SAN DIEGO – The word spread around the sidelines of Qualcomm Stadium before the Holiday Bowl like wild fire. Mike Shanahan had been fired as the Denver Broncos coach. Less than 48 hours earlier Shanahan was standing on this field, one win away from claiming the AFC West title and a home playoff game this weekend. Ten years ago he was standing in this end zone holding up his first of back-to-back Vince Lombardi trophies as the Broncos’ head coach.
That seems like a distant memory now as one of the most innovative offensive minds in football was let go in today’s "what have you done for lately" NFL.
I can’t say that I blame the Broncos. Shanahan set the bar awfully high for himself during his first four years in Denver while he had John Elway running his offense. During that time he posted a 54-18 record with two Super Bowl wins. Since Elway retired, the Broncos have gone 92-73 with only one division title in 10 years.
While Shanahan may have lost control of the Broncos at the end of this season, losing four straight to finish the year and becoming the first team since 1967 to blow a three-game division lead with three games left, he should find a job quickly. If Eric Mangini can get an interview a day after getting fired by the Jets, Shanahan should already be getting calls from around the league.
Shanahan has always struck me as having a Phil Jackson quality about him. He may not be the greatest coach ever, but no one gets more out of his star players than he does. Give Shanahan an all-star cast and he’ll match them up with a good script that can win an Oscar. It may seem easy to win with a bunch of all-stars but ask Wade Phillips and Joe Girardi how that worked for them this year.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an offense more potent than the one Shannahan directed while he was the offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers from 1992-94. Again, you can say anyone can coach Steve Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor and company, but they didn’t make the playoffs the year before he got there and haven’t been back to the Super Bowl since he left following Young’s record six-touchdown performance in Super Bowl XXIX.
When he got to the Broncos, they may have had Elway, but they were coming off a 7-9 season and had never won a Super Bowl, losing three times on Super Sunday. Within four years the Broncos had won two Super Bowls with a record 46-10 over three years after his first season. Even without Elway, Terrell Davis and many of the players that helped turnaround the team’s fortunes when he first arrived, the Broncos went 13-3 three years ago and were one home win away from playing in Super Bowl XL, where they would have likely been favored to beat the Seattle Seahawks, their former divisional rival.
The Broncos, however, haven’t been to the playoffs since 2005 and that, combined with a team without the talent Shanahan is used to, ultimately did him in. If I’m Jerry Jones, however, I’m salivating over what Shanahan could do with a Dallas Cowboys roster filled 17 players who have made the Pro Bowl over the past three years and an offense with a potential game-breaker at every skill position.
After all, the last time Shanahan replaced Wade Phillips as a team’s head coach they went on to win a couple Super Bowls.