Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shanahan Deserved Better as Broncos Head Coach

The NFL Network is reporting that Mike Shanahan has been fired as head coach of the Denver Broncos. I know that I usually save non-Maryland related sports news for a Free Kicks, but I think this deserves a post of its own. In this world of fast results and quick firings, where a coach can be the toast of the town on Saturday and be out of a job by Monday, Mike Shanahan has been the epitome of consistency. Since his arrival in Denver in 1995, he has quietly won 60% of his games. We as fans have taken it for granted that the Broncos will be competitive every year, that you will be smashed in the mouth with a punishing and versatile running attack at the very least. Mike Shanahan always has gotten it done.

Yes, he has had losing seasons- 2 out of his 14 seasons with the Broncos. He has won 10 or more games 7 times, and been to the playoffs every one of those times. He not only won back to back Superbowl titles in 1997-1998, but took home a division title as recently as 2005. However, in this business it only takes one bad season to do you in. Over the last 3 seasons Shanahan’s squad has played .500 ball, and hasn’t been to the playoffs. In the NFL, you need immediate results, and when your last championship was 10 years ago, they don’t mean anything to ownership or misinformed fans who want a coach to burn in effigy.

It would be easy to label Shanahan as a coach who might have been losing his touch, failing to deliver competitive teams or just falling apart down the stretch. However, let’s compare his record to a few coaches we aren’t exactly railing against right now. The man in demand, Bill Cowher, won 62% of his games in 15 seasons with the Steelers. Mike Holmgren won 59% of his games and only 54% with the Seahawks. Jeff Fisher, a man consistently considered one of the most innovative and resilient coaches in the game, only has a .557 winning percentage and has been to the playoffs 5 times in his 15 seasons at the helm of the Titans. Is anyone calling for his resignation? In fact, many still consider him one of the best coaches in the league. Doesn’t Mike Shanahan still deserve this distinction?

None of these men were able to master a part of their game more consistently than Mike Shanahan did his running game. He made Tatum Bell, Reuben Droughns, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson into 1000 yard rushers. He puts undrafted free agents into his system and they average 4 yards a carry. Mike Shanahan utilized his zone read blocking scheme to a T, with his “one cut and go” philosophy that trained his backs early on not to dawdle too long behind the line trying to make moves before getting yardage. Every year Denver did more with less than many other teams in the NFL- after the days of John Elway and Terrell Davis, the Broncos cycled through quarterbacks and running backs but still only had 2 losing seasons in that stretch. He never had a great big play receiver to complement Rod Smith as he got older, but still had solid offensive production no matter who was on the field because the running game was always churning out yardage.

This season was ugly- losses to the Chiefs, Raiders, and Bills, including losing your last 3 games to choke away the division is never pretty. The embarrassing performance his team put together against the Chargers with the division on the line was not at all like a Mike Shanahan-coached team, and it was likely what spelled the end for this long-tenured championship coach. And that’s exactly the point- this season was not at all like a Mike Shanahan team. This coach has done enough to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Coach Shanahan couldn’t stop 15 players from going on injured reserve as well as 17 other players showing up on the injury report for the hapless season finale, or stop All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey from missing 7 games in the middle of the season. He might have been able to do more to shore up this defense that allowed an AFC worst 28 points per game (though they just allowed defensive coordinator Bob Slowick to start calling the defensive plays this season).

At 56 years old, Mike Shanahan has a lot of coaching left in him if he chooses to do so. He will get offers, and I hope his as successful at his next stop as he was at Denver. However, in this age of 3 or even 2 year coaching stints, there is something inspiring when a successful coach can stay with a team for most (if not all) of his career. I understand the need for change, but Mike Shanahan deserves better than this. He is a great coach, and Denver won’t be able to find anyone better this season.

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