A Legacy Examined: Mike Shanahan, Mastermind
By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Coach on the Field
Mike Shanahan's familiar ruddy grimace on NFL sidelines has been a Sunday staple for the better part of two decades, to the point where his place in the football universe is a thing taken for granted.
But with these likely his last days in Washington (the Redskins are 3-10 and ugly 45-10 losers at home Sunday to the Chiefs), and perhaps at 61 his last shot at being a head coach, a closer look at his legacy is due.
That legacy starts here: He won two Super Bowls over 20 seasons as head coach (and another as an offensive coordinator, with 1994 San Francisco).
That right there is a good start to any pro football resume, and gets you in the Hall of Fame conversation pretty quickly. His a 10-year run with Denver from 1996-2005 was comparable to any Hall of Fame coach’s success level – an in fact, was almost HOF worthy in and of itself.
A look at the other 10 years of his head coaching career, though, is where Shanahan has some notes on the page that don’t stand up so well.
The two main red flags:
1. Assuming the end is coming in Washington, Shanahan had his chance with three different organizations and failed with two.
It speaks to Shanahan’s chutzpah that after he half-sabotaged his career by crashing and burning for Al Davis and the Raiders as a youngster, he'd turn to Dan Snyder for his third act.
Shanahan clashed with Davis and didn’t make it halfway through Year 2 (fired at 1-3 after a 7-9 rookie year); he didn’t get another head job until 1995 with Denver.
Then, after the run in Denver ended, he thought it’d be a good idea how older, wiser Shanny did with an overbearing owner. The answer, generally, was that he did poorly, with three bad seasons in the four. If things unfold as NFL insiders suspect and Shanahan leaves Washington, it will be a significantly worse run than HOFer Joe Gibbs, who had two playoff runs and two washouts in his four years.
Do you blame Shanahan for struggling under coach-killing owners? Maybe not. But compare that to Bill Parcells, who was an unqualified success in all four NFL stops – or even to Chuck Knox, who won wherever he went (and has the same lifetime winning percentage as Shanahan).
Or, compare him to George Seifert, who only won when he had the big talent. Don’t forget, Shanahan inherited a team that had been to three Super Bowls, just as Seifert did, and won two, as Seifert did.
2. In Shanahan’s 18 non-title seasons, he won a total of one playoff game.
That’s a pretty big statement, and one that makes you rethink the guy’s whole career.
In 14 seasons after Elway, his teams have only been legitimate title contenders once – in 2005, when they had home-field advantage in the AFC title game,
Are those two strikes enough to keep Shanahan out of the Hall of Fame if the 61-year-old’s head coaching career were to be over this year?
Consider this: if we remove the two Super Bowl seasons, and then compare Shanahan’s career to that of the much-maligned Norv Turner, here’s what we find:
|Reg. season win %||.529||.483|
|Made the playoffs||33%||27%|
Does this make you respect Turner more or Shanahan less? Likely, it puts you somewhere in the middle, but it doesn’t do much for Shanahan. If the bulk of Shanahan’s career was a doppelganger for Turner’s (including similar stops working for Davis and Snyder), you have to wonder if the two rings haven’t been a bit blinding.
The comparison is even worse for Shanahan with a guy like Marty Schottenheimer, whose head coaching career was unquestionably better than Shanahan’s (minus the rings):
|Reg. season win %||.529||0.613|
You forget how impressive Schottenheimer was, in four cities; his playoff failures erased his regular-season greatness. It seems like Shanahan’s success also acted as an eraser, wiping out the whispers that probably should have been following him for the last 15 years.
Other great coaches have had first or third acts that weren’t great. But few were as poor as Shanahan’s in Oakland and Washington, and while the sandwich in between was spectacular, it was also fairly brief – Shanahan’s Broncos weren’t a dynasty, they were a two-year supernova that left pale imitations on the retina.
His playoff win percentage is 31st all time, his regular-season percentage 52nd all time. He just doesn’t stack up to the greats by raw math, unless the only number that counts is “2.”
It’ll be interesting to see how Shanahan fares when he comes eligible for the Hall, although it’s safe to say he’ll do better than guys like Schottenheimer, Seifert, Knox or Turner.
Like they say, it don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that ring.
Or, better, rings.
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