ENGLEWOOD — “The Mastermind.”
At the beginning in Denver, the words were uttered with reverence. As time passed, they often came out with a bit of a smirk.
Mike Shanahan is the only coach to bring a Super Bowl title to the Mile High City, but as the gleam of the two Lombardi Trophies he won faded and playoff trips became more rare, Shanahan went from “Coach for Life” for the Broncos, to just another to be handed a pink slip.
Nearly five years after his unceremonious departure from a place he helped build, Shanny returns to Denver on Sunday as coach of the Washington Redskins.
“It’s been home for me,” Shanahan said. “A lot of great friends still there and just something you look forward to.”
Though moving on is part of any NFL coach’s life, Shanahan has retained deep roots in Denver.
He still owns the 35,000-square-foot house he built, then later let Peyton Manning live in while the quarterback was looking for a place of his own after he signed with the Broncos. Shanahan’s Steakhouse towers over Interstate 25 on the city’s south side, about a 10-minute drive from the Broncos headquarters — and 15 minutes from another popular Denver steakhouse called Elways.
“I didn’t know I was getting fired so I had the restaurant going up either way,” Shanahan said.
During his interview with Denver reporters Wednesday, Shanahan reminisced about the good times and bad over his 21 years with the Broncos — seven as an assistant coach, then 14 more as the leader of a team that finally won the Super Bowl after failing four previous times, three of which came with Shanahan serving as Dan Reeves’ assistant.
Not surprisingly, Shanahan focused on the good things — “Five Super Bowls. I think one of every three years we were in the championship game,” he said — and defended the bad.
In the afterglow of the two Super Bowl wins, owner Pat Bowlen did, in fact, call Shanahan his coach for life. But the coach never quite found the replacement for John Elway, and the stigma of being a coach who couldn’t win the big one without one of history’s best quarterbacks has followed Shanahan. Since No. 7 retired after the ‘98 season, Shanahan remains stuck with only one playoff victory.
He chose Brian Griese to replace Elway in 1999, which never worked out, then experienced some success with Jake Plummer during the 2005 season, when the Broncos had home-field advantage in the AFC title game but lost 34-17 to Pittsburgh.
Shanny and Plummer never saw eye-to-eye, especially when it came to how voraciously Plummer studied the play book.
And so, the turning point of Shanahan’s career in Denver came in 2006 when he drafted Jay Cutler, then put Cutler in the starting lineup after Plummer struggled during a two-game losing streak that dropped the Broncos to 7-4.
“Of course I felt a little bitter toward Shanahan, but he was the coach trying to do the right thing,” Plummer said in an interview on Denver radio station 104.3, The Fan. “I knew it was a bad decision, everyone else did.”
The Broncos finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs that season. They missed the next two postseasons, as well, and became an offense-centric team with a quarterback who rubbed the public the wrong way and a bottom-tier defense.
While the franchise morphed from elite to average, Shanahan’s personnel decisions started taking on the look of desperation, not genius. The man who brought in Terrell Davis and Rod Smith also tried to resurrect the careers of Maurice Clarett and Jerry Rice. Those latter decisions were, in many eyes, more typical of the final years of Shanahan’s reign, and by 2008, he had a roster that simply couldn’t sustain success. He went 146-91 over his 14 years, but only 24-24 over the last three.
Not that Shanahan saw the problems in the same light.
“After we lost in that championship game, we decided to go in a new direction with a quarterback and we started to kind of change the pulse of the football team,” he said. “I thought we had a very young, talented offensive football team. And then, defensively, we lost a number of starters.”
Those comments echoed what he said during his last news conference in Denver, Dec. 31, 2008, when he followed an emotionally battered Bowlen to the microphone and repeatedly used the word “we” to describe the organization he was no longer part of.
A year later, Shanahan was working again, and his time in Washington has been as bumpy as some of his toughest days in Denver. His handling of Robert Griffin III’s knee injury in last year’s playoff loss to Seattle and the timing of the quarterback’s comeback this season have made the most headlines.
Asked about growing pains in dealing with his first NFL coach, Griffin wouldn’t take the bait.
“Last year, we won the division, so we communicated fine,” he said. “This year, we found ourselves in another hole that we have to get out of, and we’re definitely up for the task.”
But Sunday’s game hardly sets up like a confidence booster for the Redskins.
In their 45-41 win over Chicago last week, they allowed 313 yards in the second half to a Bears offense being guided by backup quarterback Josh McCown. Next, they face Manning, who has led the Broncos to 298 points this season, most in NFL history through seven games.
All of that, Shanahan insists, concerns him more than the emotions he knows he’ll feel upon his return, or the reaction he’ll get when he runs onto the field and is the subject of a pregame video tribute on the scoreboard.
“Well, I hope they don’t boo me,” Shanahan said. “I don’t think I did anything wrong to get booed. I didn’t leave. They fired me.”