Commentary

This season big test for controlling Shanahan

Coaches who also wield front-office power are a rare breed. This season might provide a referendum on Mike Shanahan's dual roles, writes Mike Sando.

Originally Published: March 15, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Mike Shanahan is no longer ahead of his time.

Once a trailblazer among NFL coaches seeking to control all aspects of football operations, the Denver Broncos' leading power broker now stands among a shrinking minority in his profession.

The New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings also operate under the coach-as-dictator model, or close to it.

But numerous others have abandoned the approach, usually for good reason. While the arrangement has served the Patriots well, the Broncos must win in 2008 for Shanahan to regain credibility as executive vice president. His teams are 1-4 in playoff games since Denver claimed a second consecutive Super Bowl title nine years ago.

[+] EnlargeMike Shanahan and Ted Sundquist
AP Photo/Ed AndrieskiBroncos head coach Mike Shanahan (left) and former GM Ted Sundquist no longer are working together in Denver.

The Broncos finished 13-3 in 2005, 9-7 in 2006 and 7-9 last season. Meanwhile, Shanahan's penchant for shuffling defensive coordinators and his firing of general manager Ted Sundquist have refocused attention on the coach's sweeping executive powers. The subject merits examination, but with a young staff and a promising quarterback in Jay Cutler, the organizational overhaul can wait.

More than anything, the Broncos need Shanahan's best coaching job in 2008.

Top offensive assistants Gary Kubiak and Mike Heimerdinger are gone. Quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, 31, has added passing-game coordinator to his title this offseason. Bates might qualify as an ascending young coach, but Shanahan can't leave anything to chance this season. The Broncos' success hinges on whether Cutler, 24, realizes what NFL scouts widely regard as massive potential.

Cutler has 29 touchdown passes in his first 21 regular-season games. He was the NFL's No. 12 passer with an 88.1 rating last season. Primary receiver Brandon Marshall, still only 23, finished with 102 catches for 1,325 yards.

An organization can build around that level of production from young players in those positions.

However, the Broncos need to get younger on defense through the draft, and they need Shanahan to assume the primary role in helping Cutler take the next step. They need Shanahan's coaching more than his "executive vice presidenting."

Teams hire coaches to coach. They generally put coaches in charge of personnel only when a hot candidate possesses sufficient leverage to broker such an arrangement.

Shanahan declined the Broncos' first attempt to hire him away from the San Francisco 49ers in 1993. The 49ers won a Super Bowl the following season with Shanahan as offensive coordinator. When the Broncos finally landed Shanahan in 1995, they gave him a level of control few other coaches had enjoyed.

The model worked when Bill Walsh was picking the players for the 49ers. Bill Belichick has made it work for the Patriots, in part because he trusts vice president Scott Pioli.

Others have come to regret the arrangement, and the Broncos might be close to joining them.

Coaches Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt and Nick Saban combined to win three playoff games in 11 seasons while running the Miami Dolphins.

Dan Reeves enjoyed one spectacular season and four losing ones during a six-year run atop the Atlanta Falcons.

Bill Parcells won one playoff game while overseeing the New York Jets.

The Seattle Seahawks failed to win a playoff game under Mike Holmgren until he was forced to share control over personnel.

The 49ers have reduced Mike Nolan's powers this offseason, promoting Scot McCloughan to general manager.

Tom Coughlin succeeded as the main man with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he won a championship only after three humbling seasons with the New York Giants.

Anyone who has surveyed Shanahan's prolific team-issued bio knows humbling will not come easy, for "every successful team has one key leader, and those organizations that have achieved the greatest success have an ultimate leader -- an individual combining exceptional talent and organizational skills with the dynamic drive to lead others to success."

There's more: "When the success of a leader is achieved, and repeated, in an atmosphere of great pressure and expectations, that leader is elevated to elite status."

Indeed, Shanahan's teams have averaged 10 victories per season since 1995, including 9.8 over the past five. But the Broncos' roster features only a dozen players drafted by the organization, a league-low figure and half the average of the other 31 teams. There is nothing elite about that.

And the model Shanahan followed to consecutive Super Bowl victories in the late 1990s is no longer available to him.

While Shanahan found Terrell Davis, Trevor Pryce, John Mobley and Dan Neil in the draft, his championship teams featured key holdovers from previous regimes, notably John Elway, Shannon Sharpe, Steve Atwater and Tom Nalen. Shanahan also landed a long list of productive players through other means: Ed McCaffrey, Bill Romanowski, Harry Swayne, Neil Smith, Maa Tanuvasa, Darrien Gordon, Glenn Cadrez, Howard Griffith and Mark Schlereth.

Free agency has become less helpful now that more teams are re-signing key players before they can test the market. The Broncos must get better the old-fashioned way.

The franchise quarterback appears to be in place. More than ever, it's time for Shanahan to coach him up.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.