DENVER — He was known as a genius, a mastermind and, yes, a Super Bowl champion. Shockingly, though, Mike Shanahan has a new title: Unemployed coach.
Shanahan became the latest and most stunning victim of the NFL coaching purge, fired Tuesday by the Denver Broncos after a late-season collapse knocked the team out of the playoffs for the third straight year.
Shanahan became the fourth coach to be fired this week, joining Eric Mangini, Rod Marinelli and Romeo Crennel, after going 24-24 over the last three seasons, including three straight losses in 2008 that turned a three-game division lead to an 8-8 record.
"After giving this careful consideration, I have concluded that a change in our football operations is in the best interests of the Denver Broncos," owner Pat Bowlen said.
Bowlen had been steadfastly loyal to Shanahan, rewarding the coach who brought the long-awaited Super Bowl title to Denver with what seemed like carte blanche for life.
But Denver remained stuck on only one postseason victory since John Elway retired in 1999 following back-to-back championships. Shanahan finishes at 146-91 over 14 seasons in Denver, including playoffs; his final game was an unseemly 52-21 loss to San Diego with the division title on the line.
"I'm very shocked, extremely shocked," said rookie Spencer Larsen, who played fullback and linebacker this year. "I don't think any of us saw this coming."
For any other coach, on any other team, this kind of thing wouldn't have come as such a surprise, considering the season that just ended.
It included a historic collapse with Denver becoming the first team since divisional play started in 1967 to blow a three-game lead with three games left.
The Broncos' defense gave up 448 points, third worst in the NFL, including 112 during the three-game collapse at the end. It was ranked 29th in yards allowed and tied for last in the NFL with a minus-17 turnover margin.
Who might be able to turn it around?
Because Shanahan's job had seemed so secure, there hasn't been much speculation. Now, all the usual suspects will surely surface, both on the coaching and personnel sides: Bill Cowher, Scott Pioli, Jim Fassel. Shanahan's best assistant over the years, Gary Kubiak, is under contract with the Texans.
"I don't know if necessarily they'll find a better football coach," said linebacker Bill Romanowski, a key player on the Super Bowl teams. "Mike is an outstanding football coach, one of the better coaches I had, if not the best. But players start to get tired of the same routines, the same kind of play calling. A new fresh coat of paint sometimes does a whole lot of good."
Messages left on Elway's cell phone by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.
Bowlen and Shanahan were scheduled to hold news conferences Wednesday. Shanahan had three years left on his contract, worth about $20 million.
It will be interesting to see if Bowlen wants a change in the way the organization is run. Over the past several years, the most successful teams have moved away from the once-popular structure of having a coach-slash-GM in charge of everything.
In Denver, Shanahan ran everything and as things went downhill, he relieved defensive coordinators — Greg Robinson, Ray Rhodes, Larry Coyer and Jim Bates — in almost revolving-door fashion.
This year, as the defense floundered, it became obvious it wasn't just a coaching problem. It was an issue of talent on the field, and in Denver, the buck stopped with Shanahan.
He focused on defense in 2007, using two of his four picks for defensive linemen Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, neither of whom have been much of a factor. Also of late, he wasted a third-round pick on Maurice Clarett (2005), spent millions on Travis Henry (2007), never got anything from Boss Bailey, Niko Koutouvides and Dewayne Robertson (2008).
Yet even when the talent wasn't there, he usually fielded a competitive team. Decades of solid sellouts and the full confidence of his owner made him almost impervious to criticism. Even after blowout losses, he was wont to acknowledge, at least publicly, deficiencies in his coaching or management style.
He was known — first affectionately, then more derisively — as "The Mastermind" during his tenure with the Broncos. And despite his poor finish in Denver, Shanahan shouldn't have much trouble getting another job if he's interested — and willing to part with the 35,000-square-foot house he's building in a fancy part of Denver.
He earned the reputation honestly, returning to lead the Broncos after a short, unsuccessful stint with the Oakland Raiders, where he was fired by Al Davis in a contentious parting that still isn't fully resolved. (Shanahan claims he's owed $250,000).
Shanahan became a coaching star as a coordinator and confidant of Elway's while the Broncos were being coached by Dan Reeves. But Reeves ended up firing Shanahan, accusing him of insubordination for supposedly conspiring with Elway to hatch game plans behind the head coach's back.
That made for a great subplot for the Super Bowl 10 years ago, when Denver met Reeves and the Falcons, for what turned out to be the last great moment for a franchise that Shanahan took to the top.
Denver's two Super Bowl victories came behind the running of Terrell Davis and the brilliance of Elway, but Shanahan pulled the strings and finally helped deliver the title to a city that had been through four painful Super Bowl losses, three with Elway at the helm.
Shanahan was regarded as a coaching genius when it came to creating mismatches on the field, confusing defenses by using different personnel groupings to run the same set of plays, series after series and game after game.
Davis. Olandis Gary. Reuben Droughns. Clinton Portis. Tatum Bell. They all ran for 1,000 yards for the Broncos and the basic thought was that anyone could do it.
But after Elway retired, it was never quite the same.
His replacement, Brian Griese, never panned out. Jake Plummer got the Broncos to the AFC title game in 2005, but Denver was blown out by Pittsburgh. Shanahan drafted Jay Cutler the next year — an indication he was blowing up a team that had come so close a year before.
Cutler, along with receivers Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, make up the core of what could be a very promising offense in years to come. But the defense Shanahan assembled was wretched — allowing more than 400 points over the past two seasons — and the Broncos hardly looked like contenders.