Commentary

Post-Elway, Shanahan's busts outnumbered booms

Originally Published: December 30, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Mike Shanahan is easily the best coach in Denver Broncos history. But that doesn't mean he should be coach for life.

It was time for a new coach in Denver. Give credit to owner Pat Bowlen for making that difficult decision and firing the man most Broncos fans never thought he'd fire -- the man who helped deliver the only two Super Bowl victories in franchise history.

Turns out everyone overestimated Shanahan's job security -- including, perhaps, Shanahan himself. After 14 years, his comfort level and strategic intransigence could be some of the reasons the Broncos have become the embodiment of mediocrity with their 24-24 record the past three seasons.

Mike Shanahan & John Elway
AP Photo/Amy SancettaMike Shanahan and John Elway were on top of the world in the late '90s, winning two Super Bowls.

As a lifelong Bronco fan who watches every game and remembers the days before Denver even had a winning season, much less a world title, I'm sorry to see it end like this. Sorry and a bit stunned. But by no means would I say Bowlen's decision is unjustified.

He fired Wade Phillips once, and Dan Reeves, too. Now Shanahan joins an Orange Crush pink-slip list he surely never dreamed he'd be on -- but deserves to be on.

You end a third straight blah season outside the playoffs, being outscored by 78 points -- and flatly lucky to be even 8-8. You gag away your good fortune and give up a division title with three straight losses. You lose at home to a team that has given up on the season (Buffalo), then get undressed in a do-or-die game against your biggest rival (San Diego) with a divisional title on the line.

Guess what? Those are fireable offenses. Even for a guy with Shanny's finger bling.

Truth is, the Shanahan Method was fraying and the franchise decaying at a time when it should be booming in its relatively new stadium. Backed by arguably the best owner and most loyal fan base in the NFL, the coach couldn't sustain the glory of the 1990s into the new millennium.

Since John Elway rode off into the Rocky Mountain sunset after a second consecutive Super Bowl title in early 1999, Denver has been utterly ordinary. It has won a single playoff game in the decade without No. 7 at quarterback.

The post-Elway Broncos have been a blur of fired defensive coordinators, failed free-agent acquisitions, boom-or-bust drafts, spotty special teams, late-season swoons and -- on those occasions when they did make the playoffs -- postseason pratfalls. Shanahan has continually churned the roster without changing the bottom line. The magic is long gone, and it will be up to someone else to recapture it.

Post-Elway, Shanahan seemed to believe he could plug any quarterback into his creative, aggressive offense and it would work at a championship level. He hand-picked Brian Griese for the role, and it didn't work. He hand-picked Jake Plummer for the role, and it didn't work. The current hand-picked quarterback is Jay Cutler -- and so far it hasn't worked.

Mike Shanahan
Rich Kane-US PRESSWIREMike Shanahan has seen his share of struggles since the glory days of the Broncos.

Cutler is a prodigious talent who makes you want to kiss him and strangle him in alternating doses. He might turn out to be a great one, but until he curbs his proclivity for crippling turnovers, he's just a tease -- he threw five interceptions this season inside opponents' 10-yard line. Shanahan seemed seduced by Cutler's arm and bravado to the point that he indulged the very interceptions and fumbles that did as much to scuttle this season as Denver's plague of injuries.

But the biggest problem with the 2008 Broncos was a horrendous defense that was largely of Shanahan's making. (The entire roster is of Shanahan's making, in fact, given the amount of control Bowlen entrusted him with.) He has changed coordinators and parts like socks with steadily decreasing results.

The coach's annual efforts to revamp his defensive line on the fly bottomed out in '08. Denver was terrible up front, both against the run and in rushing the passer. This is what happens when you troll the free-agent market for linemen who underachieved elsewhere or, in alternating years, you draft non-impact linemen.

The free-agent failures of recent years are too numerous to list -- though Dewayne Robertson deserves special commendation for lack of impact this year, a development that could not have shocked his previous employer, the New York Jets. And the 2007 draft splurge on defensive linemen has been a bust -- three of Denver's first four picks in that draft were spent on Jarvis Moss, Tim Crowder and Marcus Thomas, none of whom will play in Hawaii in this lifetime.

(To be fair, Shanahan and Denver's personnel people did hit home runs in the '08 draft with left tackle Ryan Clady, wide receiver Eddie Royal and running back Peyton Hillis. But those are all offensive players.)

Combine the problems up front with abominable safety play, and Denver's defense was a disaster up the middle. The franchise that once was home to rock-solid safeties such as Steve Atwater, Dennis Smith and Billy Thompson saw its back-line players continually miss tackles, blow coverages and surrender big plays.

So at a time in which AFC West rivals Kansas City and Oakland have faded from competitive view, Denver has failed to take advantage. What should be a two-team divisional race between the Broncos and the Chargers has instead become the San Diego Show, except when Ed Hochuli intervenes on Denver's behalf.

If he wants another job, Shanahan surely will get one. There's a good chance he would succeed in it -- getting fired might be the jolt he needs to modernize some of his philosophies and change some of his ways.

And one day they justifiably will enshrine Shanahan in Denver's Ring of Honor, putting his name on the stadium facade alongside the players he coached to Super Bowl glory. But their days in uniform are done, and their coach was overdue to exit the Mile High sideline. Nobody's run lasts forever.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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