Mike Shanahan is the perfect example of the flaw in Bill Parcells’ classic line: “If you want to cook the meal, you should be allowed to buy the groceries.”
Yes, Shanahan has been an excellent cook. But he was a so-so shopper, especially for defensive goodies, the main reason he was fired this week after 14 seasons and two Super Bowl victories as Denver’s coach.
You can nitpick Shanahan’s record, notably that he won only one playoff game after John Elway retired in 1999 following the second title. But that may have been because as general manager, he didn’t do very well recently finding players, especially on defense.
Add to that the longevity factor.
“Sometimes you’re at a place for 14 years and it’s the best thing for the organization,” he said during a farewell news conference at which he and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen both broke into tears.
People remember Jim Mora the elder for his classic “Playoffs? Playoffs?” news conference after an egregious loss during his time at Indianapolis. But there also was the public meltdown when he quit midway through the 1996 season as coach of the Saints after leading New Orleans to its only period of extended success.
Later, Mora suggested that for him, seven seasons in one place should have been enough – he quit midway through his 11th with the Saints.
Shanahan’s problems were different.
One was that he never replaced Elway with a first-rate quarterback until he drafted Jay Cutler in 2006. And Cutler isn’t Elway, even though he suggests sometimes that he might be.
The other was defense, or the lack thereof.
This year’s 8-8 team allowed 448 points, worse than only 0-16 Detroit and 2-14 St. Louis. And it gave up more yards than anyone but the Lions, Seahawks (4-12) and Chiefs (2-14). It’s a tribute to Shanahan’s coaching ability that with such a non-defense the Broncos were 8-5 with three weeks left in the season and needed just one more win or a San Diego loss to wrap up the AFC West. That never came and now he’s gone.
To get back to that shopping analogy, there have been highly successful coaches who also have controlled the personnel operation and continued to win. Bill Walsh with the 49ers in the late ’70s and ’80s; Parcells with the Jets in the late ’90s and the Cowboys from 2003-2006; and Bill Belichick in New England from 2000 until … forever?
On the other hand, they needed people to save them from themselves.
Belichick, for example, relied on Scott Pioli and an excellent staff under him that included Thomas Dimitroff, who went to Atlanta after last season and helped turn the Falcons from 4-12 into a playoff team. Pioli could be striking out on his own now.
Parcells, now an overseer in Miami, had Jeff Ireland to help in Dallas. And he left the Cowboys in part because owner Jerry Jones meddled in managing and coaching and was foisting “name” players (or initialed players) on the Tuna against his wishes.
Shanahan constantly has been using the waiver wire and free agency to find defensive players, bringing in first-round busts such as Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren; drafting undersized pass rushers (Elvis Dumervil) and being forced to use them against the run, too; and changing coordinators on a nearly annual basis.
The results are predictable.
Oh, teams can get by with undersized defensive linemen. Look at Indianapolis, where Robert Mathis, generously listed at 245, has three double-digit sack years in the last five. But Mathis started only two games this season for his 11 1/2 sacks, while Dumervil, listed at “260,” started 15 and had five sacks.
Bill Polian, who does the grocery shopping for the Colts, knows that Tony Dungy, the chef, prefers speed on defense to size. But Dungy also knows Polian will get him the right players – he’s been winning for a quarter-century in Buffalo, Carolina and now Indy.
In fact, maybe Shanahan would still be coaching the Broncos if a year or two ago he had gone to Chris Polian, Bill’s son, and suggested he do his shopping for Denver. Chris, his father’s assistant in Indianapolis, now is one of the candidates for the GM job vacated in Kansas City by Carl Peterson.
In other words, even someone as smart as Shanahan has to recognize what he doesn’t know.
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