In a move that surprised many, the Broncos fired their coach of 14 seasons Mike Shanahan, yesterday.
Shanahan is the last link to the Broncos' glory years, which included their back-to-back Super Bowl titles during the 1997 and 1998 seasons. Tom Nalen, still technically with the team, is injured and did not play.
Ironically, the Denver icon was dismissed under the same scenario under which he was hired, with the Broncos having gone the previous three seasons with a combined .500 record and no playoff victories.
The 1980-83 teams were the last Broncos squad to go four straight seasons without a playoff berth, and apparently owner Pat Bowlen is determined to not let that be matched in 2009.
Shanahan leaves a legacy of transforming Denver from good-but-not-great franchise that had been bullied around in Super Bowls galore, to one respected around the league. Before the Patriots recent dynasty, it was the Broncos who held the mantle as best team in the NFL over a three-year period, going 39-9 with two titles from 1996-98.
The steely-eyed Shanahan, known for his intensity, was never able to get as much out of his team after that, though. His post-Elway teams made the playoffs only four times in the subsequent 10 seasons, losing first-round matchups three times in blowouts.
Detractors credit his success to having Elway, and his deficiencies exposed once subpar quarterbacks became the soup du jour in the Mile High city. Brian Griese and Jake Plummer, to name a couple, never lived up to their billing or even remotely reminded Denver fans of No. 7.
One thing Shanahan's teams were always able to do, was run the ball. Bolstered by a top-notch offensive line, a series of backs gave the Broncos one of the best running attacks perennially: Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, and Tatum Bell among them.
In the end, Shanahan's gifted offenses, even with deficiencies at QB, could not compensate for poor defensive teams.
In the late '80s and early '90s, the Denver teams were epitomized by a stingy defense, and an offense that was "John Elway and the 10 Dwarves." Somehow, the teams of the past few years, were nearly the opposite in makeup. No longer a defensive power, it's a source of mockery and the Broncos are now known solely for their offense.
In the end, whatever the chemistry was, whatever the forte' of the team was, it was the overall lack of success, and coming up short in recent big games, that eventually led to Shanahan's demise.
Two years ago, needing only a home win against a poor San Francisco team, the Broncos squandered a 10-point halftime lead and lost in overtime. After Sunday's season-ending blowout in San Diego ended Denver's playoff hopes and capped an historical three-game slide, it became clear to Bowlen that the time had come to part ways with the popular Shanahan.
While it is still a bit of a shock to me that he is gone, if there was a time to make a move, now is the time. With Denver teetering on the tightrope of mediocrity, ownership needs to make a commitment to do whatever it takes to build a defense that can take the pressure-cooker off Jay Cutler's shoulders.
Still maturing, Cutler performed admirably, but had way too much responsibility in being forced to constantly score in order to stay ahead or keep pace. Often mistakes were made, because he thought he had to do it all. Many times he DID do it all. But one young-but-talented QB can't carry a team with this many holes long-term.
I am sad about it being the end of an era. I smiled finding the above Shanahan-Elway picture in the old uni's. There were some very proud years. Those years are gone, and while they live on in memory, clearly new memories need to be created. The recent ones leave a bad taste in most Broncos fans palettes.
So, who's next? Time will tell. I am hoping Bill Cowher's rejection of the Jets' offer to meet means less about not being interested in coaching next year, and more about wanting to be in an exciting city that's all about football. He would bring the fire, and smash-mouth attitude, this team needs. There WOULD be defense, a really good one, in time.
Should be very interesting to see how this all develops.
In the meantime, thanks Mike, for all the memories, and for delivering the Broncos out of Simpsons' jokery. Despite any recent embarrassments, there's two Super Bowl titles in the books that can never be taken away, and they will resonate in all Denver fans' minds for a long, long time. We will always be thankful for your contributions.