Hello Redskins fans. I am a Denver Broncos fan. I am posting here because I wanted to share my thoughts about what kind of coach I think that you are getting with Mike Shanahan.
I am a fan of Shanahan both as a coach and as a guy. While I don't think that Bowlen's decision to make a change was a bad move, we in Denver are still in the process of figuring out how that will turn out. I don't think that his being fired from the Broncos job means that Shanahan will not be successful again as a coach.
First I will look at what went into his success; and then, what went into his post-super-bowl mediocrity.
During Shanahan's tenure, the Broncos offense was nearly always in the top five, and was one of the two best rushing offenses in the league over that 15-year period. The reason for his success were Shanahan's abilities as an offensive mind, consistency over time, and the organization's ability to draft and develop offensive talent.
During Shanahan's time in Denver tenure, spanning three (if I remember correctly) offensive coordinators, they ran the same offensive system. Denver had relatively little turnover of offensive assistant coaches. Many observers who have covered and watched the team attribute their success and coaching the running game to the Alex Gibbs-Rick Dennison continuum coaching the offensive line and to Bobby Turner who coached running backs for Shanahan's entire tenure. It has been reported that Turner had a hand in uncovering some of the late-round draft picks who did well in the zone block/one cut scheme.
When offensive coaches left or were replaced, the new coaches ran the same system. The Broncos were fortunate that when Alex Gibbs phased into one of his several partial retirements, he stayed around for an extra year to mentor Rick Dennison to take his place.
Denver ran the Gibbs zone block/one cut system for Shanahan's entire career there. Once players learned the system and became comfortable with it, they did not have to learn a new system. It was reported the blocking rules were so complex that most offensive linemen took a year or two to really grasp them.
An article ran in the Denver paper about how other teams had tried to master some plays that had worked well for Denver. I believe that it was Minnesota who tried to put in one of the plays but could not get it to work for an entire year. The second year they tried again and eventually got it to work. This steep learning curve turned into an advantage for the Broncos because they were able to execute plays that might have taken other teams a year to learn.
The system worked best with lighter, more agile offensive linemen and a backs who could run within the discipline of the one cut system. The Broncos had great success in drafting and signing linemen who were considered too small for other teams, and backs who were not top prospects coming out of college or signing backs who were cut by other teams. Terrell Davis was the most notable, but a string of unknown backs rushed for impressive numbers year after year.
The consistency in coaching, drafting, signing, and developing players was a cornerstone to their success. They also did very well drafting and developing receivers and tight ends. Rod Smith - the leading free-agent receiver in NFL history is the best example. Shannon Sharpe was merely the greatest of a series of all-pro pass-catching tight ends, including Byron Chamberlain, Desmond Clark, Tony Sheffler, and others whose names I can't recall.
Shanahan as an offensive coach had a tremendous ability to create mismatches, putting his best players against the other team's worst. Seemingly there were always receivers open. I remember listening to a broadcast of a Denver-Oakland game on the Oakland radio network. The color guy at one point said in frustration, "won't someone please cover Ed McCaffrey!?"
He was a great big game coach. His game plans for the two super bowls were masterful, especially the first one against Green Bay. The Broncos were huge underdogs (around two touchdowns if I recall correctly). They singled out LeRoy Butler as the player who needed to be taken out of the game. On every play, a guard, the center, fullback or a receiver was assigned to find him and block him. Butler, the Packer's best defensive player made perhaps one play in that game. Shanahan must also be given credit for realizing that no one had really tried to run against Green Bay that seasons and that their defensive line could be worn down by Denver's running game. The overweight and out-of-shape Packers' line allowed Terrell Davis to score the clinching touchdown, knowing that they could not stop him.
One of the marks of Shanahan's Denver teams was to start out strong and finish weak. Some observers believed that reloading his playbook during the off-season gave Shanahan a six to eight game lead over the rest of the league. It would take defensive coordinators until the middle of the season to figure out how to stop what he was doing. This is either a testimony to Shanahan's ability to coach more with less personnel or an indictment of his abilities as a general manager.
On defense, things were nearly the opposite. After a six-year run with Greg Robinson that spanned two super bowl wins, the defense collapsed and Shanahan began his revolving door of defensive coordinators. Every year or two, he brought in a new coordinator. Some did not work out for coaching reasons, others for personality reasons. Most of these coordinators were successful before coaching in Denver, and some, such as Ray Rhodes and Larry Coyer have gone on to success with other teams. None of them had much success in Denver.
With each turnover of coordinators came a new defensive system, which required a different type of player to make it work. Shanahan reshuffled the roster, including in some cases signing players off their living room couch weeks before the season started. Realistically it takes two or three years of drafting a signing to put together an NFL roster to fit a system. Trying to do it it one year, the Broncos cut or traded quality players who didn't fit for bad players of the right type. Each turnover degraded the talent on their roster even further.
Shanahan's last year in Denver marked one of the worst performances by an NFL in history. The defense ranked last or nearly last in every significant defensive statistical category and at one point was on a pace to surrender the most points by an NFL defense in history.
As a measure of the deterioration of their defensive talent over the final years of the Shanahan era, Josh McDaniels cut nine defensive starters from Shanahan's roster - only two of whom were in the league (in a backup role) during the last season.
One of the main problems with Shanahan's approach to personnel was that he was never willing to rebuild. He stated that he should be able to put a team on the field every year that was competitive to win a super bowl. He approached team building as if he were just "one player away" from a super bowl roster. He would try to sign the one player that could put them over the top by paying big bucks to a free agent. Most of these high-priced free agents did not work out. Some such as Darryl Gardner were washed up, over the hill, while others (Dale Carter) did not fit whatever system Denver was running at the time. With large chunks of salary cap tied up in unproductive free agents, Denver was unable or unwilling to sign productive players that they had developed who moved on to other teams (Bertrand Berry, Monsanto Pope)
The period from 2000 to 2005 was marred by generally poor drafting on both sides of the ball. At one point the team had only two starters who had been drafted during that period. The draft problems -- whatever they were -- seem to have been somewhat fixed with excellent drafts in 2006 and 2008 sandwiching a marginal draft in 2007.
So how can Shanahan's record as the Broncos coach be summed up? Shanahan is clearly the best coach the Broncos have had in their history. He brought us two super bowls, for which Broncos fans will always be greatful. When he had the talent, his offenses could dominate. His defenses never dominated, but with some defensive talent and the right defensive coaching staff, the defenses were good enough.
His problems and failures originated mostly in his deficiencies as a general manager. He drafted poorly and made bad decisions about which free agents to sign and which Broncos to let go.
I always have liked Shanahan very much as a guy. He has an appealing frankness in front of the press. It was reported many times in various newspapers, by many reporters quoting many sources that he was a very straight up guy, did not play mind games, and treated men like men. He stood up for his players when they got in trouble.
In my view the best situation for Mike Shanahan is one with a strong front office that can do a good job with player evaluation, scouting, drafting, signing players, and salary cap management. Whether it was too much for one person to do or Shanahan is simply not so good at those things, he did not succeed in both roles equally well.
I think that Shanahan is a reflective person who has spent his year away from the game reviewing what he did and did not do, and reviewing what the rest of the league has been doing. I expect him not to make the same mistakes that he made in his later years in Denver. I expect him to do well. And I remain a Shana-fan.