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.
Manning reverted to the form that will put him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And that Redskins defense? The veteran sliced apart the group for 354 yards to help the Broncos score 31 points in the fourth quarter.
Robert Griffin III missed wide-open receivers and forced throws in an error-plagued second half. Never mind numbers that insist the Broncos own the NFL’s worst pass defense. The Redskins made them look like a swarming band of playmakers. The second-year quarterback was left rolling around on the turf grabbing his left leg with 5:43 remaining — the injury wasn’t believed to be serious — which thrust backup Kirk Cousins into the game in time to throw two interceptions.
Welcome home, coach.
The game represented much of the Shanahan era in Washington. Enough hope to tempt you into believing this time was different. Then disappointment. Signs of progress, other than the seven-game win streak to end the 2012 regular season, are fleeting. This stadium isn’t an easy place to visit. But the all-out debacle that turned a 14-point Redskins lead into a blowout loss made this season’s incessant talk of corners turned and positives in the midst of defeat more hollow than before.
Shanahan is a pedestrian 23-32 in charge of the Redskins. The 138-86 mark he rolled up with the Broncos is memory consigned to pregame tributes. Even that record is deceptive. The Broncos fired Shanahan in 2008 after not making the playoffs in three straight seasons; he’s won one postseason game since John Elway retired after the 1998 season.
Before time expired Sunday, thousands of Broncos supporters decked out in No. 18 Manning jerseys streamed out of their blue seats toward the exits. The welcome cheers that greeted Shanahan three and a half hours earlier weren’t over. They had moved on to celebrating another victory.
“Hopefully we can bring some of those memories back to the fans in Washington like we did in Denver,” Shanahan said after the game. “That’s what we’re working for and hopefully we can do that.”
The 61-year-old coach was left with another loss in a troubled season.
Shanahan’s legacy in Denver is clear. How his story ends in Washington isn’t.