Go back to the year 1988. The Raiders are in Los Angeles, Tom Flores has been demoted upstairs by owner Al Davis and Denver assistant coach Mike Shanahan is hired by the silver & black for his first NFL head coaching job.
Now fast-forward…not too fast, just one and one-quarter seasons later. After finishing 7-9 amidst an on-going, internal clash of loyalties, a 1-3 start in ‘89 gives Davis cause to pull-the-plug on the Shanahan experiment and hand the reigns over to Raiders man Art Shell.
Not a very auspicious start to Mike’s head coaching career. But then, getting fired by Al Davis wasn’t all bad. Oddly enough, it could enhance your resume.
Well known for his hands-on style, Al’s rows with staff often put on public display traits in a coach highly-prized by GM on-lookers. Qualities like decisiveness, tenacity and just being one tough son-of-a-gun. And that’s what Mike looked like after getting the boot: a guy who could give as well as he got, and from the biggest got-guy in the NFL, Al Davis.
That’s no knock on the feisty owner. Though Al could be a thorn in your side if under his watch, for fans, excepting the City of Oakland from1982-‘94, he was a quasi-advocate, a counter-weight to the NFL’s old boy network who conduct business in golf-carts and brass-handled board rooms. And then, only Glenn Ford (Gilda), Sid Poitier (In the Heat of the Night) and Javier Bardem (Mondays in the Sun) were cooler than Al Davis in his early days, surveying the action from the Raiders’ sideline in those steel-rimmed sunglasses.
To Golden Gate via Colorado
Mike landed back in Denver (‘90-91) but wore out his welcome fast when he got in the middle of a Reeves – Elway rift. On the outs, he took a job with George Seifert (’92-94). Like Foxborough today, San Francisco was the place to be for coaches on the rise. As architect of 49ers’ 49-23 blowout win in SB29 (SD), Mike’s reputation grew such that he was seen around the League as a football-genius-in-the-making and then a hot commodity.
Third Time Charm
Broncos just can’t kick the Shanahan habit and this time give Mike the head coach’s office. He sticks around for awhile (‘95-08), quickly makes good on his new rep, has Denver back in the big show and this time brings home Mr. Lombardi (’98-‘99). Adding to the euphoria was the fact that Denver’s SB32 win comes against fellow West Coast disciple Mike Holmgren and his history-heavy Green Bay squad (4-1).
Happy Trails Mr. Elway
The mood on Mike starts to change after Elway rides into the sunset (SB33 / Atlanta). As he never got Denver back on top, some have argued Elway was the difference-maker in their back-to-backs. Not a crazy notion given that coaches coach and players play. But keep in mind: 1) Dan Reeves was in the NFL for nearly 40 years, played or coached in five Super Bowls but was stymied in his three Denver visits with John under center; and 2) Shanahan guided post-Elway Denver to the post-season four times, including an AFC title game and averaged 9+ wins a season. Not too shabby.
Whether or not Mike Shanahan is a football genius in league with Paul Brown, Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick is debatable. At the very least he did have something special working at Mile High in the late 90s, special enough to someday get a bust in Canton.
Question now is, does Shanahan still have the Midas touch, that special something that garnered two Super Bowl wins? And if he does, can he impart it to his Redskins’ team?
So far, his brief DC tenure suggests no and no. Though he gets props for parting ways with the bill-of-goods that was Al Haynesworth and the plucky but past-prime Donovan McNabb, his inability to make real progress in his two seasons in Washington might be sign he no longer translates to today’s NFL player.
No big revelation then, that his ability to facilitate draft-dandy Rob Griffin’s development is key, not just to the team’s but his own future as well. The early word in summer camp is that RG3 is a talented and willing student of the NFL game. Welcome news to Skins’ fans who are parched for victory champagne since the days of Joe Gibbs & Company.
A concern is that in his eagerness to make good and satisfy antsy fans, Mike succumbs to the trendy but flawed belief that the athletic, muscled, running QB is the quick cure-all for what ails an offense and provides the surest vehicle for getting to the promised land. The tremendous impacts of mercury men Cam Newton (6-10) and Tim Tebow (8-8) on their respective teams in 2011 have only given amplification to the theory.
Mike Shanahan has coached two of the finest QBs of the past 30 years in Steve Young and John Elway. Though both had a flair for scamper (and could cite footwork as their most famous feats (SY: 50+ dash vs Vikes (‘88) / JE: copter-run in SB32)), making it a key element in their modi operandi, both were first & foremost pocket-passers who could air it out and thread the needle whenever necessary, taking to flight as only a last resort.
As impactful as Cam and Tim were, upon closer inspection it’s easy to see why many observers believe there’s a cap on just how relevant a run-QB will be over the long term.
Tebow’s 2011 flies in the face of that tiresome phrase, ‘numbers never lie.’ In science, that may be true (excepting false-positives), but in sport, numbers can tell tall tales and in TT’s case they’re less than sincere. While his pass-stats were paltry, his fire and dedication to game-plan were triggers in Denver‘s mid-season turnaround.
But eventually those flames of emotion must be fed with stout statistics. That can mean numbers that are huge (Rodgers), first-rate (Eli) or simply smart stats (A. Smith / 17-5 ratio) that show you have the skill & savvy to manage the offense and then matriculate with regularity in all conditions (Tom, Eli & Peyton).
As for Cam, he showed a terrific capability for passing but a tendency to take-off in trouble (14TDs). That’s a tell and it’s just what defenders will eventually feast upon.
Then there’s Vick, the man who started the trend. His ‘athleticism,’ as run-QBs are cast, has made him a star but destined him to title-oblivion. Besides two big PS wins (’02 GB / ‘04 STL), Mike’s tenure is defined in two words: boredom (duel careers in GA) and frustration (injury). Only now are he and his handlers starting to see the fallacy of flash-QB: “He wants to and works really hard to overcome his instinct, when a little something goes wrong, to take off (Mudd / PI / CBS / 7-27).” Old dog, new tricks: habits do die hard. No pun intended.
So there you have it, Mr. Shanahan. You can put Rob on the pocket-passer pathway, the only road leading to the Super Bowl, help box-up his college habits and train him to work in the business of football (NFL / CFL), or, ride his athleticism to 9 or 10 victories (someday) and watch the big game every February at home on the big-screen TV.
Ahead of the Curve
Photo Credit: Brenda Brown Paul / 8-2010 / Mike Shanahan / WC
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.