DENVER — For an instant, Mike Shanahan’s ice-melting glare seemed to ease.
A camera tossed the coach’s suntanned face onto the sprawling video board at Sports Authority Field on Sunday afternoon. The image loomed larger than life and, maybe that’s fitting in the city where the Redskins coach left a mark that lingers.
Cheers faded into a 32-second video of highlights from the back-to-back Super Bowl titles Shanahan coached the Broncos to in 1997 and 1998. The nostalgia of the fresh-faced coach and wins that came as easily as 1,000-yard rushers swirled through the stadium that shakes during games.
The video ended. The coach waved once, twice, three times. Then the steely-eyed man returned.
Shanahan’s legacy is difficult to miss, down to the steakhouse 15 minutes from the stadium that bears his name and sells bone-in ribeyes for $51.
But the same success that transformed Shanahan into perhaps the defining figure in this city’s sports history has eluded him since a five-year, $35 million contract lured him to Washington in 2010. Sunday’s 45-21 loss to the Broncos provided a reminder of how far Shanahan has brought the once-disjointed Redskins franchise and, really, how far remains to go.
Like the coach’s previous 54 games with the Redskins, Sunday offered teases of success. But teases don’t contend for Super Bowls. Teases hang around long enough to see their hopes evaporate into the city’s thin air in a flurry of mistakes that made Shanahan’s heady days seem more distant than the highlight video.
The problems weren’t new. They only made the stadium shake more.
The defenses for both teams would struggle to corral Thunder II, the white stallion that gallops on the field during pregame festivities and after the Broncos score. At first, the horse didn’t have much reason for exercise. The woebegone Redskins secondary started cornerback E.J. Biggers and little-used special teamer Jose Gumbs at safety but somehow managed to avoid being carved up by Peyton Manning in the first half.
The Redskins’ beleaguered special teams — gaining just 4.8 yards per punt return — managed to spring Josh Morgan for a 34-yard runback.
And the offense ground out a 16-play, 95-yard drive at the end of the first half to tie the game. That chewed up 7 minutes, 3 seconds of clock and looked like vintage Shanahan. Meat-grinder football helped the coach regularly turn no-name running backs into stars. That helped to make Shanahan, well, Shanahan.
All this proved to be an illusion, the sort of afternoon that would appear more mirage than reality to a lightheaded visitor in this city.
The halftime tie. The suddenly stout secondary. The offense free of mistakes.
All that disappeared.