Evaluating The Troubled Mike Shanahan Legacy

The ultimate Mike Shanahan legacy remains in some doubt, presuming the former head coach of the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins never returns to the sidelines. To some, he’s the two-time Super Bowl winner, a surefire Hall of Famer and was only derailed in D.C. by a meddling owner and a diva quarterback. To others, the question “What has he done without John Elway?” is the concise summation of the criticisms.

Washington Redskins history

Shanahan recently gave a 90-minute radio interview in Washington D.C. in which he essentially looked to cast blame at the feet of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder for the poor showing from 2010-13, with Robert Griffin III mostly exempt, except when Shanahan felt the quarterback was serving as the messenger boy for the owner and that the coach never really wanted to draft him in the first place.

As much as possible, this post will look to leave the Shanahan/RG3/Snyder love triangle aside and instead focus on the bigger question—was Mike Shanahan really a great coach or just someone who stumbled into having John Elway as his quarterback in the late 1990s?

To put my cards on the table first, I loathe Mike Shanahan. As a Redskins fan, I was happy when he was hired and became completely disillusioned with how he handled everything. I assign him the lion’s share of the blame for what went down. I say this not to reopen that debate, but to make sure readers at least know my perspective.

As a result, there’s an emotional side of me that wants to agree with the “What has he done without Elway?” jab. But that’s not fair. John Elway was still a great quarterback when Shanahan became head coach in 1995, but he was in the twilight of his career, going out on top in 1998. Elway in his prime never won the Super Bowl. With Shanahan, he won twice. Clearly, the head coach deserves some credit.

But there’s also no denying what happened after Elway retired. It’s not like Denver disappeared, but they spent the better part of Shanahan’s final ten years (1999-2008) being a borderline playoff team. They would either miss by a little bit, or make it and then promptly get waxed in the first round. The one exception to this trend was 2005, when the Broncos won the AFC West and reached the AFC Championship Game, where they were crushed at home by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

If a head coach was on the job for ten years, made the playoffs four times and had one year of advancing in the postseason, without ever making the Super Bowl, would you call him great? That’s the Mike Shanahan track record in Denver without Elway. It’s not terrible, but it’s only marginally better than Marvin Lewis, and that’s in spite of the fact the Bronco organization has long been considered exemplary.

The one thing Mike Shanahan brought to the table then, and continued to do in Washington, was coach the running game. Whether it was Alfred Morris, Clinton Portis or the crème da la crème in Terrell Davis, the coach was masterful at finding running backs in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft and turning them into elite players. Whether it was his system or just his ability to identify the diamond in the rough, there’s no question that this was Shanahan’s calling card.

What’s possible then is that Mike Shanahan stepped into the perfect situation in Denver in the late 1990s, one that was ideally suited to what he did well. He had a quarterback in place. The roster overall was at least competent. What the Broncos never could do in Elway’s prime was run the ball. Enter Shanahan, and after him Terrell Davis. And bring in two Super Bowl trophies.

If this theory is correct—and the overall arc of Mike Shanahan’s career absolutely bears it out—then it means that Shanahan deserves appropriate credit for his role with those championship teams, but at the same time, he would not be on a par with other multiple Super Bowl winners.

It would mark him a “niche” head coach, rather than a Joe Gibbs or Bill Parcells or Don Shula, who built winners in different ways.  Or Bill Walsh or Bill Belichick or Jimmy Johnson, who had great quarterbacks, but drafted those quarterbacks themselves.

The fact of the matter is, that Mike Shanahan’s judgment in picking his own players—especially quarterbacks, is absolutely terrible. He ran through Brian Griese and Jake Plummer in Denver. He sold everyone in Washington that John Beck was the second coming of Dan Marino. The high point of Shanahan’s career in quarterback evaluation is Jay Cutler. Sorry, but I couldn’t type that last sentence without laughing.

After Shanahan’s early success in Denver, he got more control over personnel. This rarely works with any head coach and Shanahan was no different. The team declined, and he missed the playoffs each of his final three seasons in Denver. He followed that up by getting total control of the football operation in Washington, and averaged six wins a year for four seasons. The record is what it is.

What’s more, by admitting he didn’t want to draft Griffin, and only succumbing to the pressures of ownership, Shanahan undercuts his one success in Washington. The only notable success was the 10-6 season and NFC East title of 2012, a success almost entirely driven by RG3 carrying a terrible defense into the playoffs—with an assist from the Shanahan running game, now led by Alfred Morris. It was an oddly smaller-scale version of what happened in Denver.

But had Shanahan made his own decisions, the Redskins would have likely had another lifeless 6-10 season in 2012. The head coach and his apologists do forget that he spent two years in Washington without RG3 and went 11-21 with no signs of improvement. The whole “RG3 Ruined Shanahan” storyline runs into the reef labeled “Facts.”

I think it’s also worth noting what happened this last offseason. Shanahan clearly wanted back into coaching and interviewed for three different jobs, in San Francisco, Oakland and Buffalo. He went 0-for-3. That could just be his age (62) being a factor, but what’s perhaps more damning is the interviews he didn’t get, and those are the ones in Chicago and Denver.

Chicago’s future is completely invested in Cutler, and it’s going down the tubes fast. Shanahan, still a believer in Cutler, didn’t get a call to even discuss the job. The Bears hired John Fox, not exactly a spring chicken in terms of youth.

Then there’s Denver. Shanahan’s old quarterback, John Elway was making the hiring decision. The team has an extremely narrow window of opportunity, presuming Peyton Manning comes back. It would be the ideal way to re-create the scenario of the late 1990s. Once again, no phone call. In fact, a news report I saw from Denver had a local reporter with sources in the front office literally smirking at the thought that Shanahan even had a chance.

There’s a reason for that—all reports are that Elway and Shanahan hate each other. Jake Plummer has also publicly expressed distaste for his former coach. The relationship between Shanahan and RG3 is no secret. This is a head coach who has known real success with only three quarterbacks and they all hate him. Does Shanahan bear no responsibility for this?

I submit then, that the ultimate Mike Shanahan legacy is this—if you impose a quarterback choice on him, make sure he has no control over personnel (something I advocate for most coaches), make sure there’s established leadership in the locker room to overcome the coach’s personality issues, and allow Shanahan’s skill at coaching the running game to take hold, then it can work.

I know it sounds like a backhanded way of praising him, but in truth, most NFL coaches are just interchangeable and don’t even bring that to the table.

Mike Shanahan still deserves his spot in Canton, as the head coach of a back-to-back Super Bowl champion. But when it comes to sorting out his ultimate legacy, it’s a bit more complex.