Holmgren, Shanahan back on top

Bill Walsh is 74 years old, but he seems to have accelerated since leaving the San Francisco 49ers with three Super Bowl rings.

He's currently the acting athletic director at Stanford University, where he coached the football team in two tours of duty, before and after his 10 seasons as the 49ers' head coach from 1979 to '88. On Tuesday, his schedule was jammed with appointments, but he managed to find time to talk about two of the 49ers' most illustrious coaching graduates, stellar students of his West Coast offensive philosophy who have taken a great deal of heat in recent years: Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan.

"They really are extremely competent," Walsh said from his Stanford, Calif., office, "and because of that, they've been able to stand up to the criticism that's started to develop. They had a plan, a methodology, a way to go about things, and they didn't change. They stayed within the system they were teaching and didn't vary from it. They had excellent teaching in our [49ers] system -- they both knew it frontward and backward.

"You're talking about two of the great coaches in football. There are not enough positive things you can say about them, because they're the ultimate."

Indeed, the similarities between Shanahan and Holmgren go far beyond a shared first name.

They both played quarterback in college, Holmgren at USC and Shanahan at Eastern Illinois. Holmgren was the San Francisco's offensive coordinator during 1989-91 when the 49ers won back-to-back Super Bowls. Shanahan followed Holmgren in that role, also for three years. Holmgren's Green Bay Packers, led by quarterback Brett Favre, won Super Bowl XXXI to conclude the 1996 season. Shanahan's Denver Broncos, led by quarterback John Elway, won the next two Super Bowls, including XXXII -- against Holmgren and the Packers.

For three seasons, Holmgren and Shanahan reigned as the masters of their coaching craft. And then, practically overnight, they were seen as stupid.

In the wake of Elway's retirement, Shanahan's Broncos went 6-10 in 1999. They failed to win the AFC West for six consecutive seasons and went 0-3 in playoff games. Holmgren, taking up residence in Seattle, went a middling 50-46 in his first six seasons and is 0-3 in the playoffs with the Seahawks.

In their absence, the NFL produced new men endowed with coaching genius: Mike Martz in St. Louis, Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, Bill Belichick in New England.

Today, Martz finds himself out of the picture in St. Louis. Gruden's Buccaneers were first-round playoff victims of the Washington Redskins. This week's divisional playoff games feature two delicious coaching matchups that restore order to the coaching hierarchy. On Saturday afternoon, Holmgren's Seahawks meet the Redskins, who are guided by Joe Gibbs, already a Pro Football Hall of Famer with three Super Bowl rings. Shanahan's assignment in Saturday's late game: Belichick and the Patriots, who are looking for their unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl victory and fourth in five seasons.

A few weeks ago, Holmgren reflected on his back-to-the-future rise to the top in a press conference with local media.

"Those of us in this business, sitting in this chair, we kind of understand what the deal is about," Holmgren said. "You learn to take the good with the bad. As long as you feel, at the end of the day, you're maintaining your integrity and you're consistent and continuing to teach the things you believe in, if you can get through the tough spots and eventually come out at the end and get something done, yeah, there's a good feeling there."

Both Holmgren, 57, and Shanahan, 53, stayed the course. Both men, showing infinite patience with their sometimes scattershot quarterbacks, led their teams to 13-3 records and secured home-field advantage for their divisional playoff games.

"If it's possible, I think I'm more into it now," Shanahan told reporters last week. "Because sometimes, you've got to go through some down times to appreciate the good times."

This isn't a rationalization. It's the life of a head coach in today's NFL.

When the results of the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year were announced last week, Holmgren and Shanahan received a total of exactly one of the 50 votes cast. One. With all due respect to Chicago's Lovie Smith, the winner with 24.5 votes, and the Colts' Tony Dungy (20.5), where's the love for old, successful warhorses?

Survive and advance
Head coaches in the NFL have never enjoyed significant job security, but these days, in the age of billion-dollar television contracts, the job holds more pressure than ever before. No fewer than nine of the NFL's 32 teams -- Detroit, Kansas City, the New York Jets, Minnesota, Oakland, Green Bay, New Orleans, St. Louis and Houston -- will change coaches.

"It's typical," Walsh said. "People are crying out for new coaches all the time, but it's impossible to sustain success unless you have continuity. When you continually change head coaches and assistants, you have to start over.

"You hear it every time -- 'What did they teach these guys?' Well, they're teaching different things; you can't expect everyone to teach the same way. The key is staying constant."

Even Holmgren and Shanahan, with their transcendent track records, have not been immune from criticism.

"It's easier to fire coaches than players," Shanahan observed. "You're only as good as your last game. That's what keeps me balanced.

"It's not what you've done in the past, it's what you're doing now. If you look at it that way, then you have a chance to survive. If not, it's just a matter of time before you're gone."

For Holmgren, that time was almost the past offseason.

A surprising 27-20 playoff loss to the Rams sent Holmgren off to Phoenix to mull things over, following a 9-8 record. It was, he has said, as difficult a season as he has ever endured.

Six seasons without a playoff win to show for it. Many of the Seahawks' best players, including running back Shaun Alexander, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and left tackle Walter Jones, were unrestricted free agents. And there were communication problems with the personnel department. Holmgren had one year left on the $32 million contract he signed in 1999, but honestly wondered whether he would be back to honor it.

Dramatic changes in management left Holmgren thinking the team was heading in the right direction. Seahawks president Bob Whitsitt was fired and general manager Bob Ferguson resigned, and Mike Reinfeldt and Tim Ruskell essentially replaced them. Together, they rid the roster of players they viewed as selfish, including Anthony Simmons, Koren Robinson and Chike Okeafor. Even more important, they found a way to re-sign Alexander, Hasselbeck and Jones.

The Seahawks are built around the running of Alexander, behind Jones, left guard Steve Hutchinson and fullback Mack Strong, but don't discount the evolution of Hasselbeck. After several years of his prodding, Holmgren was rewarded with the quarterback's best season ever. Hasslebeck's passer rating of 98.2 is the league's fourth-best.

"I think my coaches did a remarkable job," Holmgren said. "If anything, I did a pretty good job of delegating this year. I think I've done my best job of that. I think I've handled the players as well this year as I've ever handled them before.

"I don't know if I've ever thought anything in this business was going to be easy -- I wouldn't admit to that. But I've always felt that if you get certain things in place, and I really believe in our system in football and how we do things -- if you get the right players and maintain some sort of continuity on your coaching staff, then you should have a chance to do some good things."

Cherishing the opportunity
The Denver Broncos put together 10-6 seasons in 2003 and 2004, but after they got scalded by the Colts in back-to-back wild-card losses, some folks wondered whether Shanahan had lost his grip on the game. After all, only two NFL head coaches, Pittsburgh's Bill Cowher and Jeff Fisher of Tennessee, had more tenure.

When Shanahan used a third-round draft choice on Maurice Clarett, the dubious running back from Ohio State, the critics had more evidence; he never made it out of training camp. When the Broncos lost their 2005 season opener, in gruesome fashion at Miami, 34-10, it seemed to be confirmed.

But a funny thing happened on the way to a seeming 6-10 disaster. Shanahan took a team with low expectations and matched Holmgren with the league's second-best record. There was a distinct pattern to the Broncos' season. That first loss was followed by five straight wins. After a 24-23 loss at the New York Giants, they responded by winning four more. The last loss, at Kansas City, set the scene for four straight wins at the end the regular season that clinched a home playoff game, one that didn't involve the Colts.

As he grows older and the grind becomes tougher, does Shanahan cherish these postseason opportunities more?

"There's no question about it," Shanahan said last week. "When you're around a team where all the faces change, that's something I've never been through before. And when you're dealing with the cap and so many different scenarios, it makes for a great challenge."

Like Holmgren, Shanahan has managed to get there with a quarterback who was not universally embraced. Even with that pair of 10-6 seasons since his arrival from Arizona, Plummer's career starting record was an unsteady 49-60. This year, Shanahan has finally convinced him to let his teammates do the heavy lifting. While Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell combined for 412 rushes for 1,935 yards and 20 touchdowns and wide receiver Rod Smith caught his typical 85 balls for 1,105 yards, Plummer had his most successful, balanced season ever. His paltry seven interceptions -- Plummer's 1.5 interception percentage (seven INTs on 456 passes) was the league's second-best -- are a tribute to Shanahan's skill as a teacher.

When the Chargers' Drew Brees and the Bengals' Carson Palmer suffered injuries, Jake Plummer found out he was going to his first Pro Bowl in nine seasons. Who would have believed it possible?

Growing up, Shanahan was a terrific athlete. But in a spring football game during his junior season of college, he suffered a split kidney and his heart stopped for 30 seconds. A priest read last rites, but Shanahan survived. He completed bachelor's and master's degrees at Eastern Illinois in physical education -- with the emphasis on education.

"These opportunities don't come along very often, so you've got to take advantage of them," Shanahan said. "I've been on both sides of it. I've won the Super Bowl as a head coach, and lost it as an assistant. The main thing I tell our guys: If you win one or two [playoff games], it doesn't matter. You've got to win all three."

Through uncommon commitment and perseverance, Holmgren and Shanahan have arrived at very nearly the same place in football history.

After 13 seasons, Shanahan's record, including playoffs, stands at 129-78 (.623).

In 14 seasons, Holmgren's record is 147-94 (.610).

"Thinking back to my first press conference," Holmgren said, "when I said my goal was to get to the Super Bowl, I think if I hadn't said that, you [media] guys would have been disappointed with me. The timetable, depending on a number of things, that changes. In Green Bay, we were able to get to the Super Bowl in five [years]. I've thought about the differences in the timetable, and one of the things was settling in with your quarterback.

"This is my 14th year as a head coach and there have been moments when I say, 'I don't get to ride my motorcycle enough or see my grandkids enough.' But I do love what I do. I think in those [tough] times, you had better, because that's what keeps you going. The coaching and teaching, that's what I started back at Sacred Heart High School in San Francisco. That'll never change. That's what's kept me going."

Above all else, Walsh has always considered himself a teacher. That's one reason he's so fond of Holmgren and Shanahan and their impact on the NFL.

"The key is that they both have excellent eyes for personnel and then the ability to develop the individual skills of the athletes themselves," Walsh said.

"They are both doing what they want. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out."

A rematch of Super Bowl XXXII isn't out of the realm of possibility.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.