Mike Shanahan was more than lucky

Washington coach Mike Shanahan returns to Denver for the first time as an opponent Sunday. Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

This Sunday, on an afternoon when the Denver Broncos are looking to rebound from a surprising loss in Indianapolis last weekend, Mike Shanahan finally will have his greatest career achievements captured in a 20-second video tribute. There surely will be Super Bowl highlights, exhilarating playoff memories and plenty of scenes of him hugging Broncos legends such as John Elway, Shannon Sharpe and Terrell Davis.

There also should be something else that happens when that video ends before the Broncos meet Shanahan's Washington Redskins: All questions about Shanahan's coaching ability should cease and desist forever.

No Super Bowl-winning coach in NFL history has faced more scrutiny about his success than Shanahan has since the Broncos fired him following the 2008 season. Despite winning the only two Super Bowls in that franchise's history, there always have been whispers that he mostly benefited from great timing and the brilliance of Elway at quarterback. Shanahan's recent struggles with the Redskins have fed that skepticism even more. It's as if the only way he can silence his critics is by taking a different franchise on another Super Bowl-winning journey.

All of which makes no sense. As much as critics want to point to Shanahan's six seasons without a playoff win following Elway's retirement in 1998, he had more to do with the Broncos' two championships than even the Hall of Fame quarterback. There's no doubting that Elway was a critical factor in Denver's glory years. But it was Shanahan who assembled the right pieces around his signal-caller and won 61.6 percent of his games as the franchise's coach.

"Twenty-one years, seven as an assistant, 14 as the head coach, won two Super Bowls," said current Broncos coach John Fox. "I'd say that's a pretty good legacy."

Let's also not forget Shanahan's eye for talent early in his career. Not only did he see something in Davis when using a sixth-round pick on him in the 1995 draft, but the coach also installed the zone-blocking scheme that turned Davis into a star. That same system helped Shanahan find more diamonds in the rough than any coach in recent history. You want to know why so many teams feel more comfortable investing in running backs in later rounds? It's because Shanahan proved the value in that philosophy nearly two decades ago.

Shanahan didn't just show a knack for finding unheralded talents in his backfield, either. He cut three former first-round picks in 1995 to eventually give a starting wide receiver job to Rod Smith, who was an undrafted free agent. Shanahan also signed another unheralded wide receiver, Ed McCaffrey, that same season to give Elway another reliable target. At their peak, McCaffrey and Smith became the only teammates in league history to catch 100 passes each in the same year.

Now did Shanahan have a hard time finding a successor for Elway? There's little doubt about that. He tried Bubby Brister, Brian Griese, Jake Plummer and Jay Cutler without ever finding a long-term answer. That also makes Shanahan no different than any other coach in the league. Aside from Green Bay and Indianapolis, most franchises have struggled to replace Hall of Fame signal-callers. Just ask the fans in Miami, Buffalo and Dallas how that task has gone over the last 15-20 years.

As easy as it is to say that no team wins without a great quarterback, the truth is that great coaching matters as much, if not more. Bill Belichick wouldn't be where he is if he didn't have the smarts and the nerve to turn his team over to Tom Brady when Drew Bledsoe was still on the roster. Peyton Manning didn't win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis until Tony Dungy taught that organization the value of defense, while Brett Favre owes plenty to his early years with Mike Holmgren in Green Bay. The league's history also is filled with many accomplished passers who never even had the opportunity to hoist a Lombardi Trophy, including Dan Marino, Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly.

What Shanahan gave Denver was structure, guidance and a belief that where a player came from was not nearly as important as what that player did once he had an opportunity.

"He was one of those guys that always kept it straightforward," said Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard, another undrafted player Shanahan discovered. "He never B.S.'d anybody. He always told you exactly what you wanted to hear from a head coach. He never cut you short on anything. He kept it real."

Shanahan's lack of postseason success without Elway also isn't an indication that the coach was overrated earlier in his career. Elway wasn't the only reason the Broncos set a record for a three-year period by winning 46 games (including postseason) from 1996 to '98. He was long gone when Shanahan led Denver to a 13-3 record in 2005 and an appearance in that season's AFC Championship Game. Shanahan also has had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of destiny. He lost twice to a team that went on to win the Super Bowl (Baltimore in 2000 and Pittsburgh in 2005).

That doesn't mean Shanahan hasn't had his issues. He started to lose his touch in personnel decisions as he neared the end of his time in Denver (see Jarvis Moss, Willie Middlebrooks and just about anybody associated with the 2003 draft) and certainly didn't handle his one season with quarterback Donovan McNabb in Washington all that well. Shanahan also faced plenty of criticism for the major knee injury that current Redskins starter Robert Griffin III sustained in a wild-card playoff loss to Seattle in January. With the Redskins now 2-4, there's surely more heat on Shanahan, who had one winning season in his first three years in Washington.

There surely are some critics who wonder if Shanahan really is the man to make the Redskins a consistent winner again. Those same people also are likely to use Shanahan's current struggles to fuel that criticism. The thinking there is that if he really were such a genius, he would've figured out this mess of a franchise by now. That's what the great coaches do -- they make great results happen in a hurry.

It would be nice if it really worked that way. Instead, there are very few coaches who produce phenomenal second acts anymore. For every Tony Dungy or Mike Holmgren, there's a Jimmy Johnson or a George Seifert. When it comes to a franchise as historically dysfunctional as the Redskins, it's an even tougher task. Joe Gibbs, the former Washington coach who won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, can attest to that.

So let Shanahan have his moment this weekend and please don't buy into the revisionist history that seems to be tainting his career success. Like most great coaches, he benefited from exceptional talent and even better timing. But don't make the mistake of believing those are the only reasons Denver is honoring Shanahan. For as Broncos fans should know all too well, their team hasn't won anything since he left town, either.