We underserve many teams here at KSK, the Bills, Chiefs, and a handful of others among them. Included in that group are the Broncos. Best-selling author Stefan Fatsis spent a year with the Broncos for his book A Few Seconds Of Panic. So we asked him to give us his theories as to why Pat Bowlen finally decided to cut Mike “Leatherface” Shanahan loose after 13 years on the job (my theory: because he sucks). Here now is Fatsis’ take.
Drew and I exchanged emails on Monday.
DREW: No chance Shanny is in trouble, yes?
FORMER DENVER BRONCOS KICKER, INSIDER AND TEAM CHRONICLER WHO THINKS HE TOTALLY UNDERSTANDS THE MINDS OF BRONCOS OWNER PAT BOWLEN AND HEAD COACH MIKE SHANAHAN: No chance. Coach for life. Or at least til end of this contract in 2011.
Writer knows shit. What a surprise. But this really was one argument that seemed pointless. Shanahan was going nowhere. When the lunatics on the Broncos message boards would post their all-caps, multi-exclamation-pointed Shanny-must-go posts, I’d chuckle at the natives rattling the wrought-iron gates of the mansion. Didn’t they get it? Coach for life meant coach for life. Pat would no sooner fire Mike than he would spoon with Al Davis.
There was good reason for the confidence. I asked Bowlen once to describe his relationship with Shanahan. He stared contemplatively over my right shoulder for a good 30 seconds before finally talking. “I don’t want this to come out in the wrong way,” he said, “but it’s almost like a marriage. You know, you grow with that person and you develop a certain level of confidence and trust over a period of years. And so you know the right questions to ask, you know the right, the wrong buttons to push. It’s not like you put all your faith and trust in this person and then they’re not doing the job or cheating on you. That’s not happening.” (Ed. note: Bowlen then added, “Ya little fucker.”) The couple renewed its vows before the 2007 season with a contract extension through 2011 at more than $6 million a year.
Bowlen deferred to Shanahan on just about every internal decision, on and off the field, like sacking the GM who was with the team for 16 years, Ted Sundquist, after a 2007 season flop that could hardly have been blamed on the front office (especially since Shanahan ultimately made pretty much every call). Some people viewed the relationship as too one way, that Mike had Pat’s number. But Bowlen’s no pushover, and no fool. He’s the most reasonable owner I’ve ever met in sports; no pretense, no bullshit, lots of smarts. (He negotiated the NFL’s many-zeroed TV contracts.) Bowlen doesn’t make decisions to respond to public pressure; he’s justifiably proud of the competent operational systems he and Shanahan imposed over the years; and, rather amazingly, he understands that operating a professional sports franchise is a fickle endeavor, that success is cyclical, especially in a league like the NFL, and dependent on too many outside factors. (Look at how many injuries the Broncos suffered this season.)
I haven’t spoken to either Bowlen or Shanahan, but here’s my hunch: Something flipped in their relationship. Maybe Shanahan finally overestimated his power and immunity, had confused the authority Bowlen had vested in him with the ultimate authority over the franchise. Or maybe Bowlen just concluded that the franchise’s long-term business prospects were being damaged by Shanahan’s tenure—one playoff win in 10 years didn’t help—and, in a challenging economic climate, would be improved by a change. (Ed. Theory: Shanny boned Mrs. Bowlen. It’s a lock.)
But this isn’t your garden-variety firing. Shanahan may not be a Mastermind anymore, but he isn’t a Mangenius either, some young, disposable, overhyped coach. Love him or hate him, he was an institution in Denver who won a shitload of games, and as many Super Bowls as Landry, Shula and Parcells. Players and executives would gripe about Shanahan’s inflexible habits and routines, about his erratic and sometimes poorly grounded player-personnel decisions, and about the culture of paranoia his omnipotence created (I’ll never forget Shanahan’s former college roommate and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger bolting out of his office so he wouldn’t be late for a coaches’ meeting). But I never once heard anyone question Shanahan’s abilities as an organizer and a coach.
There was a fundamental belief, even a cockiness, that the Broncos had figured out how to make an NFL organization operate efficiently and effectively, that the team wouldn’t win every year but it wouldn’t embarrass itself if it didn’t. But after three really bad seasons in a row—a run that I think began with the benching of Jake Plummer when Denver was 7-4 in 2006, but that’s just me—the Teflon may have worn off. Shanahan wasn’t exactly the great and powerful Oz, but he certainly stopped looking quite so invincible, maybe even to his boss.
I actually have a theory as to why Shanny was able to hold sway over Bowlen for so many years, and the answer lies in the above photo. MIKE SHANAHAN CAN DESTROY YOU WITH HIS GAZE. That makes him tough to bargain with.