Football Outsiders
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The Mike Shanahan All-Stars

Ex-L.A./Denver/Washington Head Coach Mike Shanahan
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.


'SKILL PLAYERS'

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.


OFFENSIVE LINE

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.


FRONT SEVEN

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.


SECONDARY

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.


SPECIAL TEAMS

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:

Comments

14 comments, Last at 30 Jun 2020, 10:20pm

1 So...

The All 90s Broncos...

2 Not quite; you'd probably…

In reply to by RyanNewman20

Not quite; you'd probably slip Brian Habib in over Dan Neil on offense.  On defense, you'd find room for Simon Fletcher and Karl Mecklenberg and Greg Kragen and Bill Romanowski and Ray Crockett and so on and so forth...

 

But I mean, to a certain extent, yeah.

3 Sorry Bryan but I cannot…

Sorry Bryan but I cannot support your pick of Zimmerman at left tackle. Maybe he really was better than Trent Williams, I wasn't old enough to pay attention to the offensive line back in the 1990s. 

The main reason I would go with Williams is purely subjective though: I thought it was awesome seeing him line up next to 4 linemen who were all 60-70 lbs smaller than him! He made the 300-pounders look like regular humans, and he was still probably the quickest guy on that line. It was like watching Trent Brown only way, way better.

I'm surprised Ryan Clady didn't even get a mention! I looked it up though and it came as a surprise to me that both of his first-team all-pro years were after Shanny left Denver. But he was 2nd team in 2008, and it's likely his later nods were on part due to past performance.

Also, other than Reed Doughty's mom, I'm probably the only person who remembers his 2012 season (at safety). He deserved an all-pro nod that year IMO. He was a one-man army in the playoff loss to the Seahawks that year, he personally carried the entire team that game. I was really sad he decided to retire after that year. 

4 I remember Reed Doughty, and…

I remember Reed Doughty, and fondly at that, but I don't remember his 2012 season specifically. 

Looking at P-F-R, it appears that he played in 16 games but only started 10, had 1 measly interception, and no sacks. He is credited with just 1 tackle for loss. He earned 3 AV that year, which is... basically nothing.

Incidentally, he did not retire until after the following year (when he started 8 games and earned another 3 AV).

5 Zimmerman

Zimmerman got my vote for MVP of superbowl 32. He completely bamboozled poor Gabe Wilkins. He and Nalen are the first Broncos I would have put in the Hall of Fame from the 1996-98 offenses. The co-ordination of that line was so impressive.

I would have chosen Howard Griffith at FB. His numbers are negligible because he was a blocking back but he had a valuable role in the Broncos' scheme. He played well in SB32 also.

I was looking to see what went wrong for the Denver offense in 1999. The team only won six games and the offense was the weaker unit, one year after ploughing through the league. Of course historically the decline has been attributed to Elway's retirement and the injury to Davis, but Brian Griese and Olandis Gary had a nice enough season replacing them, and as the article shows that offense was bulging with talent at every position. Did Sharpe get injured too? I don't remember, but he didn't contribute much. In fact, the Broncos were a bit unlucky to finish 6-10; they were above average in DVOA on both sides of the ball, but played the hardest schedule and didn't have the best luck. Thereafter, the defense collapsed.

The 1994 San Francisco offense co-ordinated by Shanahan is one of the all-time greats. I would not be able to pick between the stars of that unit and the 1998 Broncos. Except at quarterback: that's a gimme. Steve Young had arguably the highest peak of any of the 1980s-90s QBs, and his peakiest years were the ones under Shanahan.

7 1999 Broncos

In reply to by ammek

Yes, Sharpe broke his collarbone in 1999. That year the Broncos replaced Elway with sub-replacement Brian Griese, lost Terrell Davis to an (effectively) career-ending injury, and lost Shannon Sharpe to season-ending injury.

They also had a bunch of other major injuries (John Mobley, Alfred Williams) and played a brutal schedule. I remember thinking they were one of the better losing teams I had seen in a while, and DVOA agrees, but the loss of three HOF players goes a long way toward explaining their poor offensive showing. Brian Griese, in particular, was so painful to watch. He seemed to put it together briefly in 2000, but really struggled in 1999.

8 I'm surprised Mike shanahan…

I'm surprised Mike shanahan doesn't get remembered better historically. Saying he did nothing without Elway is one of the laziest narratives I've ever heard.

9 Stay away from ESPN comments

Not just lazy. Wrong.

By DVOA, Mike Holmgren's SF offenses were an improvement on Bill Walsh's (post '85). Mike Shanahan's were an improvement on Holmgren's. All while adding very little from the draft on offense. Impressive coaching.

I hadn't realized how old the 1994 SB-winning offense was. Eight starters over 30. A receiving corps so good and experienced that fourth-year veteran Ed McCaffrey mostly rode the bench.

By the way, I see that the dropdown menus on some FO stats pages now go all the way to 1983. This is exciting!

11 2000s Broncos

The 2005 Broncos are my favorite underrated Broncos team. They were pretty good in 2003 and 2004 -- even though they were only a wild-card team, I liked their matchup against just about any other playoff team... other than the Colts and Terminator Peyton Manning, who was just a nightmare for them to deal with.

In 2005 they got a full season out of Jake Plummer (criminally underrated), a DPOY-caliber season from Camp Bailey, and some of their other underrated players finally got some recognition (Al Wilson, Matt Lepsis). They were a strong team from top to bottom on both sides of the ball: 36.5% DVOA (essentially tied for #1 with the Colts), 43.1% weighted DVOA (#1), 25.4% offense (#4), and -13.3% defense (#6). When the Colts were upset by the Steelers in the divisional round, putting the AFC championship game in Denver, it definitely felt like their year. Alas.

12 Yeah the Broncos seemed to…

In reply to by Grendel13G

Yeah the Broncos seemed to handle Tom Brady and other passing attacks fine, but just thoroughly melted down whenever they faced Peyton Manning.

Manning played well in those games but the Broncos just couldn't handle coverage assignments against him, to the point where the 06 loss was the result of a defense playing a soft zone coverage and getting roasted underneath over and over.

14 I really remember Larry…

In reply to by Grendel13G

I really remember Larry Coyer getting really creative with zero blitzes against the Eagles and just trust Champ to be Champ even against TO and overall it worked.  And then in other games, they would just drop everybody, rush three and clog up all of the passing lanes.  

I think it's a credit to Shanahan that his offenses really were consistently good going through numerous QB's, they all looked better in his offense than anywhere else in their careers.  

He deserves legit cred as a QB whisperer and the run offenses were also always good.  

He just wasn't as good as GM and he didn't know what to do with the defense.  He would bring in big names on big contracts that were grossly overpaid and underperformed.  

I still can't believe that we thought that replacing him with another offensive coach in McDaniels was a good idea.  The offense was never the problem.  In fact, it was first in the league.  I really would have understood a defensive coach, but the offense was potent and proven.  

13 Elway's pass attempts

Elway's pass attempts in 1998 were also suppressed by the 3 games he missed due to injury.