Broncos owner says team needed change

Updated: January 1, 2009, 1:20 AM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- They were best friends as much as employee and boss. Nothing told that story better than the tears in the eyes of Pat Bowlen and Mike Shanahan as they talked about their sad farewell.

"This is as tough as it gets," Bowlen said Wednesday, his eyes moist, as he explained his day-old decision to fire the coach who finally brought the Super Bowl trophy to Denver.

"These are tough decisions, but that's what leaders do," Shanahan said, also trying to choke back tears.

They held separate news conferences, back to back, in a meeting room where the entrance features a life-size picture of John Elway hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. "This one's for John," Bowlen famously said on the Broncos' greatest day.

Eleven years later the owner and coach crossed paths in the hallway -- Bowlen wearing an orange tie, Shanahan a mustard-colored sports coat with no sign of the orange and blue he has bled for more than two decades, the last 14 years as head coach.

Bowlen acknowledged the new coach probably wouldn't have full control of the organization the way Shanahan did over a franchise-defining tenure that will be remembered better for its successes than its failures.

As for short lists and timetables? Well, the wounds are too fresh right now.

"It's a process that starts today," Bowlen said. "I may end up regretting this decision. But right now, I'm very comfortable with the decision, that we've got to go in another direction."

It will cost Bowlen plenty, an emotional toll to tack onto the $20 million Shanahan will be owed in the unlikely event he doesn't get another job. But "if you're worried about what it's worth, get in some other business," Bowlen said.

On that, the two friends always agreed.

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Shanahan spent 100-hour weeks at the office and hundreds of millions of Bowlen's dollars -- first to win two Super Bowls, then in an unsuccessful attempt to return the Broncos to that level in the post-Elway years.

His personnel decisions left Denver without the defense to make a legitimate run this year, and an 8-5 record morphed into 8-8 and a historic collapse.

"We were not the team we should have been," Bowlen said.

But he said he did not base his decision on this season, or the 52-21 loss to San Diego that brought it to an end. The hour's worth of Q & A in their news conferences was short on specific answers, heavy on emotions.

"After 14 years, it was time to go in a different direction," Bowlen said, repeating the simplest and ultimate reason for the decision.

Of all the names being thrown out to replace Shanahan -- Bill Cowher, Bill Parcells, Scott Pioli, Bob Stoops -- none resonated louder than Elway's, most likely as a front-office type. The former quarterback has a nose for business and wants back in the game. He has not been contacted, nor ruled out, by Bowlen.

Shanahan wants to work again, but, like his former boss, hasn't set a timeline.

"My goal is to win a Super Bowl," he said. "The next job I go to will be based on one thing: Who's willing to do the things that gives you the best chance to win."

He also didn't rule out taking a college job.

Whoever takes over for Shanahan in Denver will have huge shoes to fill. Shanahan was more than a 146-91 record, the two Super Bowls and an average of nearly 10 wins a year.

He was the "Mastermind," the smartest man in the room, not a man you were going to outcoach. He was the king of finding the mismatch and finding multidimensional players who did lots of little things well.

He was well known for turning sixth-round draft picks (Terrell Davis) and less (Rod Smith) into stars. Running backs came and went in Denver, but the running game stayed the same -- maybe because of those backside cut blocks that drove opponents mad, but also maybe because of an attitude that Shanahan instilled when he took over in 1995.

But at times, critics wondered if the coach was so enamored with his ability to make any player look great that he didn't concern himself enough with talent. Maybe the most damning stat: Only five players from his 2001-05 drafts remain on the roster. Hard to go to a Super Bowl that way.

It's been 10 years since Denver's last championship, and the 24-24 record of the last three seasons spoke of mediocrity that has never been acceptable on this coach's watch.

"Do you deserve it?" Shanahan said of his firing. "Hey, we didn't win for the last three years. We were a .500 team, and you get judged by performance."

Shanahan opened by rattling off 'thank yous' to dozens of people -- everyone from Elway, to the video guy to his secretary.

"It's the relationships with the people you work with every day, when you work the 100-hour weeks, busting your rear end to make things happen," he said. "That's what football is, what family's about."

Bowlen and Shanahan were family, and maybe that's why Shanahan was as shocked as anyone when he got the call to head to Bowlen's office for a meeting Tuesday.

"Lunch," Shanahan said when asked what he thought the meeting was about. He was only half-joking.

The meeting lasted only about five minutes, not because of any bad blood, but because "I think we were both broken down," Shanahan said.

Bowlen, in Shanahan's opinion, is the best owner in sports and the Broncos its best organization. By reflex, the coach often used the word "we" when discussing the team he is no longer part of.

"This is the best I've felt about the team in the last five, six years," he said. "They're young, they're character guys, the direction we're going."

There's no debating that, at least on offense. Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and rookie left tackle Ryan Clady are long-term solutions for a team that ranked second in the league in yardage gained this season.

The defense, however, was abysmal, allowing 400-plus points for two straight years.

Denver was a good draft, a few good free-agent signings away from shoring that up, Shanahan figured. Bowlen always gave him room to operate in the offseason.

"Pat Bowlen and I will be best friends forever," Shanahan said. "He stood by me when I had to make tough decisions. I know this was tougher on him than it was on me."

Indeed, Bowlen spoke softly and looked as shocked as anyone in the city as he stood at the microphone, discussing a decision hardly anyone ever thought he would make.

On many occasions since those Super Bowl wins, Bowlen called Shanahan his coach for life.

"Yes, I've said that," Bowlen said, "I don't have any regrets about saying it.

"I guess nothing's forever."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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