DENVER — It is said, by sports union chief Donald Fehr if no one else, that history should not be judged by contemporaries.
This is especially true when evaluating the NFL coaching career of Mike Shanahan.
His review has swung from The Mastermind early in his tenure as Broncos head coach in the mid-to-late 1990s -- the guy who finally made John Elway into a Super Bowl champion -- to a coach who couldn’t win a Super Bowl without Elway.
The best coach in Broncos history was dismissed following a 14-year term, a three-year slump of mediocrity and the 2008 season. Shanahan took a year off, then accepted the head coaching position for Washington. By most coaching measures, it didn’t work out there as just one of his four seasons ended with a winning record and playoff berth.
And yet since his final season as an NFL coach, Shanahan’s legacy has grown exponentially, thanks in part to his time in Washington.
Three members of his coaching staff in D.C. – Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and his son Kyle Shanahan – have become successful head coaches in their own right. The biggest apple from the Shanahan tree, Gary Kubiak, won a Super Bowl with the Broncos in 2015, and one of Kube’s protégé’s, Kevin Stefanski, found immediate head coaching success with the Cleveland Browns.
All have succeeded in no small part to the variations of the zone-blocking, one-cut running scheme that Shanahan’s Broncos made famous during his coaching tenure from 1995-2008.
Suddenly, Shanahan’s fingerprints are planted all over the NFL. His back-to-back Super Bowl titles – the first two in franchise history – and 146 total wins for the Broncos is why he was inducted into the team’s Ring of Fame in a Friday night ceremony that included the unveiling of his pillar and presentation of an orange jacket.
"What’s so ironic about the Ring of Fame is in ’84 when I got hired, Pat Bowlen bought the team about 3 weeks later," Shanahan said in a sit-down interview with 9NEWS this week from the luxurious foyer of his breathtaking, Cherry Hills home. "Pat would always be down in the weight room. He’d be running. He’d always want to talk to the people downstairs, so I would see him quite a bit.
"Right on his first day of being the owner he said, ‘What do you think about this? I’m thinking about doing a Ring of Fame. There’s going to be criteria. But I really want something that’s going to really promote the people who have been part of this organization.’
"He went to the 1960s and started talking about the ownership, talking about the players. He said, ‘Right now, 1984, who are those guys?’ I thought it was a really great thought process that he had. I told him I think it’s pretty neat. Because you’re going to have a lot of success as an owner and you want some history behind it."
With respect to the Broncos’ Ring of Fame, there is such a thing as a higher level of immortality. Now that the years have transformed so many contemporaries into historians, Shanahan has gained momentum as a serious candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s been pointed out to the voting keepers of the game’s history that Shanahan’s coaching accomplishments, in terms of combined wins and Super Bowl titles, exceeds that of recent coaching inductees Tom Flores, Bill Cowher, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher.
But the numbers aren’t what’s pushing Shanahan from pillar to bust. It’s his expanding coaching tree and the regeneration of his famed running system.
"You always love for your assistant coaches to have success," Shanahan said. "When we went to Washington we just kept on building on what we were doing. We had a lot of young coaches that wanted to work up to be coordinators and eventually got to be head coaches. Sean McVay, Mike LaFleur. So many other assistants are out there. But what your seeing is teams are getting more used to seeing that running game, the misdirection, the tighter splits, the play-action game. So you’ve got to be even better now than you were before. Before we could get all kinds of people wide open because people weren’t used to it. Now there’s a lot more people using that scheme because people have had success with it, so it’s going to be tougher and tougher to use and they’re going to have to be even more innovative as time goes on."
Beating up the NFC bully
Many trees sprout from another and while there were many mentors to Shanahan, he is most often linked as an alum of the Bill Walsh school of coaching. No matter that Walsh had long turned over his San Francisco head coaching job to his longtime top defensive assistant George Seifert by the time Shanahan left the Broncos to become the 49ers’ offensive coordinator from 1992-94.
After the 49ers scored 49 points to trounce the Chargers in the 1994-season Super Bowl, Shanahan took the job he was long groomed for during his years as Dan Reeves’ top offensive assistant – head coach of the Denver Broncos.
"When he came out of San Francisco, he was on the cutting edge with scheme and he ran this place as a CEO," said Broncos’ defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who was Shanahan’s secondary coach from 1995-99. "He had full control of everything and he was a true leader. He had some great partners—Gary Kubiak, Alex Gibbs, Mike Heimerdinger. They were doing some special work together, and these guys all went on to be head coaches and so forth. It was a neat time."
After going 8-8 in his first season of 1995 with the Broncos, the local press started referring to Shanahan as The Mastermind in 1996. The Broncos finished as the AFC’s best team with a 13-3 record that year but after clinching the No. 1 playoff seed with weeks remaining in the regular season and idling through a first round bye, they didn’t have it in a shocking, second-round home loss to Jacksonville.
After the Broncos won the Super Bowl in 1997 and ‘98, many look back and say it should have been a threepeat.
"Should have been," Shanahan said. "Should have been. If and buts. Even though I look back and you’re embarrassed by the way we played against Jacksonville, we were a good football team. People forget when we did get to the Super Bowl, when we got Jacksonville to open the playoffs, we ran the ball 49 times that game. Well over 300 yards (310). It was such a good win for us coming back against Jacksonville after that loss, it helped us."
The back-to-back Super Bowls come with exclamation points. Back then, the NFL wasn’t balanced between conferences, as it is now and has been for more than two decades. The NFC had won 13 Super Bowls in a row entering the 1997 season – by an average margin of nearly 21 points. The Broncos were sporting the largest tire tracks during that AFC rut, losing three Super Bowls by a combined 96 points.
"That was actually an interesting development at that time: What do we have to do to beat the NFC?" Shanahan said. "And what’s the difference between the NFC and AFC? Not only were we getting beat, we were getting beat pretty good.
Shanahan’s Broncos cut free from the NFC stranglehold by beating the conference at its own game. It was Terrell Davis and the zone blocking scheme, with a little help from Elway in the passing game, that pushed the Broncos over the top. It was the Broncos – not Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys or Bill Parcells’ Giants or Washington’s Hogs – who were the more physical, pound-the-rock team.
The zone scheme lost its prominence during the Patriots’ 20-year dynastic run at the onset of the 21st century but so many of Shanahan’s assistants have brought it back in vogue within the past five years.
"It’s cool that it’s recognized," Kyle Shanahan said Friday at his dad’s Ring of Fame ceremony outside the south entrance of Empower Field at Mile High. "I was always biased growing up as his son but it was always so different watching his offenses. I always remember (when he was) a coordinator going from when I was younger all the way to my freshman year in high school when he was with San Francisco in ’94, it was always so impressive how good his offenses were. Then he came to Denver and did it as a head coach – that’s all I saw.
"Even though I didn’t realize that’s what I was naturally studying but that’s how I see football. And it’s worked for so many different teams because it was different. I always knew how special his offense was but it’s cool to see everyone else give him his due."
We all come from somewhere. And we all know where Kyle Shanahan came from.
Did dad know as he and wife Peggy were raising their son and daughter that Kyle had the makings of becoming a successful NFL coach? Kyle helped the Atlanta Falcons nearly win the Super Bowl as an offensive coordinator in the 2016 and he guided the 49ers to a fourth quarter, 10-point lead in the 2019-season Super Bowl. His teams didn’t finish either Big Game. But at 41 years old, there is a sense Kyle has not coached in his last Super Bowl.
"You never know the detail of somebody but I knew he loved the game," Mike Shanahan said. "He loved to work. Either as a wide receiver when he was at Texas or when he was an offensive assistant when he was at Tampa Bay. I just knew that he had the love of the game.
"Until he actually did it, or until I bought into Washington, I didn’t know how he was going to handle himself in the meeting room. Because when you’ve got to talk in front of guys that are your same age – some are a little bit older, some a little bit younger – players are only going to be impressed if you know how to handle yourself in the room. They know if you know what you’re talking about. That’s where he’s always had a good feel for."
A few minutes prior to the start of the Ring of Fame ceremony Friday, Kyle was asked if dad’s comment about his love of the game was true.
"Yeah, I did," Kyle said. "I loved everything about it. I loved trying to play it. I loved watching to it. I loved putting every ounce into it. I loved how big of a deal it was. It’s provided my family a lot, me a lot and I’m very grateful for it."
Football with the 49ers means going full circle for the Shanahans. Now it’s dad who helps his son. Mike Shanahan doesn’t have a bio in the 49ers’ media guide, nor is he listed in small print anywhere on the team’s staff directory pages. Otherwise, the Shanahans don’t hide the fact that dad serves as a consultant for his son.
"The only thing you want to do as a dad is if you’re son asks you a question, you want to be able to answer it," Mike Shanahan said. "So you want to keep up on the game. As a head coach what you never had time for is looking at the second and third-team guys. Guys that are down the line. What are you seeing in those guys? Because you don’t have enough time because you have to get your game plans ready. So I think I can look at things that I know he can’t so if he does ask I want to be on top of it."
Not many dads are looking at practice film of back-end roster players but there you go. Mike Shanahan is 69. He’s let his hair turn gray. He’s still tan and fit. What’s next for Mike Shanahan, besides an eventual election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
"I’m enjoying what I’m doing," he said. "I get a chance to watch a lot of NFL football. I enjoy keeping up with the game. Nowadays you don’t have to be there (in the team building). You can do it with Zoom. I can watch every meeting, players as well as coaches. Keep up with the games. Watch different teams. At the same time, not have to work 18 hours a day."
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