I can still think back to the Elway Dive—his wide eyes as he spun around, heart on his sleeve, to eventually win Super Bowl XXXII. I can still remember the following year when the Broncos cruised into Super Sunday and ran over the Falcons as if it were a mere formality. I can even remember the way the 49ers made a mockery of the Chargers back in 1994, as one of the greatest offensive and defensive units ever assembled steamrolled over a pathetic AFC offering.
Here's what I can't remember in those games: the coaching. Now, that might sound weird. All of these memorable NFL performances came on the foundation of a coaching staff and, more specifically, Mike Shanahan.
But today, as I watched the 49ers make a mockery of the Washington Redskins, Shanahan's latest project, I wondered if he'd been dealt a lot of healthy hands over the years and, in fact, he isn't that great a poker player.
Now, to call him "overrated" is a tad tricky because, first, you have to establish his actual rating. He's obviously a better coach than walking corpses like Jim Caldwell; we could have established that last year.
But when Shanahan did come out of retirement, after a three-year tepid swan song in Denver, Washington rejoiced. Shanahan and Bill Cower were two "it" coaches that in-need teams couldn't wait to get their hands on. It's not like they'd just convinced Art Shell to take the headphones; it wasn't even like they'd convinced Bill Parcells.
So, bottom line, considering Shanahan's on-paper resume, he's one of the highest "rated" coaches in the league.
Yet there are a few statistics that may throw a little water on that fire.
With John Elway and Terrell Davis (we're not counting Davis's injury riddled '99 and '00 campaigns as "with"), Mike Shanahan coached the Broncos to a 47-19 record. Without one of the greatest quarterbacks and tailbacks of all time, he oversaw a 91-69 record Denver. That's the difference between a .712 and .569 winning percentage.
Now, again, .569 is actually not bad. Hank Stram had a career winning percentage of .575. It's just that it takes a lot of the shine off those previous years with Captain Comeback.
When he was offensive coordinator of the firepowered San Francisco 49ers in the mid-90's, he got to play with a guy named Jerry Rice and a guy named Steve Young. Brent Jones had been to four Pro Bowls. Ricky Watters went on to have six consecutive 1000-yard seasons after he left San Francisco. Even William Floyd, "Bar None" the fullback, made the cover of NFL Gameday for Playstation.
We don't have an experimental sample to see how he did without those super studs, but his tenure in Washington might be as close as we'll come. This is a team with little to no talent. That fact must be remembered when tempering expectations around Shanahan—and, yes, every great coach (Walsh, Belichick, Landry, Noll) had a great quarterback to play with. John Beck and Rex Grossman are not great. They're not even good.
But Shanahan hasn't even shown glimpses of the wiley coach, dredging up a few wins with lowly talent. That's what you expect out of a Hall of Fame, Tier 1 coach. Even last year, the Redskins looked poised to make an outside run at the playoffs when they were 5-5, and then they finished the year at 6-10. Veteran coaches gear their guys for that home stretch. This season, after a season under his belt, the team looks ready for another toilet bowl showing.
Mike Shanahan is certainly a good coach, but it is becoming clearer that he is not a "great" coach.
[Caleb writes for Wired and says other stuff on his Twitter.]