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John Elway and Gary Kubiak are back in the Super Bowl 26 years after blowout loss

The Broncos were blown out in Super Bowl XXIV, but four key pieces reunited in the offseason and led the team to another shot at winning it all.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos lost Super Bowl XXIV in Feb. 1990 with John Elway and Gary Kubiak at quarterback, Rick Dennison at linebacker and Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator. Twenty-six years after a 55-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the four have another chance at winning together when the Broncos meet the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

Kubiak is in his first year as the team's head coach and shortly after he was hired last January, he added Phillips as his defensive coordinator and Dennison as his offensive coordinator. Elway, the team's general manager and executive vice president, made the decision to target Kubiak immediately after firing John Fox.

Elway and Kubiak first built a rapport while teammates on the Broncos. Both players were selected in the 1983 NFL Draft and Elway was handed the keys to the franchise, which he never let go of. Kubiak threw just 298 career passes and made only five starts in nine NFL seasons.

Kubiak's playing career is probably best remembered for his performance in the 1991 AFC Championship when Elway went down with an injury. A thigh bruise suffered early in the second half eventually sent him to the sideline in the fourth quarter and Kubiak took over down 7-0. He finished the game by completing 11 of 12 passes for 136 yards and scored Denver's only touchdown of the game on a 3-yard run, but couldn't complete the comeback and lost 10-7.

After the game, he retired and got into coaching. Kubiak reunited with Elway as his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator in 1995, coaching him for the final four seasons of his Hall of Fame career. But by the time Elway returned to the Broncos as an executive in 2011, Kubiak was already long gone after accepting the Houston Texans head coaching job in 2006.

Kubiak wasn't the only nostalgic hire last offseason. Phillips was Denver's defensive coordinator from 1989 until he became the team's head coach in 1993 (though he was fired just one year later, in 1994). Dennison was a linebacker on the Broncos from 1982 until 1990 and then coached for them beginning in 1995, the same year as Kubiak.

But when Kubiak and the other former Super Bowl XXIV pieces were first added, it raised eyebrows about the future of a franchise that posted a 38-10 record in the three seasons prior.

Kubiak and co. weren't considered a slam dunk hires

When Kubiak returned to the Broncos after nearly a decade away from the organization, it came with its fair share of question marks -- especially after Peyton Manning announced his intention to return to the Broncos in 2015. Kubiak's offense wasn't tailored to the 14-time Pro Bowl quarterback.

"Is John Elway engineering it so Peyton Manning doesn't come back?" NFL Network's Ian Rapoport questioned shortly after the hire of Kubiak. "He took away his head coach, his offensive coordinator and is going to bring in a head coach whose system doesn't really fit. It's worth wondering."

Just two weeks into the 2015 season, the struggles of Manning were already evident and NFL talent evaluators were second-guessing the offensive approach of Kubiak. Via Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports:

Another evaluator who has watched Denver's film from the first two weeks said, "It's obvious he's not really comfortable unless he's doing his thing in the shotgun. Kubiak is going to have to meet him in the middle more there. Can they protect him and can they run the football? If they can't, it's a lot to expect of him to carry the team for 16 games at this stage of his career."

It was especially tough to justify the team's changing of offensive philosophy after it was dominant under Fox and former OC Adam Gase. The Broncos finished No. 2 in scoring in 2012 and 2014, and No. 1 in 2013, yet parted ways with Fox after four consecutive trips to the playoffs that didn't yield a Lombardi Trophy.

Kubiak's 61-64 career record with the Texans and 2-2 record in the postseason didn't inspire many to believe that he was the proper solution even after he did well to turn around the Baltimore Ravens' offense in 2014. Phillips was a curious choice by Elway, as well.

After sitting out for the 2014 season, the 68-year-old former head coach of the Broncos, Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys looked to be done with coaching. In his final season as defensive coordinator of the Texans in 2013, the Phillips-led defense in Houston finished No. 24 in points allowed and 30th in total sacks, with 32.

Phillips, known for pressuring opposing quarterbacks, was let go after the 2013 season and turned everything around to lead the No. 1 defense in the NFL in 2015 after a year of unemployment.

Similarly, Dennison followed Kubiak out the door in Houston after the Texans finished No. 31 in points scored. In Baltimore, Dennison was the quarterbacks coach during Kubiak's one year as offensive coordinator, so it wasn't particularly surprising that the two were a package deal again in Denver. Still, Dennison carried with him many of the same question marks as Kubiak.

While Kubiak didn't find a tremendous amount of success with the Broncos' offense -- there's no question that the team's route to Super Bowl 50 was instead paved by the NFL's No. 1 defense -- Elway's decision to hire his former teammate has been validated most by the coach's ability to navigate a roller coaster season for the team.

Kubiak led Broncos through tumultuous 2015 without drama

The Broncos finished the 2015 season No. 16 in total offense, but that isn't terrible considering the hurdles they had to overcome on their way to Santa Clara, Calif.

Long before the season even began, the Broncos lost star left tackle Ryan Clady to an ACL tear and lost his replacement Ty Sambrailo early in the year to a shoulder injury. Without solid protection and a new offense, Manning had the worst season of his career. He was benched for Brock Osweiler in Week 10, although a foot injury for the veteran passer saved Kubiak the trouble of having to pick a starter.

He eventually had to make that choice upon Manning's return and elected to keep Osweiler in as starter, despite the fact that the Broncos were struggling to score points with the inexperienced, 25-year-old passer. But Kubiak did well to keep the team from imploding during the quarterback battle. And when Osweiler struggled in the regular season finale, the head coach timed the benching of the younger quarterback perfectly, allowing Manning to lead the team to the No. 1 seed in the AFC.

It was a delicate situation that somehow never reached the point of being controversial.

"There is not a better guy for the job," Elway said after the Broncos beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. "The bottom line is I know Gary and he knows what it takes and he has done a tremendous job this year with the team. When he came in here he had won a lot of football games and to be able to come in and get us back to the Super Bowl has been tremendous."

After dominating on offense for three years, it's the defense, led by Phillips and constructed by Elway, that gives the Broncos the best chance at winning Super Bowl 50. But Elway's decision to reassemble the same group that was blown out 26 years ago in the Super Bowl has so far been proven a success and can pay off in a big way if the Broncos can beat the Panthers on Sunday.