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The Super Bowl Exposes The Myth Of Mike Shanahan

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Photo Steve Peterson.
Photo Steve Peterson.


NFL seasons scramble the brain and lay waste to preconceived notions. They ruin what was thought to be killer drafts — real or fantasy — and make a fool out of expert prognosticators. As predictable as the league’s final four was (Denver, New England, Seattle and San Francisco), the inexplicable happened: Houston “earned” the first overall pick in the draft, Atlanta disintegrated, Philadelphia won the NFC East, Kansas City won 11 games, and Washington’s win total matched the suffix on the back of Robert Griffin III’s jersey.

I didn’t see 3-13 coming. Jim Cantore had no weather models that foretold this outcome. This was the meager rainstorm that gained strength, got a blast of artic air, and turned into a blizzard before all the bread and milk could be snatched up and the kids could be sent home from school. It was the hurricane that was spinning safely off the coast then took an unprecedented 90-degree turn to slam into a vulnerable coast and an unprepared population.

Entering the 2013 season, I figured Washington’s floor was six wins. They tallied half of that lower control limit. The final pick the team forfeited to the St. Louis Rams for the superhero quarterback with a self-destructive Facebook and Twitter habit — a 2014 first rounder — will be the second overall selection. It may net the Rams Jadeveon Clowney and for the next dozen years ‘Skins fans get to watch what might have been … yeah.  

The disastrous outcome rightly cost Mike Shanahan his job. It may have ended his exaggerated career as an NFL head coach. Shanahan’s NFL head coaching history is well known: a failed stint with the Raiders, two Super Bowls with Denver and now the Washington resume stain. The debacle with the Los Angeles Raiders was brief (less than two years) and widely attributed to the eccentricities of owner Al Davis. Shanahan established his reputation as an NFL leading man in Denver. In 14 seasons as head coach, he won 138 regular season games, never won less than six, and notched 10 or more wins seven times.

Lies, damn lies and statistics; consider the myth created.

The link between Shanahan’s success, his Super Bowl bling and a quarterback named John Elway are unmistakable. While Shanahan had regular season success with Jake Plummer at quarterback, his playoff record tells a different story. With Elway, Shanahan was 7-1 in the post-season; without the iconic quarterback, Shanahan is 1-5 in the playoffs. Shanahan, sans Elway, resembles Marty Schottenheimer.

A more recent indictment of Shanahan, the allegedly bright offensive mind, talented football coach and leader of men, is the current state of his two most recent employers. The ‘Skins are a disaster. There are significant questions about whether Robert Griffin III wrecked his knee in the playoffs against Seattle last year — a catastrophic error in judgment by Shanahan — or his once blindingly bright NFL career in its entirety. The team is fractured. Its 2014 draft class is severely compromised. The roster has as many eyesores and holes as the departed coach’s resume. Observing the level of competition in this year’s playoffs and the sound organizations that punched tickets to the conference championship games, the ‘Skins, frankly, seem closer to the head of the 2015 NFL Draft than they do to a ticket to Arizona next February for Super Bowl XLIX (two more year until the “Ls” takeover for a while and those Roman numerals get easier to follow).

Meanwhile, Denver is coming off an incredibly successful season, is participating in this year’s Super Bowl, has a roster littered with talent, and appears poised to contend for at least as long as Peyton Manning laces up the cleats and barks dummy “Omaha” calls at confused defenses. Denver is a destination sought by NFL players and coaches; Washington is one they have to be coerced — usually through Dan Snyder’s dollars — to accept. Stark contrast? I think so.

Widening the analytical aperture, since Shanahan’s departure from Denver after the 2008 season, the Broncos’ record is 46-34, they’ve won three division titles and one conference championship (Super Bowl pending). In his four forgettable seasons in Washington, Shanahan was 24-40, notched three last-place finishes in a so-so division, managed but one token (and costly) playoff appearance, and left the team in a flaming heap. 

Does this dispel the myth of Mike Shanahan, NFL head coach? It should. Shanahan was a decent coach capable of winning with (or not screwing up) superior talent. He looked smart as the offensive coordinator of a ridiculously talented San Francisco squad in the early 1990s. He twice reached the pinnacle of his profession with a HOF quarterback and the best team in the NFL in the late 90s. He looked smart again in 2012 while running a college offense with a dynamic new offensive weapon. Lacking elite toys, Shanahan was just an ordinary kid (if even that) on the coaching playground. Oh, and that record-setting quarterback playing in Denver now?  Yeah, Shanahan attempted to woo him to Washington two years ago, but was out-dueled by the Broncos’ Executive Vice President for Football Operations … a guy named John Elway. 

Maybe I should have seen 3-13 coming…