Jake Plummer, who spent four moderately successful seasons quarterbacking the Denver Broncos, famously remarked to an interviewer a few years ago that his coach during that span, Mike Shanahan, would never be completely happy because he was obsessed with finding the next John Elway.
And, of course, one only gets a shot at coaching a player like that once in a lifetime.
Or so we thought right up until the moment Shanahan drafted RG3, who appears in a small sample size to be every bit the transcendent, once-in-generation talent Elway was. And it’s perhaps no coincidence that the Redskins’ won-lost record improved markedly last year over how they performed without him.
Which begs the question: Is Mike Shanahan actually a great coach, or has he just had the extraordinarily good fortune to coach two of the most gifted quarterbacks to ever play the position?
Problem is, there’s no clear-cut answer to that question and, depending on how you feel about Shanahan, you can make the numbers show pretty much whatever you want.
For his career, Shanahan has a 167-125 record — a winning percentage of .572, including an 8-6 post-season mark, which most NFL coaches would die for. The lion’s share of his career was spent with the Broncos, who he coached to a 138-86 record, a .616 winning percentage and an 8-5 playoff mark, including two Super Bowl wins.
And while Elway was at the controls for both of those titles, he retired after the 1998 season and Shanahan still managed to go 91-69 in non-Elway years, during which the Broncos were quarterbacked by the likes of Plummer, Brian Griese, Jay Cutler and Bubby Brister.
Without Elway, the Broncos were only 1-4 in the playoffs, which probably sealed Shanahan’s fate. And things didn’t look much more promising after his first two seasons in Washington, during which his Redskin teams finished 6-10 and 5-11, respectively.
All that changed last year, however, with the addition of RG3, under whose leadership the Redskins finished 10-6 and won the NFC East.
To put his entire record in context, of course, you also have to include Shanahan’s year and a quarter as head coach of the Raiders, during which his teams went 7-9 and 1-3.
Adding it all up, Shanahan has a career record of 101-102 in seasons where his quarterback wasn’t named Elway or RG3 — not exactly terrible, but also nowhere near the 19th-best coach in NFL history, an honor recently bestowed on him by ESPN.
It also makes it easier to understand his willingness to surrender a king’s ransom last season for the rights to draft RG3 in the first place. In point of fact, what other choice did he have?
None of which is to suggest winning a Super Bowl is as simple as having a Hall of Famer for your quarterback. If that were true, Sonny Jurgensen, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino and numerous others wouldn’t be sitting around wondering why Trent Dilfer has a ring and they don’t. At the same time, it gives you a renewed respect for Joe Gibbs, who won Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks — none of whom will ever be in the Hall of Fame.
Years ago, when the Redskins acquired Brad Johnson, I remember Joe Theismann telling an interviewer, "Now you’ll see how great Norv Turner’s offense is because he finally has a quarterback to operate it."
As things turned out, he was right. We found out exactly how great it was. And the answer is not very — unless you happen to have Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmett Smith, that is.
In other words, the good Lord willing and RG3’s knee cartilage holds out, it looks Mike Shanahan is about to become brilliant again.