Shanahan revamps Broncos in bid to regain playoffs
August 22, 2008
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. ” While the architects were designing the bowling alley and racquetball court at his sprawling 35,000-square foot home that started to take shape over the winter, Mike Shanahan went to work remodeling the Denver Broncos.
Shanahan has lasted a quarter century in the NFL by constantly making changes to keep the game from passing him by, and this offseason was filled with more revisions than usual.
He engineered a front office shake-up, a roster retooling and a coaching staff makeover in response to a second straight campaign without a playoff berth and the team’s first losing season since 1999. That’s when the franchise was going through the John Elway retirement hangover after two successful Super Bowl trips.
Jettisoned were general manager Ted Sundquist, defensive boss Jim Bates, recalcitrant receiver Javon Walker, troubled tailback Travis Henry and aloof linebacker Ian Gold, among many others.
After getting burned by high-risk, high-reward signings such as those of Walker, Henry and Todd Sauerbrun, Shanahan and owner Pat Bowlen focused on character in their offseason additions, which included Boss Bailey, Niko Koutouvides, Marlon McCree, Ryan Clady and Eddie Royal.
Then there were some of the not-so-easy goodbyes to the likes of perennial Pro Bowl receiver Rod Smith to retirement and Jason Elam, the team’s career scoring leader, to free agency, leaving 37-year-old center Tom Nalen and his balky left knee as the lone remaining link to the team’s glory days.
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Adding to the vacuum in locker room leadership was the departure of nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch, who agreed to a pay cut for a reduced role this winter but asked for his release just days into training camp when he found himself a second-stringer for the first time in his career.
Despite all the alterations, Shanahan went on the air to declare that the Broncos would make the playoffs in 2008, a bold statement from the calculating 55-year-old coach whose teams have won just one playoff game in the last decade.
As defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban pointed out, such statements are usually the domain of rookies who don’t know better. But Shanahan set the bar high for a young team that’s not drawing such lofty expectations anywhere outside Dove Valley.
“The man has the right to make a statement like that,” cornerback Dre’ Bly said. “It’s up to us. We understand the scheme. All we have to do is execute it.”
And what if they don’t?
What if this season is but another small step back to respectability and not the big leap he predicts?
Does Shanahan, who’s been on the job longer than any other NFL coach besides Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher, get shown the door after 14 seasons in Denver?
Don’t bet on it.
“I don’t put pressure on him and say, ‘If we don’t win 11 games …'” Bowlen said. “There are so many variables, such as injuries and bad luck. You can’t say, ‘If we don’t do this, this is going to happen.'”
Bowlen said he has complete faith in the direction of the team under Shanahan and didn’t have a problem with the firing of Sundquist, Bowlen’s hand-picked deputy.
“Mike’s in charge. That’s his job,” Bowlen said. “It was evident we had two bad years, especially last year, and he needed to make some changes.”
In his view, it’s another example of Mike being Mike ” a meticulous manager who is constantly redefining himself and his operation to keep up with the ever-evolving NFL.
“It’s like any business. You’ve got to stay abreast of what’s happening and stay current,” Shanahan said. “I always study the top-five, top-10 every season, offense, defense, organization, special teams. I enjoy football, so I keep on top of new trends and what’s happening.”
Many fans argue it’s Shanahan’s resume that keeps him in charge, his Super Bowl rings from the 1990s having bought him an “emperor for life” status; Bowlen said it’s Shanahan’s willingness to keep tinkering.
“You can’t stay stagnant,” Bowlen said. “And Mike studies all the time. That’s how you keep up with the game. That’s how he stays a step ahead.”
So, this isn’t necessarily a make-or-break season for Shanahan, who has said he’d like to coach another decade in the NFL.
Even so, Shanahan, who is 138-83 in 13 seasons in Denver, feels the heat to turn things around quickly.
“I think anybody that’s in this profession always understands they’re in the hot seat,” he said. “That’s the nature of this game. The reason you stay with the job that you have is because you win. And if you don’t win, you don’t keep your job.”
And the temperature just keeps getting hotter for Shanahan, the team’s executive vice president of football operations.
“I think it’s even stronger now than it was when I was younger, because you realize you’re just on top of so many factors that exist, and because you’re 10, 15, 20 years older,” Shanahan said. “You understand the highs and lows and what it takes to stay on top and how important these games are.”
After finishing 7-9 last year, Shanahan didn’t stand still.
“It’s not just missing the playoffs, it’s what kind of product are you putting on the field? You’re 7-9 and we didn’t play well. I took it very personal. Made some changes, some tough changes and they were changes I had to make,” Shanahan said.
“When you predict you should win 10 games every year and you don’t, it comes down to me. I always believe we should be in the playoffs. Like I said, I believe we’ll be in the playoffs this year. If we stay healthy, I think we’ll get there.”
Shanahan parted ways with Bates, who refused a demotion to linebackers coach and resigned after one forgettable season and was replaced by secondary coach Bob Slowik. Sundquist was replaced with the triumvirate of personnel chief Jim Goodman and assistant general managers Jeff Goodman and Brian Xanders, a rising star who spent the last 14 seasons in Atlanta.
Together, they went about changing the type of players to pursue. No longer would they spend big bucks on free agents such as Walker, Henry and Todd Sauerbrun, who were deemed divisive and not worth the trouble, and character also became a buzzword in the draft room.
“We have taken chances on players in the past and we will in the future,” Shanahan said. “But they understand that we’ve got a certain standard here and if you don’t meet that standard, you’re gone very quickly.”
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