Evaluating Mike Shanahan

Mike Shanahan is widely rumored to be at the top of the Bills’ coaching wishlist. If he does not end up with the Bills, it is almost certain that he fill the coaching vacancy soon to open at some other team. So what does a team get if it gets Shanahan?

Shanahan has a career record of 146-98 in 16 seasons, 2 with the Raiders and 14 with the Broncos. He has lead his team to the playoffs 7 times, winning 8 games and dropping 5. He has won 4 division titles, though the last, in 2008, resulted in the Broncos losing a tiebreaker to the Chargers and not making the playoffs. He won consecutive Super Bowls after the 1997 and 1998 seasons. These stats give you the basic shape of Shanahan’s career. But what in particular has he done? Where do these numbers come from?

In Shanahan’s 14 seasons in Denver, the Broncos were in the top 10 in points scored 8 times, though not since 2006. They were in the top 10 in offensive yards 10 times, including his last season in 2008. They were in the top 8 in fewest points and yards allowed 7 times each. How much credit does Shanahan deserve for these rankings? Hard to say. If I was evaluating coaches, I would ask Shanahan why his offenses tended to underachieve, that is their yardage did not match up with their points. Given that his offenses tended to outperform his defenses, it will be important to know who will help him on the defensive side of the ball.

Now let’s broach the question of John Elway. Many have pointed out that Shanahan never won a Super Bowl without Elway as his quarterback. What does this mean? Nothing. Elway never won a Super Bowl without Shanahan as his coach, and he had a reputation for playest his worst games in the 3 Super Bowls he had made. Similarly, Elway never won a Super Bowl without Terrell Davis as his runner. It is easy to make too much of these correlations. But the Elway question does highlight two issues to consider about Shanahan. Shanahan first four seasons with the Broncos included 4 of his top 10 performances in points scored and yards gained, along with 3 of his top 10’s in points allowed and 2 in yards. The Broncos have not been nearly as good over the last 10 seasons of Shanahan’s tenure.

Secondly, how has Shanahan done at developing quarterbacks. Upon coming to Denver, Shanahan inherited a future Hall of Famer. Since Elway’s retirement, the Broncos fielded Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, and Jay Cutler. Griese took over the team in his second season in the NFL. He quarterbacked the Broncos for 4 seasons. He led the league in passer rating in his second season as a starter, but he did not show a general trend of improvement. His rating go from 75.6 to 102.9 to 78.5 to 85.6. Griese was always dogged by injuries, but he showed no signs of developing into a significantly better player. His years since leaving the Broncos have been more of the same. Plummer was an esablished NFL quarterback in his 7th season when the Broncos acquired him from Arizona. He QB’ed for 4 years and stuck up passer ratings higher than he had ever posted for the Cardinals. He also led the league in interceptions once. Given Plummer’s extensive track record, it is tough to say what impact Shanahan himself may have had on Plummer.

That leaves Jay Cutler. Cutler QB’ed the Broncos for two full seasons, and he split time with Plummer his rookie season. His passer rating has dropped every season in the NFL. His interceptions have increased every season, while the percentage of his passes going for touchdowns has dropped each season. Cutler, at least right now, looks like an unmitigated failure in quarterback development. Unless Cutler salvages his career in Chicago, he looks to be a mediocre quarterback.

Is Mike Shanahan a good coach? I think so, though the record is mixed. As any coach could tell you, it is easy to look like a genius if you have superior talent. Shanahan has done very well developing running backs from unspectacular backgrounds, but his work with quarterbacks is more questionable. Potential employers should ask serious questions about future quarterback coaches and defensive coordinators. Will Shanahan succeed wherever he turns up? I don’t know.

What do you think of Mike Shanahan’s future? Can he be an important part of turning around a franchise? If so, which one?

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