As an 18-year old Bronco fan with very few memories before the Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls, I now find myself in a very awkward position. Next fall, for the first time in 14 seasons, the Denver will take the field without Mike Shanahan calling the shots on the sidelines. Yes, that’s right: Owner Pat Bowlen finally canned his coach and good friend of the last 21 years, and in doing so, he ended the most successful era in Broncos history.
From the moment this occurred, it was obvious that no one, from the fans to the players to Shanahan himself, expected this to happen. Bowlen had stated many times that Shanny could coach his team as long as he wanted, but after three years without a playoff berth and performances that often verged on mediocrity, it seemed enough was enough. The Broncos fired the “Mastermind” just two days after they pathetically squandered a three-game division lead to the San Diego Chargers.
With this changing of the guard, Shanahan leaves behind a successful legacy and a bag of mixed feelings. While critics will argue that this is a divorce that was long overdue, and that the Broncos were going nowhere fast under Shanahan, others will counter with the fact that he was finally digging himself out of the hole that he had put himself in. Ryan Clady, Eddie Royal, and Peyton Hillis (all players from the 2008 draft class) will be in Denver for years to come, but the man who brought them here is gone.
While I do believe it was time for a change, I also think it would be tragic for any Broncos fan to forget Shanahan’s contributions. Would John Elway ever have won that elusive Super Bowl without Shannahan's guidance? Does Terrell Davis ever get discovered if Shannahan doesn’t draft him in the sixth round? Do players such as Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and Mark Schlereth rise from being throwaway players to all-pros if Shanahan doesn’t give them another chance? The list goes on and on, further cementing the fact that there may not have been anyone who has meant more to the Denver Broncos organization than Mike Shanahan.
All of this leads to a question that Pat Bowlen has not had to face for nearly two decades: Where does this franchise go from here? While veteran coaches such as Bill Cowher and Jim Fassel could likely be coaxed to take on the head job in Denver, Bowlen seems to be leaning towards hiring a younger coordinator to help light a fire under his once-proud franchise. The list of candidates include New York’s Steve Spagnuolo, Tampa Bay’s Raheem Morris, New England’s Josh McDaniels, and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops.
The best way to go would probably be to hire a defensive-minded coach such as Spagnuolo or Morris, making it more likely that current offensive coaches Jeremy Bates and Rick Dennison would be retained. Young players such as Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall have a strong working relationship with Bates, and his removal from Denver could cause a setback in their development now that Shanahan is gone.
Whichever way Bowlen decides to go with his new direction, whoever he picks to start a new era in Denver will have very high expectations. Shanahan set the bar with his Super Bowl victories and from here on out, anything less than that will spell doom for all future Broncos’ coaches. Bowlen’s friendship with Shanahan probably bought him a few extra years, but the new head coach will definitely not have that luxury.