The Duke and The Mastermind, who were united as quarterback and coach, colleagues, chess partners and closest friends through nine seasons and five Super Bowls, nearly reunited a year ago this month.
Would the Broncos have reached the playoffs and become relevant in the NFL again this season if Mike Shanahan had returned to the franchise as coach and reconnected with John Elway and Gary Kubiak, and if Kirk Cousins had signed to be the team’s quarterback?
Considering that Vance Joseph, given a second and final chance, is on his way out — especially after another humiliating defeat, this time to the Browns on Saturday — is it too late for the Elway-Shanahan reunification?
It’s an astonishing story.
According to five independent and reputable sources, Elway and Shanahan seriously discussed a deal last December for the former (and all-time winningest in 14 seasons) coach to replace the current head coach (with an 11-19 record). The contract was not finalized because Broncos’ CEO Joe Ellis, who also serves on the Pat Bowlen Trust board, refused to agree.
All sources who spoke exclusively to The Gazette demanded anonymity because of their associations with the parties involved.
Two of the sources also said that Cousins met with Shanahan (date unknown) in a back room at Shanahan’s restaurant and told the coach he would play for the Broncos, if Shanahan would be the coach, at a discounted rate. In Washington, D.C., Shanahan drafted Cousins and eventually chose him as the starter over Robert Griffin III — before Shanahan was fired from his last job in the league.
Truthfully, the first source, a well-known and well-positioned man in Colorado, told me months ago about the startling events. I wouldn’t publish the account without confirmation by other sources inside and outside the organization. Nobody at the Broncos was talking because Joseph, who was 5-11 in his rookie season as a coach, was brought back, rather than being fired, on Jan. 1 when Elway said he had “slept on” the decision. It has been and is a sticky situation because Joseph continues to be the coach, at least temporarily.
Shanahan doesn’t disclose information about the stealthy negotiations out of respect for the Broncos and possibly because he could be one of the leading contenders for the job this time around.
The original source said the talks were held because “John and Mike have made up and settled most of their differences” that had built up after Elway retired in 1999 and was named the chief of football operations by Pat Bowlen. That continued when Elway took over the Broncos’ football operations. Elway rarely was at Broncos’ headquarters (although he has told me was “banned”) while Shanahan remained as coach, and Shanahan has not been invited to Dove Valley since Elway returned.
They’ve never disclosed the reasons for their badly ruptured relationship nor how they seemed to have repaired some of the problems.
The discord did not include their dueling steakhouses or football matters.
“John and Mike talked to friends of each other, then talked on the phone and met privately,” the first source said. The two live in homes in the upscale Cherry Hills area, and both belong to the same golf club. Another source said: “It certainly took place. Shanahan was so close to being the coach for this season.”
The two deliberated the prospect of luring Cousins, a free agent, to Denver, and even, another source said, that Kubiak, who had rejoined the Broncos in a scouting and consigliere role with Elway, might accept a role as offensive coordinator under his old boss. Kubiak had played behind Elway and was his offensive coordinator, for Shanahan, when the Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls. Oddly enough, Shanahan and Kubiak won rings as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the 49ers before they came back to Denver.
It was believed that Shanahan would come back the third time. He also returned after being fired as Raiders coach by Al Davis, and Bowlen rehired him over the protest of then-coach Dan Reeves, who felt the Elway-Shanahan bond was too chummy.
Over the past several weeks, as the Broncos revived to win three consecutive games, then slipped to lose verdicts to the 49ers and the Browns, more sources have been willing to talk.
After I told one source the rather tall tale I’d heard, he said: “I can confirm every bit of it, including the part about Cousins being at Mike’s restaurant in the back room, and they talking about being on the same team again. It would have been good for both of them.”
Shanahan has interviewed for at least three head coaching positions over the past three years but wasn’t selected. He does seek to get back into the NFL, but only as a coach, not as a coordinator or in a front-office post.
Sources also supported reports that Ellis recommended Joseph, who had three years left on a contract that pays about $5 mill per, not be fired and Shanahan not be hired. Ellis and Shanahan had major conflicts in the 2000s as Shanahan failed to reach the playoffs, and Ellis’ authority base grew as Bowlen became more concerned about his memory-loss complications. It has been stated by sources that Ellis persuaded Bowlen to dump Shanahan, and Ellis made the call to hire Josh McDaniels (and then fired him in his second season).
Ellis didn’t want the potential of another power struggle within the organization, although the ownership/trustee disputes/lawsuit/controversies among family members are disrupting the Broncos.
When Ellis wouldn’t approve the return of Shanahan, Elway “slept on it” on it and kept Joseph.
Ellis has become disenchanted with Joseph this season and, according to two sources, is ready for his ouster. The Broncos’ reputation in the league and with corporations being courted to place their name on the stadium has slipped badly. The Broncos are an irrelevant franchise, affecting the number of no-shows at games, the profitability and popularity of the team and the plans to develop an entertainment center south of new Mile High Stadium. Broncos Country hasn’t warmed to Joseph, and he didn’t help himself by kicking a field goal in the fourth quarter to trail by one point rather than going for a first down on fourth-and-one.
Not only would the end of the Vance Joseph Error being a football decision, but a business decision, and maybe a future ownership decision.
Cousins is not coming to the Broncos, and he’s experienced a completely average season, despite a three-year full guarantee $70 million-plus contract with the Vikings. Will Shanahan come back? He spends time studying the Broncos’ and other teams’ films. His son, Kyle Shanahan — who just beat the Broncos — acknowledged that his father and he talk football. The elder Shanahan likely offered advice to the younger Shanahan before the 49ers-Broncos game.
Could there be an Elway-Ellis-Shanahan-Kubiak reunion?
Three sources and I don’t believe the get-back-together occasion will occur. The Beatles didn’t reunite, but the Eagles (band) did, and so did the Jaguars and Tom Coughlin.
However, a stranger meeting of The Mastermind with the brain of the Broncos did transpire last December.