The first thing you learn about Mike Shanahan is his competitive edge. That’s not a chip on his shoulder; it’s more of a boulder. When he was with Denver, he kept clippings from newspaper articles and pulled them out after winning the Super Bowl, just to remind reporters they were a bit, uh, wrong.
There’s a reason why a guy his size played college football. He’s tough, feisty and competitive and coaches that way.
So, yeah, Mike Shanahan hasn’t coached in Denver since the 2008 season. He’s in his fourth season with Washington, where he’s re-built an organization and has a flashy young quarterback. He’s friendly with Denver vice president of football operations, and his former quarterback, John Elway and, supposedly, with the guy who fired him, owner Pat Bowlen.
Yeah, Shanahan has landed just fine on his feet. But there’s no chance his fire won’t burn a little brighter Sunday. Maybe Shanahan turns the Redskins around; maybe he doesn’t. But when he left Denver, Shanahan felt he had the makings of a strong team with young quarterback Jay Cutler and young receiver Brandon Marshall. It’s difficult to find such a combination; Shanahan had it and liked where they were headed. Then came a three-game collapse at the end of his 14th season and a firing.
“It was very shocking,” said Redskins guard Kory Lichtensteiger, drafted by Denver in 2008, of the firing. “Everybody was understandably disappointed, but to do a move like that ... the offense was on fire the whole year. A few things could have been tweaked, but a complete overhaul was extreme.”
If the players felt that way, then little doubt the coach did too. Not that Shanahan would admit it now.
“You know it’s been four and a half years, so it’s not like it was yesterday or the year before. So, I think it’s a little bit different than what normally happens when you’re gone for six months or nine months. I’ve done it before when I was with the 49ers and with the Raiders you go back to the place you’re at -- a lot of emotion. I think this is a little bit different than most.”
His son, Kyle Shanahan, who grew up in Denver, said, “You always want to beat people you used to work for. Everybody is like that, but it’s not as big a deal as I would have expected it to be four years ago.”
Under Shanahan, the Broncos had the fourth best record in the NFL from 1995-2008. They went 138-86 with seven playoff appearances and two Super Bowls. But his reputation took a hit post-Elway. They did win after him -- he coaxed 13 wins by a Jake Plummer-led team in 2005.
But Shanahan’s playoff record is 1-5 since winning his second Super Bowl. Make no mistake; the Broncos had talent on those teams, but you don’t win back-to-back titles with a slouch of a coach. And Shanahan is a good coach; Denver won double-digit games four times after Elway retired. However, he still has to prove he can build a championship team as the main architect. Heck, in Washington he needs to prove he can build a perennial winner. There’s still time this season and if they finish well, then there can be some optimism heading into the offseason (with more money). But they have to finish strong.
I know there have been some side issues that have hurt them, from the lockout to the salary cap. But this group traded for Donovan McNabb (though perhaps with a nudge from the owner); and allowed Albert Haynesworth to stick around another year; and put their faith, way too much of it, in John Beck and Rex Grossman as starters, though at least the latter belongs in the league and can help. If not for the good fortune of being bad in a year where there were two elite quarterbacks, then where would the franchise be? Of course, when they did get Robert Griffin III, they created one of the most enjoyable offenses to watch.
But they still haven’t built a top-level defense in the same fashion as what they're doing on offense. They have changed the culture in the building and there’s a strong mindset among the players in the locker room. But this business is about winning and doing it consistently. Until they do that ...
He did it in Denver and that’s why they’ll honor him with a video tribute before the game.
“I think it’ll be fun going back there, getting a chance to spend all those years in one place,” Shanahan said. “I’m sure hoping I don’t get booed.”
Hard to imagine Broncos fans booing a man who delivered two Super Bowls. But in Washington? If he wants a video tribute here someday, a lot of work remains.
Sunday is a statement on what Shanahan has done as a coach, a reminder of great times. It’s also a statement on what he has left to do.