ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Eighteen years after Gary Kubiak tried to talk John Elway out of retiring, the roles were reversed.
The result was the same.
"He put up his hand and said, 'Remember when you did that to me?" Elway recounted. "I said, 'Yeah, OK.'"
With that, Kubiak, 55, left the NFL pressure cooker over season-long health concerns, stepping down from his dream job Monday with two years left on his contract, a grateful family and a Super Bowl 50 ring.
In 1999, Elway's knees were shot after leading Denver to back-to-back Lombardi Trophies, so when Mike Shanahan dispatched his offensive coordinator to try to change his quarterback's mind, Elway told Kubiak not to waste his breath but to have a seat and chase some beers with him instead.
Their paths crossed again two years ago when Elway, now the Broncos GM, lured Kubiak back to Denver a little more than a year after Kubiak had suffered a mini-stroke and collapsed at halftime of a game while coaching the Houston Texans.
Kubiak had another health scare in October when he suffered a complex migraine and had to take a week off work. He lightened his load for a while but he's just not wired that way. Anyway, Kubiak said that was just one episode in a season-long grind that convinced him it's time to move on.
"I'm doing great, I'm OK," he said at a news conference where he choked up several times. "But coaching is a very demanding business, a tough business and I've struggled big-time this year. I'm going to find something else to do."
And Elway will find another coach, his third in his six seasons as GM.
Kubiak summoned Elway to his hotel room in Kansas City on Christmas Eve, 24 hours before the Broncos (9-7) would get bounced from the playoff chase just 11 months after winning it all.
"He said I want to talk to you as a friend, not my boss. And that's how we talked," Elway said, adding that he wasn't surprised when Kubiak told him he was going to step down after the season whether or not they made the playoffs.
"I can't tell you how many times I thought about putting my boss hat back on and put my selling process back in there so we could try to make it work," Elway said.
Players were disheartened to say goodbye to Kubiak but expressed confidence in Elway finding the right replacement.
"He's the king of the comeback, on and off the field," linebacker Von Miller said.
Elway said there are several young candidates he's eager to interview, suggesting he'd be more inclined to go with a young up-and-comer such as Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — Mike's son — and not another veteran like Kubiak or John Fox, Elway's first hire in 2011.
"Obviously, there's a lot of young guys out there that have a lot of potential and are very bright, young guys," Elway said. "So, hopefully we can get one of those."
Elway said nobody on the current staff is a candidate to replace Kubiak but he's hopeful the new coach will keep some assistants such as defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, whose contract is up.
The new head coach will inherit a dominant defense , upgraded offensive and defensive lines that Elway promised to fix again this offseason and a quarterback competition between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
Developing the young QBs will be a major part of the job description.
"For me, and having played the game, I know how important the relationship is to have with the quarterback," Elway said.
Elway said his top priority is keeping his defense top-notch while trying to get his offense to the same level.
"We've got to get better offensively," he said. "We've got to compete better offensively and say you know what, we carry half of this load and we can't rely on that defense."
A melancholy Elway said he'll miss his longtime sidekick both personally and professionally.
"But I'm happy for Gary. I know how hard it was for him to make that decision," Elway said. "Gary will always be missed, but I am excited about the opportunity with some people out there that have the chance to come in here and be right in lockstep with what we want to do."
As for his own energy levels, Elway said he's still driven to lead Denver's front office. Team President Joe Ellis said he's been in talks to extend Elway's contract, which has a year remaining.
"Challenges excite me," Elway said. "That's what it's about. You adjust. Things are going to happen good and bad. It's all about adjusting and this game is about adjusting. The goal and the plan have not changed and that is to compete for world championships. We were there a year ago and there's no reason why we can't get back there soon again."
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