ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Four years ago, Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan was the NFL’s latest genius. He had just won back-to-back Super Bowls, joining Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Chuck Noll and Jimmy Johnson as the only men to do it.
Over the past four years, however, Shanahan’s stock has slipped. Of the 13 NFL coaches in the league who coached from 1999 through 2002, seven posted better records than Shanahan’s 34-31. A startling 21 of them did something Shanahan didn’t — win a playoff game. And five of those coaches have since been fired.
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen quashed the “Is Shanahan in trouble?” speculation by giving him a six-year contract extension Aug.18 and saying, “Mike is the best coach in the NFL.”
Not that Shanahan, whose intensity is palpable even when he smiles, feels any less pressure to make the Broncos big winners again, starting with Sunday’s opener at Cincinnati.
“There’s always pressure,” Shanahan said recently in his office, where he slept many nights during training camp on an air mattress rather than going home. “If you don’t feel pressure in this job, something’s wrong with you. Any time you don’t have success, you hurt your reputation, but my confidence hasn’t been shaken. I’m a very confident guy. I feel the pressure because I don’t want to let people down in this town. People here love football.”
Offensive tackle Matt Lepsis thinks the team’s recent down years are responsible for the gray in Shanahan’s dark hair at 51.
“My first couple of years here everything was rosy,” said Lepsis, who arrived in 1997. “The last few years, Mike has been much more serious. [The relatively lean years] are driving him crazy. You can tell that he’s ready to get back to winning.”
What really drove Shanahan nuts last season was that the Broncos were the only team to rank in the top six in both offense (third) and defense (sixth), were 6-2 at midseason and lost only center Tom Nalen for an extensive period, yet they still missed the playoffs at 9-7 because of a worse conference record than Cleveland. No wonder receiver Rod Smith, the only Bronco to start at least half the team’s games in each of the past six years, said he would have bet his salary that Denver would have reached postseason.
“Last year was the most disappointing year I’ve ever had, even more so than the 6-10 year [in 1999] when we had so many injuries,” Shanahan said. “Last year we didn’t lose anybody. I thought we were an 11- or 12-win team. We dominated Miami and lost. We lost in the last second to Indianapolis and to San Diego in overtime. In the past we had won those games. A lot of teams feel good about being 9-7. Not us. We felt we should have won the AFC.”
Even after the frustrations of the past four years, just reaching postseason wouldn’t mean much to Shanahan, an assistant on Denver’s Super Bowl teams in 1986, 1987 and 1989 and on San Francisco’s champions in 1994 before taking over the Broncos in 1995.
“Making the playoffs doesn’t mean that much here,” Shanahan said. “Anything less than a Super Bowl is a failure. If you don’t have the bar that high, it’s really hard to win it and to win it again. When I got here, I said my goal was to win the Super Bowl in three years. People scoffed because we were dead-last in defense, but if I didn’t believe it, how would they believe it? If you don’t talk about it, how do you achieve it?”
Of course, Shanahan won Denver’s first Super Bowl that third year and repeated the next season. Those Broncos starred Denver’s greatest hero, quarterback John Elway, and running back Terrell Davis, who ran for a staggering 4,707 yards and 47 touchdowns when the 1997 and 1998 postseasons are included. However, Elway retired after the second title, and Davis failed in a comeback attempt last month after playing in 16 games the past three years because of injuries.
Shanahan has found a worthy successor to Davis in speedy second-year back Clinton Portis, but the coach Smith termed a perfectionist is gambling big-time at quarterback. Shanahan cites San Francisco’s 1987 trade with Tampa Bay for the struggling Steve Young as support for his belief that Jake Plummer’s 30-52 record in Arizona was more a commentary on the inept Cardinals than on Plummer, who has Elway’s improvisational ability and easy manner — assets that Brian Griese, the quarterback the past four years, didn’t own.
“Why did San Francisco take Steve Young?” Shanahan asked rhetorically about the lefty who developed into a sure Hall of Famer with the 49ers. “His interception-touchdown ratio was 2-to-1 [Plummer is 114-to-90]. Jake made some bad decisions, but any time you’re behind, you’re going to take more chances and have more interceptions. On third down, you want a quarterback who can make plays and win games. Jake can do that. It’s my job to coach him on first and second downs so he can make those plays on third downs. Jake doesn’t have to win the game as he has throughout his career. He just has to do his job.”
With Portis, wideouts Smith, Ed McCafffrey and Ashley Lelie and record-setting tight end Shannon Sharpe, Plummer certainly has more weapons than he ever had in Arizona. And Shanahan thinks his defense, with three new starters up front and two in the secondary, is even better than last year’s unit. So despite a tumultuous summer, especially on the defensive line, and the presence of AFC champion Oakland in their division, the Broncos are back, right?
“Proving people wrong is what this game is about,” Shanahan said. “To me, that’s the most fun thing about coaching: people saying, ‘You can’t do this. You haven’t won a playoff game in four years.’ If you don’t look forward to those challenges, you shouldn’t be in this business.”