Mastermind's makeover

Charles Robinson
Yahoo! Sports

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – One player. Maybe two.

That's what Mike Shanahan claimed as his missing ingredient after the Denver Broncos got devoured by the Indianapolis Colts for the second straight postseason last year. To hear the Broncos' head coach tell it, the Super Bowl was still within Denver's grasp. All the team needed was a few more capable hands.

Then Shanahan went out and added the Cleveland Browns' defensive line, a move complemented with the selection of Maurice Clarett and some other rookies whose drafting didn't seem to fit necessity. And before it was all over, Jerry Rice was invited to town for a pre-retirement cup of coffee. In the championship perspective, the decisions seemed a tad bleak. To put it more bluntly, it seemed the only way Shanahan would grip the next Super Bowl trophy was if the New England Patriots or Colts asked him to polish it.

"One thing about Mike Shanahan," Denver linebacker Al Wilson chuckled, "he's not too scared to take risks."

Judging from the offseason machinations, it's hard to believe Shanahan was afraid of anything. While other teams made shiny new acquisitions like Randy Moss, Corey Simon, Samari Rolle and Derrick Mason – and robbed the Broncos of maturing talents like Reggie Hayward, Kelly Herndon and Kenoy Kennedy – Shanahan was busy rescuing the Island of Misfit Toys. Only a man with supreme confidence (or, as cynics bill it, arrogance) would sell the Broncos as a better team after the "key" additions of Ron Dayne, Courtney Brown, Michael Myers, Gerard Warren and a bushel of rookie cornerbacks.

One regular season later, Shanahan looks his most brilliant in the post-John Elway era, yet hardly anyone is willing to give him the credit he deserves. It's a shameful reality, particularly when a player like Wilson can stare around the Broncos' locker room and declare, "This is, without a doubt, the best team I've been on since I've been in Denver."

"We drafted three defensive backs and all three of them have helped us and played well," Wilson added. "Then we bring in four defensive linemen from Cleveland. Everyone said we shouldn't have done that, and (asked) 'What could they bring to the team?' They solidified our defensive line. Mike is one of the premiere guys in the NFL at finding personnel and making the right moves."

While that might be a slight overstatement – Shanahan has made his fair share of roster mistakes – it's hard to argue with his offseason decisions.

While Clarett's training camp misadventures were the stuff of big headlines, Shanahan still managed to enjoy one of the league's most productive offseasons. Not only did he cull three rookie cornerbacks (Darrent Williams, Domonique Foxworth and Karl Paymah) who look like they'll complete a strong secondary for years to come, but he also maintained his running back depth with Dayne and recreated his defensive line without nuking the future of his salary cap with a quick fix like Kevin Carter.

Shanahan has done what most thought he couldn't do – elevate the Broncos to their post-Elway apex without tearing apart the roster or junking quarterback Jake Plummer. And he did it the old-school way, by sticking to his system, maintaining continuity in his coaching staff (Gary Kubiak is the longest tenured offensive coordinator in the NFL) and not crumbling under the expectations of being a "Hall of Fame coach" and "offensive genius."

With the Broncos being written off in the preseason and pronounced dead after a 34-10 bludgeoning at Miami in Week 1, Shanahan proceeded to churn out one of the quietest 13-3 records in recent memory, and he did it despite season-long injury battles with key players. Shanahan pared down his team's reliance on Plummer, successfully injected youth into the defense and maintained a solid running game.

"I told everyone in this room that we weren't far away from competing," Shanahan said. "We brought some guys in to help us in a few different areas and I think they did. Now the goal is to come away with a Super Bowl trophy, and that's a three-round fight."

It seems appropriate that the road begins against New England, a team that has been the postseason antithesis of the Broncos the last two seasons.

On one side of the field will be Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, the resident poster boys for the league's insatiable craving for dynasties and geniuses. On the other side will be Shanahan, whose sash of greatness has done little more than droop and fade over the last six years, and Plummer, whose worst day last season involved making obscene gestures at Denver fans who were seemingly ready to burn him in effigy.

Strangely enough, a Broncos victory on Saturday will pull those two playoff opposites toward each other. For Shanahan, a win would go a long way toward restoring his mastermind reputation.

Either Shanahan is the guy who can endure the lean years and rebuild a Super Bowl champion, or he's a one-hit wonder who had his most glorious years riding the coattails of a Hall of Fame quarterback. Because as much as the phrase "He's never won without John Elway" is repeated, it's never going to become "John Elway never won without Mike Shanahan."

"You can't say enough about what he's done in terms of personnel and the whole front office," Broncos safety John Lynch said of Shanahan. "You look at any team over a period of years, and that's the best way to judge it. Shoot, the Broncos haven't won in the playoffs, but they've consistently been in the upper echelon in the league (in wins)."

Most remarkable about Shanahan is that he's only had one losing season in 11 years with the Broncos, going 114-62 in the regular season. And yet, coming into this season without a playoff win in seven years, he registered a faint blip in conversations about the NFL's best coaches. It's a lack of appreciation that didn't seem to change despite posting a 13-3 record in arguably the most talented conference.

So what is his reputation worth? When the Associated Press' voting for Coach of the Year was tallied, he received a grand total of zero votes.

"The last few years (with losses to Indianapolis), we haven't helped him any," Wilson said of Shanahan. "But we have the right mixture now. Look at all the moves he's made this (season). This is because of him. He's put the team together with the veterans and young guys, and it's a team that can win (in the postseason). If we don't do it, it's not because of Mike. He's a Hall of Fame coach. He's right up there (with Belichick).

"All that's keeping him from getting that credit can be solved Saturday by winning."

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