As Shanahan showed in 1995, a head coach’s first season can be bumpy
After a headline-stealing free agency period, Broncos Country has high expectations for the 2022 Broncos. Russell Wilson is the Broncos quarterback and new head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s eternal optimism and positivity has reinvigorated the fan base. Ask any Broncos fan and the forecast for 2022 lands somewhere between a return to the postseason or Super Bowl victory.
Nobody is expecting the Broncos to miss the playoffs, but that is a possibility. After all, Hackett is a first-year head coach. And we have seen a first-year head coach in Denver miss the playoffs despite a very talented roster and a Hall of Fame quarterback.
In 1995, Mike Shanahan was named Broncos head coach. He had spent the previous three seasons as the 49ers offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach. In 1994, with Shanahan calling the offense, the 49ers won the Super Bowl and quarterback Steve Young was named NFL MVP. The Broncos experienced a disappointing 1994 season, and it was time for a new leader, and Shanahan was the perfect hire.
Shanahan took over a Broncos roster that boasted John Elway, Shannon Sharpe, Anthony Miller, Mike Pritchard, Gary Zimmerman, Tom Nalen and Steve Atwater. In free agency they added Pro Bowler Michael Dean Perry, Mark Schlereth and Ed McCaffrey. Lastly, they drafted Terrell Davis in the sixth round.
With a brilliant new head coach and solid roster, the ingredients were there for the Broncos to break out in 1995.
The result: 8-8 (only a one game improvement from 1994) and fourth place in the AFC West (out of five teams).
Shanahan’s first season wouldn’t be classified as a disappointment, but it wasn’t the resurgence fans were looking for, at least not yet.
The 1995 Broncos had flashes of greatness with back-to-back nationally televised wins over the Raiders (27-0) and the Patriots (37-3), but struggled in other areas. Shanahan’s Broncos only won two road games. Success within the AFC West was uneven. The Broncos swept the Raiders and split with the Chargers, but they were swept by the Seahawks and Chiefs.
In the end, Shanahan’s Broncos had glimpses of greatness. But they were unable to be consistent.
The 1995 Broncos weren’t a bad football team (they sent six players to the Pro Bowl). They just didn’t know how to capitalize on momentum. In a Week 15 game, Glyn Milburn set the NFL record (still standing) for most all-purpose yards in a game (404 total yards) and the Broncos managed to lose.
The 1995 season was a letdown, but it was necessary because what happened next was unimaginable at the time.
Over the next two offseasons, the Broncos added Alfred Williams, Bill Romanowski, Howard Griffith, Neil Smith and others. From 1996-98 the Broncos had one of the best three-season runs in NFL history, resulting in two Super Bowl wins. In hindsight, 1995 is recognized as the year Mike Shanahan and Terrell Davis changed the fortune of the Denver Broncos, even though it wasn’t as apparent at the time.
Nathaniel Hackett, like Shanahan in 1995, comes to the Broncos after being the offensive coordinator for a quarterback that was named NFL MVP (Aaron Rodgers in this case). Like Shanahan, Hackett takes over what is believed to be a talented roster with a Hall of Fame quarterback that has Super Bowl experience.
There are a couple key differences, however. Shanahan had head coaching experience prior to 1995 and had worked with John Elway as a Broncos assistant in the 1980s and early 1990s. Hackett is a first-time head coach and has never worked with Russell Wilson.
Shanahan’s pass catchers – Miller, Sharpe and Pritchard – were more established than the Broncos current group. The offensive line was better in 1995 and Javonte Williams has been great, but he’s not yet worthy of a Terrell Davis comparison.
Hackett inherits a better defense. Shanahan had to wait until his second and third seasons to load up with Williams, Romanowski and Smith. Hackett has D.J. Jones and Randy Gregory to accompany Pat Surtain II, Justin Simmons and Bradley Chubb.
Shanahan had the roster and experience, but still stumbled out the gate. Shanahan’s 1995 Broncos could beat any team but were also capable of losing to any team.
If the great Mike Shanahan struggled in his first season in Denver, it would be naive to think that Nathaniel Hackett can’t encounter similar issues. Shanahan had five Hall of Famers in 1995 and was unable to secure a winning record. This current Broncos roster is good, but there is only one Hall of Famer.
Broncos Country should be thrilled about the possibilities ahead in 2022. Russell Wilson gives fans a reason to watch the Broncos every week. Nathaniel Hackett’s enthusiasm is the antithesis of boring and gruff Vic Fangio.
With all the improvements, a return to the playoffs is the minimum expectation for the Broncos. It’s just not be as easy as it sounds. As we saw in 1995, a talented roster with a Hall of Fame quarterback doesn’t always equal immediate success for a new head coach.
If Nathaniel Hackett and the Broncos aren’t elite in 2022, it’s not time to panic. The 1995 season was dissatisfying at 8-8, but it was necessary because from 1996-98 the Broncos were the best team in the NFL. Much of 2022 could be a feeling out process for the Broncos to find ultimate success in 2023 and beyond. We might not love the 2022 Broncos final record, but it won’t mean that better days aren’t ahead.