Shanahan’s Ring of Fame induction is a reminder of once-lofty standards

Oct 15, 2021, 6:29 AM
Head coach Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos paces the sideline late in the fourth quarter agains...
(Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

This Sunday, the Broncos will honor Mike Shanahan when he is inducted into the Ring of Fame at halftime of the game against the Raiders. The celebration of Shanahan’s career as Broncos head coach will be joyous for Broncos fans. It will be a reminder of some of the best and most successful moments in Broncos history.

It will also be a reminder of how far the standard for success has fallen in Denver over the last half-decade.

Without Shanahan, the Broncos don’t win three Super Bowls. Shanahan oversaw the Broncos back to back Super Bowls wins in 1997 and 1998, and Shanahan’s protege, Gary Kubiak, returned to the team in 2015 to bring Denver their third Lombardi Trophy. Shanahan had only two losing seasons in Denver and finished with a record 138-86. It wasn’t always great, but it was rarely bad.

Shanahan’s style of offense is still being utilized in the NFL today. In his time in Denver, it seemed like every running back that put on a jersey ran for 1,000 yards. Opponents knew what the Broncos were going to do and still couldn’t stop the zone blocking running attack.

It’s an interesting time for Shanahan to be honored. The Broncos haven’t had a winning season since Kubiak stepped down following 2016. After Vance Joseph didn’t work, the Broncos are currently in no man’s land with head coach Vic Fangio.

In just over two seasons, Fangio has as many losing seasons in Denver as Shanahan had in 14 seasons. Shanahan finished last in the AFC West only once and that was in 1999 after John Elway retired. He followed that season by going 11-5 and returning to the playoffs.

Mike Shanahan was fired after the 2008 season after three straight seasons of missing the playoffs. During those three seasons, the Broncos final records were 9-7 (2006), 7-9 (2007) and 8-8 (2008). Those are not amazing records, but the worst of the three, 7-9, is the best record Fangio has had in either of his two years in Denver. In 2006 and 2008, the Broncos were battling for a playoff spot up until the last game of the season. In both scenarios, the Broncos lost the last game.

In 2021, if the Broncos were playing for a playoff spot in the last game of the season, everybody would be doing cartwheels. Even if they lost. That’s where the expectation has fallen off.

Now, if the Broncos are semi-relevant, it’s considered a “step in the right direction” versus Shanahan’s tenure where being relevant was a given and anything less than a playoff appearance was a letdown. Back then, the Broncos were after true success versus trying to present the illusion of success.

During the Shanahan era, seven to nine wins was an underachieving season. Currently, there are some that feel if the Broncos were able to get nine wins, it would be an accomplishment regardless if the team makes the playoffs.

Except for just a few (1996, 1999, 2002 and 2007) Shanahan’s Broncos were in the playoff hunt up until the very last game. Since 2017, the Broncos have been dismissed from the playoff discussion by midseason, every season.

Many remember Shanahan’s last season as the season the Broncos collapsed after finishing 8-8 when they had an 8-5 record. What is never mentioned is that the Broncos entire running back room was injured, and they were signing running backs off the street late in the season.

Considering Shanahan’s success was predicated on the run game, this was a major blow to his team. However, the winning standard of the Broncos didn’t allow for excuses. These days, it seems like all we do is lean on injury excuses for the Broncos’ poor performance.

The Shanahan-era Broncos were not afraid of any team. They beat Bill Belichick and Tom Brady regularly whether in Foxboro or Denver. Yes, they got stomped by Peyton Manning, but they beat Manning in Indianapolis in 2003 and lost in a classic in 2006.

It wasn’t always great under Shanahan. Shanahan the general manager made a series of bad decisions on the defensive side of the ball regarding personnel and coaching. This was his ultimate undoing. Even with the defensive struggles, the Broncos were still contending to the very end.

Shanahan was decisive in his decisions. Sometimes, it worked out (trading Clinton Portis for Champ Bailey). Sometimes, it didn’t work out (signing Dale Carter). Either way, Shanahan wasn’t scared to roll the dice if it meant getting his team back to the Super Bowl.

Shanahan traded up to draft Jay Cutler when he had Jake Plummer as his quarterback. The combination of Shanahan and Cutler was a good one. Cutler’s performance in 2008 is the lone Pro Bowl appearance of his career. It’s upsetting that we never got to see the long-term coach and quarterback pairing of Shanahan and Cutler.

Shanahan traded up in the first round for Cutler because he felt he could improve the quarterback position when he didn’t necessarily have to. The current Broncos have twice passed up on quarterbacks in the top 10. In both scenarios, they desperately needed a quarterback.

The current Broncos are intimidated. Shanahan’s Broncos were bold.

The Broncos have been bad under Vic Fangio (and Vance Joseph previously). Under Fangio, they have yet to win against the best teams in the NFL and have regularly lost in the final minutes. Opponents don’t have much respect for the Broncos and good coaches like John Harbaugh, Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin have been coaching circles around Fangio and his staff.

To be fair, Fangio hasn’t had a solid ownership situation and he didn’t inherit John Elway at quarterback. He inherited a roster that was low on talent. The beginning of Fangio’s Broncos career was a steeper climb.

That said, without Elway, Shanahan still found a way to win games and put a quality product on the field. Fangio has yet to accomplish this consistently.

The Broncos are 3-2. They have a tough schedule ahead. Under Shanahan, we rarely looked at the schedule and saw opponents and immediately thought, “Oh that’s a loss.” But that’s become a habit in Denver. For the current coaching regime in Denver to have a shot at sticking around, the expectation should be playing competitively against the league’s best and remaining in the playoff conversation until the very end.

It is sad that we’ve reached a point that almost making the playoffs would be considered a success. At some point the Broncos need to return to the Mike Shanahan days where playoffs were the minimum expectation and the Super Bowl was always in the goal.


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Shanahan’s Ring of Fame induction is a reminder of once-lofty standards