Mike Shanahan's Fall and What it Means for the Denver Broncos

Jack WalkerContributor IMarch 12, 2009

Every day of his life is scripted, his days mapped out in thick three-ring binders. He and his staff work 100-hour weeks during the season, 30 hours of which he spends putting into writing how he ought to act in every conceivable situation. "What are we going to do on fourth and one from the 33-yard line?"...The best seller Don't Sweat the Small Stuff is not for him, because the champion, in his view, always sweats the small stuff. "Sweat it morning, noon, and night," he preaches.


The New York Review of Books 24 February, 2000.


Much water is under the bridge since Mike Shanahan left the Denver Broncos at the beginning of this year. In many ways, he is already old news, and the verdict on him (Future Hall of Famer who ran out of gas in the Mile High City, but will be back successfully somewhere else) seems to be settled.

I think I agree with this consensus. But, now the dust has settled somewhat, I find I’ve got a lot to say about Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos, who, three months after Shanahan’s dismissal, find themselves approaching a crisis.

As a hardcore fan, I guess I ask first: How did we get here? And then: Where are we going? This is an attempt to answer these questions.

I’ll start with Shanahan. To me he was a unique football coach who ran the Broncos in an extraordinary fashion. But when all is said and done, I don’t necessarily mean this as an unconditional compliment.

The Broncos under Shanahan always matched up well against a certain type of opposition. There was nothing the “Mastermind” liked more than to come up against a conservative, attritional team which relied on defense and a strong running game to win. Indeed he always looked and sounded confident before matchups of this type.

It was apparent he had absolute faith in his astonishing ability to script offensive plays and to put a certain amount of points on any defense. He also knew he only had to take away one aspect of a team's offense, so he would put all his eggs in one basket and do just that, and make the team beat him with whatever it was they did least well offensively.

Conversely, the best way to win against the Broncos was actually to beat Shanahan at his own game. If Denver brought a mighty offence, the Colts always brought an even mightier one. And, time and time again, Peyton Manning and Co. owned Denver.

Equally in the last really big game Denver ever played under Shanahan (the 2005 AFC Championship), the Steelers beat them because Shanahan underestimated what Ben Roethlisberger could do at quarterback. The whole Broncos' defensive game plan centered around limiting Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, so Bill Cowher let Big Ben off the leash and he killed Denver through the air.

And there was bitter irony in that seminal day for Bronco lovers. Seven years before, Dan Reeves had decided he must stop Terrell Davis and make Elway beat him in Superbowl XXXIII. The box was stacked, safeties bit like Rottweilers, and Elway torched the Falcons for 300 yards plus and the MVP award.

Shanahan was in his pomp then. NFL films famously captured him taking one look at some aerial photos of the Falcons defense and literally taking Elway step by step through how he was going to hit Rod Smith for an 80-yard touchdown. The play worked out exactly as Shanahan described it.

But now consider again what happened when Denver last had a chance to go to the Super Bowl in 2005. Shanahan found himself on the wrong end of exactly the same type of “call my bluff” thinking that he had used himself against Reeves in Super Bowl XXXIII.

Ben Roethlisberger duly became the new John Elway that day—ironic indeed. And that AFC Championship game was the beginning of the end of the Shanahan Era in Denver, even if his final meaningful contribution to the franchise was to draft and develop a player who is now the most gifted young quarterback in the league.

All of the above is relevant because the 2008 Broncos were literally the strangest team in the NFL. They also became an epitomising microcosm of the Shanahan way on the path to decline and, ultimately, failure. The same team that could travel to New York to play the Jets and win with ease was also suddenly capable of losing at home to Oakland and Buffalo.

Again it all comes back to one thing—matchups.

It is not absurd to say that, if the Broncos had scraped into the playoffs last year and ended up facing  the Dolphins, Ravens, and Steelers, they could have actually made the Super Bowl. No one would suggest that the Bronocs were actually a better team than any of these outfits, but because they were precisely the sort of team that Shanahan could have success scripting against, a surprise result was always a genuine possibility.

But let's say (again) that they had made the playoffs and had needed to go up against a team with a high-powered offense and a reasonable defense (New England, Indianapolis, San Diego). Not only would they have lost, they would have been destroyed.

In other words a culture that for so long had given the Broncos a real chance of winning suddenly felt weirdly prohibitive and depressing. On certain days, against certain teams, it consigned them to defeat before the first snap

Shanahan certainly had his glory days (the offensive gameplan that led to the mugging of the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII should be enshrined in Canton) and even towards the end of his coaching career in Denver, his team could still Houdini it’s way past better teams.

Take, for example, the Broncos' performance against the Jets midseason. Shanahan knew that Eric Mangini would want to stop Cutler getting the ball to his wideouts, and, sure enough, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal were double covered throughout. Mangini was obviously trying to force Denver into running the ball knowing that they had problems at the position.

But Shanahan completely out-thought him from the start, saw Mangini’s plan coming a mile away, and developed the Broncos' offensive tactics not around throwing to the wide receivers or running the ball at the edge, but around tight ends and his slot receiver running intermediate routs in the middle of the field.

Sure enough, Broncos tight ends made big plays down the field and at the end of the game Brandon Stoakley (the slot receiver) caught the easiest of 36-yard touchdowns.

The Jets where unquestionably a better team at that point—they had just whaled on the Titans in Tennessee. But Shanahan totally out-coached Mangini on the night and gave a classic example of what makes football such an amazing game—a form of gladiatorial chess if you like—where a great coach is literally like having an extra superstar player.

But, ultimately, the obsession with perfect scripting and the totally structured style he advocated and perpetuated became so entrenched you could often predict how the scoring in a Broncos game would go.

Shanahan would pull a few rabbits out of his hat early, before the opposition team adjusted defensively and their offense found a rhythm. By the third quarter Shanahan would be relentlessly studying his game-plan, the laminated sheets flapping in a Rocky Mountain Wind that seemed to suggest lost control. And once Denver lost control of games, they didn’t tend to get it back

And worse, there was no Plan B. If Denver didn’t jump out early, if their best laid plans were undone by turnovers or penalties or anything else, then they became cannon fodder for almost anyone. They were like a temperamental photocopier. Efficient and productive until that first piece of paper got stuck, at which point the whole system jammed up indefinitely.

And the mechanical nature of the team began to permeate the locker room. The Broncos were never the Dallas Cowboys, there were no ostentatious rifts or tantrums, but there was a listlessness to the dressing room you felt. It wasn’t that Shanahan had lost the support of the players, but you felt that in the decade plus he had been in Denver, he had seen so many players come and go he wasn’t engaging with them in quite the same way he once did.

Shanahan himself would probably dismiss this point as speculative conjecture, but he knew better than anyone that the difference between winning and losing in the NFL was often a matter of tiny percentages. He once said in an interview (with the New York Review of Books of all people):

"Make the small stuff that others might neglect a regular part of your plan. Return your telephone calls promptly. Fill out expense forms neatly. Send out thank-you notes for little favours. Do all the paperwork that is necessary. Who knows? What if the difference between success and failure lies in the small stuff?.”

Maybe with the coolness of hindsight, whilst maintaining a healthy contempt for speculative amateur journalists like me, he might come to accept that he lost that one percent edge towards the end. Or, more accurately, that the attention to detail became misdirected and meant that even though telephone calls continued to be returned promptly and the offensive scheming for any given game was A1 perfect—the Denver defense (for instance) was allowed to quietly become the worst in the league.

The walk maybe long, but the path out of the woods for the Broncos is at least a clear one. They must become difficult to beat period. The Shanahan way, the days of ambushing the right sort of opposition early with an ingenious offensive gameplan and then trying to hold on with a patchwork defence, are gone.

But, like anyone who truly bleeds orange and blue, I sure will miss the eagle eyed stare of one of the pioneers of the game coaching my beloved football team. And, what’s more, I’ll fear him in a Cowboys hat.

To change tack, Pat Bowlen’s thinking on the McDaniels hiring is really interesting. When you examine it closely, it is the thinking of a career businessman. The obvious choice would have been a defensive specialist—the thinking being that the Broncos are poor defensively, so get an expert to fix it.

Instead Bowen has followed a business model approach that dictates you try and perfect what you already do well before you fix what you do not. Bowlen’s taken a look at his offense, the recent astonishing gulf between superficial productivity and actual points on the board and thought how can we turn all this talent into red zone efficiency?

Bowlen’s answer is the new coach. Josh McDaniels has been brought in to refine and sharpen tools that were making lots of holes, but not quite hanging the painting. To repeat, it is an interesting and original way of looking at things.

If the Broncos owner had gone for Rex Ryan, Bart Scott maybe a Bronco right now. Spagnulo? Maybe Chris Canty comes to Denver and a defensive disciple or two from the Giants. But McDaniels looks like a real “X’s and O’s” type of guy. He also looks like the type of guy a team will want to play for.

Which makes the Jay Cutler situation all the more heartbreaking. There doesn’t seem to be much point in rehashing the details of the whole trade fiasco but you get the sense that at some point there has been a communication breakdown and that Cutler’s inappropriate and unprofessional outburst has prompted McDaniels to stop reading the script.

Where everyday fans see a really promising young offense and an awful defense and special teams unit, McDaniels is beginning to see a rotten team period. You get the sense that where Shanahan tolerated egos and misfits (to an extent) provided that they fitted into the system and were good enough on the field to make plays, McDaniels is not prepared to tolerate attitude in any shape or form.

Moreover the new coach clearly has a vision. He believes in his systems, and he obviously believes in his ability to get the best out of a system quarterback.

This is a really interesting point. Forget Matt Cassell for a second and think Tom Brady. No one can deny that Brady is a great quarterback who is headed to the Hall of Fame. However his raw tools have never been anything off the charts. Decent (not great) arm, pocket passer, limited mobility, excellent decision maker with good timing.

McDaniels had enormous success with him. But then McDaniels also had enormous success with another guy with a pretty average initial scouting report. Yes, Matt Cassell.

What does this tell you? Well for one it tells you that McDaniels clearly believes that if the offensive system is right, it doesn’t need a prototype quarterback to be successful. And it sure doesn’t need a prototype quarterback with a difficult personality.

So the message is clear. McDaniels hasn’t come to Denver to do what everyone thought he would: fix the defense and fine tune the offense. He’s come to Denver to overhaul the entire culture of the team. And not even the most physically gifted quarterback in the NFL is going to get in his way.

For his own part, Cutler is a funny one. He is certainly no misfit, and you get the sense his work ethic and drive to succeed are impeccable. In other words, he is no Jeff George, as some in the press have implied, having (of course) twisted a quote from Jake Plummer into meaning something it didn’t.

Cutler is hugely competitive, impatient, and hasn’t yet grasped that the better you are, the nicer you have to become—because a team and a town will hang on your every word.

It must be said that he comes across as the ultimate obnoxious jock in press conferences. This is a bit of cheap shot but Cutler’s sneering demeanour and misguided contempt for journalists is one small detail that Shanahan obviously did not think to address while he was returning all those phone calls promptly.

But, set all that personality stuff (good and bad) aside for a minute and ask yourself, just how good is this kid?

Personally I see a quarterback with an almost unlimited upside. Forget the fact that his passes could split the atom. Cutler also has beautiful mechanics, good pocket presence, a quick release, the ability to slide left and right and throw accurately on the run, genuine mobility, size, physicality, and all round accuracy.

The weaknesses (a tendency to force throws occasionally, a failure to always check down through his assignments, timing on deep patterns) are not insurmountable flaws. Rather, these weaknesses, are just a product of the need for further development and maturation

Cutler will continue learning and he is just going to get better and better and better. In short, quarterbacks as good as he is are rarer than rocking horse droppings.

But you need to understand McDaniels' way of thinking (and the arguments he maybe is making to Bowlen) in order to respectfully reject them.

The ideal Shanahan offense was one with a dominant ground game supplemented by a canon-armed quarterback, which, once you had pounded the opposition into submission on the ground, could deliver the knockout blow through the air. (See the glorious Elway, Terrell Davis combination of the late nineties).

Mcdaniels is a totally different coaching animal. He wants an accurate pocket passer, who is primarily a patient decision maker, checks through all his assignments and makes low-risk throws. He is not interested in muscling balls into tight spots or scripting roll out plays or anything else that a Shanahan offense would traditionally rely on with the game on the line.

In short, there is considerable historical evidence that although Cutler maybe a prototype quarterback, raw physical talent and natural, big playmaking ability are not what the doctor ordered in the McDaniels system.

For me, this argument is credible to a point, but Cutler’s raw talent must ultimately win the day. If McDaniels really is thinking long and hard about what to do with Cutler, whether to trade him or find a way to get on with him, he should stop thinking now and realize that some players, though never bigger than the team, must transcend any preconceived notions of an offensive philosophy.

So McDaniels and Cutler should meet in the middle for the good of everyone who loves the Denver Broncos or works for them, and that includes themselves. They should work to get an offensive system in place which retains the best of the Shanahan era, plays to Cutler’s strengths but allows also for McDaniels to stamp his cognitive mark on the team.

With six months to go before next season this is easily doable.

Denver, get a nose tackle and a nasty DE/OLB “Tweener” hybrid to compliment that hard-nosed veteran secondary you’ve built for short term success. Then let your thoroughbred quarterback go to work under the tutelage of the new Mastermind.

Do that, and a select few of you (who knows maybe McDaniels, Bowlen, and Cutler) all might be sentimentally recounting the unhappy events of the past fortnight on the next production of America’s Game.

And I wouldn’t mind betting a few dollars on Mike Shanahan (if he was ever asked) giving similar advice.


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