What a difference 10 years make...
It was just 10 years ago that Mike Shanahan seemingly cemented a "Coach for Life" status with the Broncos by winning a second Super Bowl title. In his fourth year as head coach, he racked up a stunning 47-17 win/loss record.
His offensive genius had earned him the nickname of "Mastermind." Denver fans knew that they had their greatest coach ever, and it was time to sit back and enjoy the ride.
Ten years, four playoff appearances, and only one playoff win later, and the "Coach for Life" has been beheaded in Denver.
Those of us who follow the NFL closely know that regardless of the lackluster playoff performance in the post-Elway era, Mike Shanahan still had the skills to produce competitive and playoff-worthy teams. This is why the announcement of Shanahan's firing on Tuesday produced such shock around the NFL and among fans.
He was, and will be, a great coach. He is likely destined for the Hall of Fame. So the obvious question is: Why did Pat Bowlen fire Mike Shanahan? Wasn't this the same owner who once proclaimed that Shanahan could "be coach of this franchise for as long as he wants to coach?"
The answer is not obvious. During the Broncos' press conference on Wednesday, Pat Bowlen found himself trying to provide this answer. "It's difficult to explain to anyone in this room. That was my instinct." So his gut told him it was the right decision.
While this may seem strange to those who don't closely follow Denver, to many Broncos fans (myself included), it's actually right on the money.
Right or wrong, Broncos fans have expected a Super-Bowl-caliber team since Shanahan set foot in the door. Even after Elway left, Denver fans expected that at some point, Shanahan could again put the components together for another championship. But teams that are truly Super Bowl contenders do not get beaten by 20 or more points.
This happened four times in 2008. Sadly, The Raiders were one of the teams to put up such a beating.
It happened three times in 2007, including an embarrassing 44-7 drubbing by the Detroit Lions. The Broncos have a 24-24 record in the last three seasons. Super Bowl contenders must rise well above the 0.500 mark.
While Denver's offense appeared to have made great progress this season, the defense simply became worse. Numerous missed tackles, missed assignments, long scoring plays for touchdowns and a minus 17 turnover margin made for possibly the worst defense in Broncos history. Super Bowl contenders must have an exciting defense that can generate turnovers.
Most realistic fans realize that Denver is far from a Super Bowl contender. Watching a Broncos game over the last three seasons has just not offered the same excitement that it did 10 years ago.
I can't count the number of times that Denver has blown a lead, or simply been blown out, and my only thought has been, "Well that doesn't surprise me." I, and many other Broncos fans, had begun to grudgingly accept mediocrity. The air became stale in Denver.
I believe this is much the same "instinct" that Pat Bowlen was trying to describe. Call it heartburn, indigestion, nausea...Whatever it was, swigging a bottle of Pepto was not going to cure it. Something bigger was needed. A spark...Something that would take things in a completely new direction...A new path to glory.
Mike Shanahan is a great coach, and Denver fans owe him an endless debt of gratitude. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. During his long tenure in Denver, Shanahan was given great latitude and huge resources to whip up another Super Bowl contender.
Bowlen's gut, and the guts of many in the Broncos Nation, have realized for some time now that this Super Bowl dream remains a thing of the past. It's time to move on, to find someone with a new kind of passion, new ideas and a new spark.
Time to light a fire under the Broncos. Time for Mike to light a fire under a new team, and excite a new fan base. Good luck to both.