Sunday, January 04, 2009

Some thoughts on Mike Shanahan's demise in Denver

I never thought Pat Bowlen had the guts to do it.

That was my reaction last week when the news arrived that Mike Shanahan was out in Denver.

Bowlen, the Broncos owner, had endured so many mediocre seasons similar to the one that just concluded. After the others, Shanahan was rewarded with contract extensions that made him among the league's highest-paid coaches, if not the highest. At one point, Bowlen called Shanahan his "coach for life."

Why would this one be any different?

But after blowing a three-game division lead with three games to play, Bowlen severed ties with his coach of 14 seasons.

It was a difficult call. It was the right call.

Sometimes change just for the sake of change is a good thing.

That's the case for both Shanahan and the Broncos.

In the years following the back-to-back Super Bowls, Shanahan became a maniac about winning a third. He walked around Dove Valley every day with bug-up-his-ass irritation and created a sense of constant urgency about fulfilling that goal. That's to his credit.

Out of all the coaches I have covered, I've never seen anyone better about instilling that mindset in his players on a day-to-day basis through the grinds of a long season.

But as the years wore on and the goal remained elusive, I think the missing third ring got to him in a way that clouded his judgment and made him pay a price for his impatience. The coaching staff and roster, especially on defense, was constantly being overhauled.

Shanahan went through defensive coordinators like Kleenex:

Greg Robinson was fired at the end of the 2000 season. Ray Rhodes' defense finished sixth overall, but he was gone after one year. Larry Coyer lasted two seasons, but became the scapegoat after a late-season collapse. Jim Bates came in highly touted from Green Bay, but lasted only one season. Bob Slowik is leaving now.

And when it came to assembling the roster, above anything, Shanahan believed in potential. He became enamored with it to a point where it became detrimental.

He drafted high-risk players like Maurice Clarett and injury-prone players like Willie Middlebrooks and George Foster. He brought in big-name free agents like Courtney Brown and Dewayne Robertson believing he could resurrect their careers.

More often than not, he couldn't.

As much as it drives him insane, he couldn't win a Super Bowl without John Elway and especially without Terrell Davis.

Shanahan never seemed comfortable with the fact that those guys helped him get those rings, and I think he wanted that third in part to show everyone he could get there on his own. Because he was so uncomfortable about that, his legacy in Denver will not only be that he won two Super Bowls, but also that he didn't win the third.

And while there's been a lot of talk in the wake of his firing that he spread himself too thin between his coaching duties and making personnel decisions, I'd like to claim first dibs on this line of thinking.

In fact, it was me who was calling for changes just like this one many years ago. I'm pasting in two columns I wrote on that subject over the years, both of which now seem prescient.


This one ran on April 23, 2004, and dealt primarily with Shanahan's lust for gambling on draft day:

ENGLEWOOD - Predicting the outcome of the NFL Draft is an annual headache, a complex journey through a maze of arcane statistics and an exercise destined to end in failure.

Predicting the draft of the Denver Broncos is a little simpler.

Scan the college prospects. Look for players who have minimal experience playing football, guys who have outlandish injuries or the hardest of the hard-luck stories out there. Find those players, and you've found future Broncos.

Mike Shanahan apparently borrows his draft philosophy from Lady Liberty. Instead of taking the hungry, tired and poor, the coach chooses from the injured, overlooked and unstable.

While watching endless hours of coverage devoted to the NFL Draft this weekend, expect Denver to pick a project. The rest of the league may use tangible results, statistics and scouting as criteria for their selections.

Shanahan has one. Potential.

It has been the tenet governing Denver's drafting in recent years. Last year, team officials tabbed George Foster with the 20th overall pick.

They could have avoided a player who dislocated a wrist in an auto accident and only started once his senior season. At the least, the Broncos could have traded down and grabbed Foster eight picks lower. But Shanahan held firm. He wanted the project.

"I really believe he would have been one of the top five picks," he said afterward.

Foster played in one game last season - he earned scrub duty in the regular-season finale against the Green Bay Packers.

Drafting damaged goods has been Shanahan's favorite hobby in recent years. He selected Willie Middlebrooks in the first round of the 2001 draft, despite concerns over a badly broken left fibula.

Middlebrooks hobbled through two injury-plagued seasons. Last year, he saw sparing action as a defensive reserve. As unproductive has he became, he looks like a steal compared to Denver's second-round pick that same year.

Paul Toviessi never even reached the football field.

Denver moved ahead seven spots in the second round to draft the Marshall defensive end knowing full well he had a damaged right knee that would keep him out for the season. As it turned out, the injury kept him out forever. Toviessi retired prior to the 2002 season.

Injured players are not the only ones who prove too tempting to pass.

In 2000, Denver picked Deltha O'Neal with the 15th overall selection. Although listed as a cornerback, the Broncos coveted O'Neal's potential as a kick and punt returner.

He never developed into the special-teams star officials envisioned, and the Broncos gave up on him weeks ago, dumping the disgruntled veteran in a trade with the Bengals.

Recent drafts are littered with examples of players drafted on potential alone, while mitigating factors were ignored.

At 5-foot-5, Quentin Griffin is a shrub playing among Sequoias. Tailback Ahmaad Galloway arrived with two broken legs. (To be fair, at least the Broncos had good sense to wait until the seventh round to draft him). Nick Eason brought baggage of a different kind - personal problems that caused him to flee training camp without notifying a soul last year.

What's wrong with a normal, healthy player who has excelled at his position for a couple of years in college?

Logic dictates that the Broncos will draft a defensive tackle, wide receiver or running back with their first-round choice tomorrow. History says it will be a player with a physical defect or some other blemish on his resume.

There is nothing inherently wrong with drafting based on potential. Surely, reporters would go bonkers if Shanahan walked out of his draft room and announced he drafted a player he believed had no potential.

But potential cannot exist in a vacuum. It must be complemented by other attributes, like a proven track record, gaudy statistics or physical intangibles.

Until the Broncos work some of those qualifications into their draft formula, potential will continue to be Shanahan's siren song.


And here's a better one dealing with Shanahan's failure to win a playoff game in the six years following the Elway Era, where I declared his free pass over. It originally ran Jan. 12, 2005.

Later this offseason, the Denver Broncos must decide whether to pay quarterback Jake Plummer a $6 million roster bonus that would extend his tenure. Logic would suggest it would be a major question, considering his inconsistent play this season.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, however, suggested Monday only a ‘moron’ would doubt the wisdom in extending Plummer’s contract.

Call me stupid.

The infatuation with Plummer is understandable. He provides the team’s offense with the flash and moxie it lacked under predecessor Brian Griese. Yet Plummer offers weekly apologies for his poor decisions at crucial moments in the game.

None of this should come as a surprise. It was his m.o. with the Arizona Cardinals for six seasons before he arrived in Denver. For two years, he has delivered the Broncos a dose of exactly what everybody expected. So can you blame him for the team’s woes?

Not if you listen to his former teammate, Hall of Fame-bound tight end Shannon Sharpe.

“I don’t even fault Jake,” Sharpe said in December. “I fault Mike, because he puts the ball in his hands. … If you’re on a boat and you know this guy is punching holes in your boat and you still allow him to have a hammer and a nail to keep doing it, I don’t feel bad for you.”

And that’s what it’s about.

Six full seasons have passed since Shanahan sniffed a postseason victory, and it’s time to stop genuflecting in front of the coach just because he wears two Super Bowl rings.

Questions regarding his choice of quarterback are worthy topics of debate, and deserve consideration instead than smug replies. Shanahan has received and deserves credit for the triumphs of yesteryear.

Now, the Teflon is wearing off his sterling reputation. People wonder if John Elway and Terrell Davis brought the Broncos to those two championships and not Mastermind mystique. It’s a fair question. Shanahan has accomplished little without those stars.

Look at the track record since those Super Bowls.

Shanahan hand-picked Griese and Plummer as Elway’s replacements and lavished them with fat contracts. They should be the poster children for his alleged offensive genius. But neither brought the Broncos anywhere near a playoff win.

Draft-day errors left the franchise with albatrosses like Deltha O’Neal, Willie Middlebrooks, Paul Toviessi, Dorsett Davis and Quentin Griffin. In fairness, Shanahan succeeded with selections like Clinton Portis, D.J Williams and Tatum Bell over the last two years.

His record on personnel decisions is checkered, at best.

Add free-agent busts like Dale Carter, Lester Archambeau, Kavika Pittman, Leon Lett, Eddie Kennison and Daryl Gardener into his record and one must wonder why owner Pat Bowlen lets his coach waste so much money.

On the field, Shanahan’s teams have recently fizzled after strong starts. In 2002, the Broncos started with a 6-2 record and missed the playoffs. The last two seasons, they have opened with 5-1 records before midseason collapses ruined a chance at a high playoff seed.

During the season that concluded with Sunday’s humiliating 49-24 playoff defeat, Denver defeated only two teams that finished with a .500 record or better – one of those came against an Indianapolis Colts team resting its starters.

The Broncos, who constantly touted themselves as one of the elite teams in the league, suffered home losses against the Atlanta Falcons and woeful Oakland Raiders.

How does Shanahan explain all the turmoil? Every year, he trots out a different excuse.

Terrell Davis’ knee injury ruined the 1999 campaign. Gus Frerotte played an awful AFC Wild Card Game against the Baltimore Ravens in 2000. Ed McCaffrey’s grotesque broken leg struck a definitive blow into the hopes of the ’01 season.

Brian Griese took the blame for the problems in 2002. Last year, Denver’s defensive backs bore responsibility for a playoff collapse against those pesky Colts. And now?

“Well, we got beat by a good football team at Indy,” Shanahan said Monday. “Playing in that environment is not the ideal situation.”

That’s the best excuse he could muster. The Indianapolis Colts are a good team. And the Denver Broncos are not.

The free pass is over.

After six years of mediocrity, Shanahan must be held accountable. Only Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren has lasted as long with the same employer as Shanahan without delivering a playoff victory, and Holmgren is under considerably more scrutiny.

There is plenty for Shanahan to be proud of during his 10 seasons in Denver. He’s captured two Super Bowl titles with the help of Elway and Davis. His team’s offenses rank consistently among the best in the league and his running game is admired around the league.

It would be difficult for the Broncos to find another coach as accomplished as Shanahan. Yet they need a jolt to shake them out of a six-year rut. Sometimes change, only for the sake of change, can be a good thing.

Pathetic playoff losses call for desperate measures.

Bowlen may deride those who suggest a coaching change and Shanahan may label those who disagree with his quarterback choice as morons.

But it doesn’t take a genius to deduce the Broncos have been worthless for six consecutive seasons, and they appear content to enter next year with the same protagonists in place.



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