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak
Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

It probably isn’t a surprise to know that the two head coaches in this year’s Super Bowl — Denver’s Gary Kubiak and Carolina’s Ron Rivera — share a few similarities.

For one, both were longtime NFL players — their playing careers spanned 18 years, combined — so they have an acute understanding in the mind of the men they command.

But most importantly, both have humbled themselves by allowing the side of the ball on which they have the least influence — for Rivera, it’s offense and for Kubiak, it’s defense — to lead the charge on their Super Bowl runs.

Kubiak, a former quarterback and West Coast offense guru, didn’t necessarily expect the Broncos — who rank first in the league in yards allowed and sacks — to field one of the best defenses the league has season in years when he decided to hire defensive coordinator Wade Phillips last offseason.

But with star quarterback Peyton Manning’s uneven performances this season — and hence, the offense’s stark dropoff from their 2013 performance, when they made the Super Bowl by setting NFL single-season points record— Kubiak isn’t complaining about it, and he has given Phillips the space to operate.

“Did I imagine it? No,” Kubiak said. “But I’m glad it’s happening, you know? Wade’s been doing it for a long time … when you look back at the consistency of his career and the type of football coach he’s been, the type of person he’s been, you know it says a lot about him to get back to this point.”

But cornerback Aqib Talib noted that Kubiak, who replaced John Fox as the Broncos’ head coach in January 2014, won the team over by letting them be men.

“He just came in and he said he was going to let us be us — he wasn’t going to change our team and change our personality,” Talib said. “He accepted our personality, but our work was demanded. We pushed ourselves, but we still had fun like we did with Foxy and other coaches. Kubiak accepted that, and he adapted to that, and we got the work done for him for sure.”

It remains to be seen how the Broncos, who have ridden a dominant pass rush to a 14-4 record, will match up on Sunday against the ground-based Panthers, who have a man calling plays in offensive coordinator Mike Shula that Talib calls a “football genius.”

There might be something to that, as Shula has helped groom star quarterback Cam Newton into a bona fide MVP candidate by highlighting his rare combination of size, arm strength and mobility, and downplaying his spotty mechanics, which can affect his accuracy.

But Newton says it is Rivera — a former linebacker whose specialty is defense — who deserves credit for steering the ship of a team that has gone 17-1 this season.

“He’s been so transparent for us as players,” Newton said. “A lot of coaches say the cliché analogy, I have the open-door policy and do this this, that and the third. But for Coach Rivera, it’s kind of been true, true to life.”

Tackle Michael Oher said Rivera’s coaching style is “amazing,” noting that a text message he received from Rivera before the season showed him what his coaching style was like.

“I got a text message that said they appreciated me being there and they appreciate my hard work every day,” Oher said. “That text right there, just to get it, I think he probably sent a lot of people.”

Now, Rivera will guide his team in a Super Bowl against another head coach with whom he shares some important similarities. He and Kubiak have been doing this long enough to know that players win games — not coaches — and fittingly, both talked liking the way both their teams have looked this week.

“I think the biggest thing is trying to keep them even keel,” Kubiak said. “They’re still going to play 60 minutes, the game’s not going to change. It’s just some of the things going on around the game that make you change.”