The latest installment of our “coaching all-stars” series, which showcases the best player-seasons in the history of some of the NFL’s most experienced and well-travelled coaches, brings us to Mike Shanahan.
The general idea for this series is to combine great (or at least solid) eras from different teams to make one uber-team, composed of the best and brightest of one particular coach’s many stops — a sort of Mr. Holland’s Opus ending. That works for a lot of coaches, as players from different decades come together to form the ideal, never-realized perfect version of a coach’s vision. That is not the case for Mike Shanahan; his Opus ending would basically have just one graduating class and a ton of empty chairs.
Shanahan coached for three teams in his career, but his six years in Los Angeles (with the Raiders) and Washington produced just one winning season between them. If you look only at his Denver years, then his .616 winning percentage would have him in the top 30 all-time. But even that isn’t all that much out of the ordinary; lots of coaches have had one really great run and a couple of questionable tenures. It’s not like the Bill Belichick All-Stars would feature a ton of Cleveland Browns.
No, the real issue is that the Shanahan offense reached its pinnacle in 1998, a pinnacle that few coaches in NFL history have ever been able to match. The 1998 Broncos have the fourth-best offensive DVOA in history, at 34.5%. They’re the third-best rushing offense in history, and also crack the top 15 in passing offense. Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme had both its best players and best production in that window, and while his Broncos still had success throughout the remainder of his tenure, the late 1990s run blots out the sun. More so than any other coach we cover in this series, the Shanahan team is going to be hyper-focused on three or four years.
QB: John Elway, 1998 Broncos
RB: Terrell Davis, 1998 Broncos
FB: Bo Jackson, 1988 Raiders
WR: Rod Smith, 2000 Broncos
WR: Ed McCaffrey, 1998 Broncos
TE: Shannon Sharpe, 1996 Broncos
Oh, we’d love to be really controversial here and go a different way at quarterback. Shanahan had three different quarterbacks top 1,100 DYAR in Denver. Jay Cutler did it in 2008, and Jake Plummer actually holds the Shanahan-era record with 1,181 DYAR in 2005. And then, of course, you have Robert Griffin’s one magical year in Washington before his knee gave out to put under consideration as well. But in the end, it had to be Elway. The only reason he didn’t top Plummer’s DYAR was because he had 101 fewer passing attempts; his DVOA of 39.2% has only been passed once in Broncos history.
Elway threw very few passes because he had Terrell Davis in the backfield; Davis’ 602 rushing DYAR that year is the highest on record going back to 1985. Shanahan has worked with a lot of great running backs — he had Marcus Allen in Los Angeles and made 1,000-yard rushers out of Clinton Portis, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns, Olandis Gary, Tatum Bell, and Alfred Morris. Still, there’s no need to overthink that backfield. We’re cheating a little at fullback — Bo Jackson was much better in 1989 (when Shanahan was fired after a 1-3 start) than in 1988, but were we really going to leave Jackson off the team for Aaron Craver?
Things are more interesting when we get to the wideouts. A Rod Smith season was a gimme; the only issue was selecting which one. Smith’s 1,602 yards and 369 DYAR in 2000 were his career highs, while his best mark in DVOA came in 1998. In the end, putting up great numbers catching passes from Brian Griese is more impressive than doing so for John Elway, so we’re going with 2000. The other slot comes down to a battle between Ed McCaffrey and a very young Brandon Marshall; while we’re tempted by Marshall’s 2007 and 2008 years with Jay Cutler throwing him the ball, we’d just be picking him for the sake of variety. McCaffrey has the best and second-best DYAR totals for the Shanahan Broncos; we’re taking his 1998 season, which had slightly less DYAR but 36.3% DVOA.
Your pick of Shannon Sharpe seasons fills the void at tight end; 1996 was his best year under Shanahan in both DYAR and DVOA, which makes that the default advanced stat selection.
Things would be more interesting here if we included Shanahan’s coordinator tenures, as you’d have those early-1990s 49ers demanding skill position roles themselves. We leave Elway versus Steve Young, as well as whether or not John Taylor joins Jerry Rice at wideout, as an exercise for the reader.
LT: Gary Zimmerman, 1996 Broncos
LG: Mark Schlereth, 1998 Broncos
C: Tom Nalen, 2000 Broncos
RG: Dan Neil, 1998 Broncos
RT: Matt Lepsis, 2002 Broncos
We’re leaving two players from the 1998 Broncos off the list. Tony Jones was a Pro Bowler at left tackle, but he was replacing a Hall of Famer in Gary Zimmerman, the leader of the Broncos’ offensive line throughout the 1990s. Jones had moved from right tackle to fill Zimmerman’s shoes, and was replaced by Harry Swayne, pretty clearly the weakest link on that team. Lepsis’ best year came in 2004 as a left tackle when the line allowed just 15 sacks, but we’ll dial it back a few years so we can squeeze him in on the right. As for Nalen, we’re taking 2000 over 1998 because that was his first-team All-Pro season, but you could easily just go with a triplet of 1998 players up the middle.
The 2012 Redskins have a bone to pick, however. With a 16.4% rushing DVOA, they weren’t exactly slouches, and they weren’t blocking for Terrell Davis, either. Trent Williams, Kory Lichtensteiger, Chris Chester, and Tyler Polumbus all received at least some consideration, with Neil over Chester being the closest call. The Broncos had better adjusted line yards both up the middle and to the right, so Neil gets the nod, but it was very, very close.
DE: Alfred Williams, 1996 Broncos
DE: Neil Smith, 1997 Broncos
DT: Trevor Pryce, 1999 Broncos
DT: Michael Dean Perry, 1996 Broncos
OLB: John Mobley, 1997 Broncos
ILB: Al Wilson, 2005 Broncos
OLB: London Fletcher, 2010 Redskins
Shanahan’s Broncos always ran a 4-3 defense; his Raiders and Redskins always ran a 3-4. We’re using the 4-3 base because this will be a Denver-dominated team anyway. Shanahan was never too concerned with the specifics of his defense, letting Greg Robinson and Larry Carver run the show in Denver and Jim Haslett do his thing in Washington.
A few more non-Broncos just miss this list. Shanahan had Howie Long in Los Angeles, but 1988 was the year he missed nine games with a blown calf. Ryan Kerrigan had a couple of strong seasons worth acknowledging in Washington, as did Brian Orakpo. They all end up coming just short, however. Instead, the one non-Bronco who cracks the list is London Fletcher, who could have made the team for any of his seasons between 2010 and 2012. Even that is a bit of a cheat, as we’re lining him up as a 4-3 outside linebacker. While he played for Shanahan as a 3-4 inside linebacker, he was a 4-3 middle linebacker earlier in his career. We just couldn’t justify leaving Al Wilson’s first-team All-Pro nod in 2005 off the list, even for the sake of variety. We prefer Fletcher to Orakpo or Bill Romanowski, even if it’s technically slightly out of position.
As for the rest of the front seven, Shanahan’s teams frequently had a player have one out-of-character great season. John Mobley’s only postseason honor was his All-Pro selection in 1997; Alfred Williams’ only nod was his Pro Bowl in 1996. If we were looking at best players under Shanahan’s entire tenure, rather than best seasons, maybe there’d be more room for someone like Keith Traylor or Maa Tanuvasa, but we’re looking for high points here rather than regular consistency.
CB: Champ Bailey, 2006 Broncos
CB: DeAngelo Hall, 2010 Redskins
SS: Tyrone Braxton, 1996 Broncos
FS: Steve Atwater, 1997 Broncos
The two best safeties Mike Shanahan ever coached were Steve Atwater and John Lynch. Unfortunately for this team, we are making the distinction between strong and free safety, and both Atwater and Lynch lined up as free safeties while in Denver. We could cheat and slide Lynch over to strong safety — that’s where he lined up as a younger man in Tampa Bay — but it’s more interesting to have to choose between the two. You can make an argument for Lynch’s best career season over Atwater’s best, but not when only comparing their Denver seasons. Plus, Atwater was the better player overall; a Hall of Famer instead of the Hall of Very Good, so he gets the nod. He’ll line up next to Tyrone Braxton’s crazy nine-interception year, beating out 2000 Billy Jenkins and the rest of a rather thin field.
Cornerback was tricky. Champ Bailey had to make the team; the choice of his 10-interception 2006 season is somewhat arbitrary and could be replaced by either of his All-Pro seasons in the previous two years. The other starting corner came down to a battle between Deltha O’Neal and Darrien Gordon, each of whom had healthy interception seasons of their own, plus DeAngelo Hall. That’s quite the dime package there, but Hall was the superior player in his prime.
K: Jason Elam, 2001 Broncos
P: Jeff Gossett, 1988 Raiders
RET: Tim Brown, 1988 Raiders
We’re going straight by our numbers here. Elam’s 2001 season may have not had the thin-air bombs that were his calling card, but his 31 field goals was a career high and his 11.9 FG/XP points above average is still the Broncos’ franchise record. Jeff Gossett had some of the highest hang time in the league in the 1980s. Tim Brown didn’t become really valuable as a receiver until 1993, but he was a very effective returner as a rookie in 1988, leading the league in kick return yards, average, and all-purpose yards.
In the end, I’m surprised a few more names from the 2004-2005 Broncos didn’t make the list, especially defensively. It’s a case where having all your starters having good seasons is better for your team than a few players having great years and everyone else falling back towards average. Those mid-1990s seasons just shine too brightly for the rest of Shanahan’s tenure to really poke through.
Previous coaching All-Star Teams: