Four Reasons the Broncos Passed on Hiring Kyle Shanahan as Head Coach
The San Francisco 49ers won only three games in 2018. It was the second year of Kyle Shanahan as the head coach, which was preceded by a 6-10 finish in his first year in San Fran.
In his first two years, Shanahan won a grand total of nine games for the Niners. Meanwhile, he patiently but diligently set about rebuilding the foundations of the roster, biding his time for his quarterback — Jimmy Garoppolo — to return from the ACL injury that cost him most of 2018.
Fast forward to the end of the 2019 season and Shanahan had reversed the Niners’ record from the year previous, finishing 13-3 with an NFC West crown and the No. 1 seed in the Conference. Two playoff victories later and Shanahan’s Niners are headed to Super Bowl LIV to face the Kansas City Chiefs.
Considering that Shanahan was ‘this close’ to becoming the 16th head coach of the Denver Broncos back in January of 2017, fans in the Mile High City are feeling a little football envy and perhaps some sour grapes over what could have been. As the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator, Shanahan was one of just three candidates GM John Elway interviewed that January after Gary Kubiak had stepped down as head coach less than one year removed from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl 50.
Going into his interview with the Broncos, Shanahan stated publicly that it would be a dream come true to become the head coach of the same team that his father, Mike Shanahan, led to back-to-back World Championships in the late 1990s. Coming out of it, though, Kyle felt like it was never really in the cards.
“It was a big deal when it happened because I know a lot of people thought that – especially friends that were pulling for you, they thought I was going to be there, but my wife and I never really thought it was going to happen,” Shanahan said via conference call nearly one year later. “We didn’t have our hopes up or anything like that.”
However, going into it, a majority of fans and media alike were pounding the table for Shanahan, anticipating that he would indeed take over the head-coaching job in Denver. It made too much sense.
The son of the Broncos’ all-time winningest head coach taking over for Kubiak, whom Kyle had apprenticed under for many years in Houston and a hot, young coach whose offensive philosophies not only matched those of Elway’s but also happened to be on the cutting edge of the NFL scheme-masters?
It was a no-brainer. But it didn’t happen, much to the chagrin of Broncos Country. Here’s why it didn’t happen.
1. Son of Mike
When it came to the actual interview and decision-making process, team President and CEO Joe Ellis was a factor. Going in, though, the fact that Kyle was the son of Mike Shanahan might have started him out with a check in the 'con' column in the estimation of Ellis.
After all, Ellis and Mike butted heads toward the end of Shanahan's head-coaching tenure in Denver and it is believed that the late owner Pat Bowlen was persuaded to fire his close friend, Mike, because of Ellis’ vociferous protests on the matter. After all, Mike had full control of all personnel decisions and the Broncos had failed to make the playoffs in each of his last three years as head coach, with two of those seasons seeing the team be in contention only to squander it with three games to go (2006, 2008).
Ellis had the ammunition on Shanahan and Bowlen pulled the trigger. The rest is history. But the gulf between Ellis and Mike is well-established in the arena of public knowledge. How much that had to do with Kyle not getting the head-coaching job in Denver is a matter of speculation but my bet is that it played at least some small part.
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2. Kyle Wanted Personnel Control
For some reason, a misconception exists that Niners’ GM John Lynch is Shanahan’s boss. It’s the other way around. Kyle has the final say on all matters of personnel and hiring. It was he that hired Lynch to be GM, with of course the approval of Niners’ CEO Jed York.
See, personnel control was one of Kyle’s demands during his interview process in that year’s head-coaching carousel. The problem with that, as I’m sure you can imagine, was the fact that the Broncos’ personnel department was under Elway’s purview. And Elway was just one year removed from winning it all as a GM.
Heck, Elway built two distinctly different Super Bowl teams as a front-office czar within three seasons of each other. In 2013, the Broncos made it to Super Bowl XLVIII on the shoulders of the No. 1 scoring offense in the history of the NFL. That Broncos squad was crushed by the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, so Elway went back to the drawing board and rebuilt the roster with a focus on defense. Two years later, Denver won it all off the back of the league’s No. 1 defense.
To further complicate matters, even though the Broncos were coming off their first non-playoff season of the Elway era, they still won nine games in 2016 with the second-year Trevor Siemian as the starting quarterback. Elway was still very much feeling his oats when Kyle was interviewed, seeking the type of personnel power his dad had enjoyed for all those years in Denver.
Considering that Kyle had yet to even become a head coach and the fact that he had just turned 37, Elway and company felt like giving him personnel control was a bridge too far.
3. (Not) A Leader of Men
In retrospect, Elway has talked about how he entered that year’s hiring cycle with “preconceived notions”. While we can’t know exactly what notions Elway had preconceived, one of them was his perception of Vance Joseph as a ‘leader of men’.
When Kubiak was initially hired in January of 2015, the Broncos wanted Joseph to be the defensive coordinator. As the Secondary Coach in Cincinnati at the time, the Bengals blocked Joseph from taking the job, and so the Broncos hired Wade Phillips.
However, Elway was clearly impressed with Joseph and kept his resume on his desk. The big allure, again, was Joseph’s relative youth and his reputation for leadership. After all, the Broncos had some big personalities on the team just one year removed from being World Champions and in Elway’s opinion, managing those players would take a certain amount of panache as a leader.
The Broncos weren’t convinced Shanahan could handle it. Joseph, though, in the estimation of Elway and Ellis, was tailor-made for the job. They couldn’t have been more wrong. But then again, hindsight is always 20/20.
4. Not Willing to Tear Down to Rebuild
Shanahan’s view of the Broncos’ roster one year removed from Super Bowl 50 was less flattering than that of Elway and Ellis. With Peyton Manning having hung up his cleats, Shanahan felt the best path forward was to tear down the roster and execute a rebuild from the ground up.
The Broncos already had their young quarterback of the future in Paxton Lynch, whom the team had just spent a first-round pick on a year prior. Tearing down the roster, however, would mean trading some of the big-name veterans who played such a big part in the Broncos winning Super Bowl 50.
We know how reluctant Elway has always been to use the ‘R’ word and suffice to say, trading away or cutting star players to create cap room and stockpile draft picks would have meant telegraphing that the Broncos were rebuilding. Meanwhile, Joseph’s belief was more in-line with Elway’s — that a few tweaks here and there would get the job done.
Remember? “This isn’t a rebuild, it’s a reboot.”
Elway has since had to more fully embrace the rebuild, though he’s still been stubborn about acknowledging that reality publicly. Meanwhile, the Niners’ agreed to give Shanahan full control of the roster and suffice to say, three years later, he built a Super Bowl squad.
At the end of the day, the Broncos had John Elway — the Duke of Denver himself — running football operations and he wasn’t ready or willing to relinquish that control to a first-time upstart. Not many owners or front-office czars would have been willing to give Shanahan what he wanted but the Niners represented the perfect storm — the perfect fit.
It’s kind of crazy to think that Joseph won two more games than Shanahan did in his first two seasons as a head coach. Despite that, the Broncos and Niners couldn’t have been on more different trajectories.
Shanahan has been very successful and you’ve got to tip your cap to him and wish him well. Elway and the Broncos had to learn the hard way how wrong their “preconceived notions” were during that coaching carousel. Elway vowed after he’d fired Joseph two short years later that he learned a lot and that this next round of interviews would be approached differently.
It’s safe to say, he was true to his word. He didn’t go with either of the obvious retread options, although almost everyone assumed Elway would hire either Chuck Pagano or Mike Munchak. Instead, he kept an open mind and at the 11th hour, Vic Fangio persuaded Elway that he was the man for the job.
One season later, from the outside looking in, it feels like Elway made the right decision with Fangio. Combined with the acquisition of Drew Lock, the Broncos are entering the 2020 offseason with true momentum and a feeling of optimism for the future.