Four Reasons the Broncos Passed on Hiring Kyle Shanahan as Head Coach

Chad Jensen

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.

Bottom Line

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. 

Follow Chad on Twitter @ChadNJensen and @MileHighHuddle.

Comments (25)
No. 1-12
Jman75
Jman75

Nice refresher.... San Fran has built themselves a nice team, but how many years of picking in the top 10 has it been? That sure is a big boost... and before some knucklehead says something, yes San Fran has 1st round busts in that time frame too .

smilinassassin
smilinassassin

Well, gotta say Shanny Jr. was right about tearing it down and rebuilding at that point. Denver clearly wasn’t going to get Jimmy G. from the Patsies but who knows, maybe if Elway and Kyle could have found some common ground they could’ve built something great.

Arbbq
Arbbq

Yeah, i’ll be the knucklehead. They got more good players than bad in free agency , trades, and drafts than Denver. The emphasis on building of strong defensive and offensive lines was right on and Shanahan’s getting a relatively inexperienced, but astute DC was a HR. Let’s not forget Shanahan’s trend setting offense. And now for the Broncos. Can Shurmur evolve his offense to consistently high ranking offense instead of mostly mediocre? Can Fangio do better on defense? Entering his second year, I’m hoping Fangio can follow a similar path as Shanahan which is adapting and learning from his mistakes.

Coffeedude1234567
Coffeedude1234567

I think John Lynch has a lot to do with San Francisco’s success. Despite what this article says. John Lynch helped Elway re-tool the Denver defense so that it could win Super Bowl 50. The 49ers strength is the Defense. They are dominant.

1 Reply

Crashatollah
Crashatollah

I agree.

Kebby77
Kebby77

Jimmy G was basically a gimme from the cheatriots to Shanny Jr for "letting" them win the super bowl when he was OC with the Falcons. They had the cheatriots destroyed and he let them back in or something. Maybe trump had a hand in it.

Kebby77
Kebby77

The difference between kyle and say, Kubiak is better overall playcalling as well as getting production from several RB's and WR's than Kubiak's bell-cows. This keeps options open and any one guys price down. It's a good way of coaching. Pat's do it too. Dont want too many guys with 1000 yards or 10 sacks cuz then their price goes up. Instead you want several guys who are capable with moderate stats. Kyle is a homerun hire. Joe Ellis is a dumb ass!!!!!

Denverkewl
Denverkewl

There is one other factor Chad: The 49ers offered him a better deal the Broncos couldn't match even if they wanted to hire him. So Elway offers him a job...the 49ers would have and did outbid anything anyone was willing to give him. 6 years guaranteed and the roster and hire his GM and a new building? The fact is the Broncos could never and, on the heels of a SB victory, should not give away that much. So it was never in the cards. BTW the context of Shanahan's comments were that he knew he was going through the motions and had eyes on SF anyway. So for fans to think this somehow could have been different if Elway simply made another choice is a fallacy. It was never gonna happen.

broncofan55555
broncofan55555

If Shanahan Jr REALLY wanted to come to Denver, why was he not willing to work with Elway and compromise. I think his coming was a tip your hat to Denver fans because of past connections but he had his sights set elsewhere. Knowing he would be working with Ellis his father's nemesis I am sure made him up the demands so that he would insure that he would not be hired. Kyle was much more perceptive about the nature of the Bronco team though even from a distance than Elway was about it up close.

Linebacker
Linebacker

Elway and Ellis couldn't have been more wrong about JV (my personal slight to Vance) being a leader of anything let alone men. And they had no rational reasons to believe in him to the extent they did. He hadn't proven anything, relative to being a head coach in the NFL. He was one year defensive coordinator whose defense in Miami was anything but special. Kyle on the other hand had been a offensive coordinator for nine years, was named assistant coach of the year in 2016, had the highest scoring offense in the league that year, and deserved significant credit for helping Atlanta win the NFC and go to the Super Bowl. That's not 20/20 hindsight, that would have been observable fact to anyone with a brain, apparently something Ellis and Elway sorely lacked, at least at that moment in time.

Regarding Fangio, like I'll bet a lot of Bronco fans, he still has a lot to prove. If I was giving him a grade for his performance this year it would be not better than a "C." His (and his staff) decisions cost us multiple games: Chicago, Indianapolis, Minnesota, and Jacksonville, and they very nearly cost us the final game of the season against Oakland when he caved in Brandon McManus allowing him to attempt a 57 yard FG in the final minutes of the game, leading directly to a short field, an Oakland TD, and an opportunity, with a 2 point conversion, to win the game.

The reason for optimism going into 2020 can be summed up in two words, Drew Lock. We may finally have found our next franchise QB. I just hope E, E, and F don't screw things up and fail to build a team around him.

debil orange
debil orange

When will the press and many of the Bronco Fans realize, despite what is being fed to us by the Broncos, Jim Ellis and "The Trust" NOT John Elway runs this team!!! The Coach VJ hiring and his retention for another year can be laid right at the feet of Jim Ellis and "The Trust"! Jim Ellis told this team not only no but HELL NO when Kyle was interviewed & John was told who he would hire, period, end of story! I have no clue how it can be done but if the Broncos don't wake up and realize just how powerful "The Trust" is, and what they are doing. Jim Ellis is one of the most arrogant and power hungry control freaks that exists in the NFL! He needs to be removed along with "The Trust" before it's too late. The next time there is a press conference that Ellis & Elway are involved with just watch their facial expressions. They will tell the true story about what is being spoon fed to the fans. When Elway has a press conference and Ellis isn't there he is a completely different person. When Ellis holds a conference, his facial expressions, his tone of voice and his demeanor exude I am "The Man", I am "The Denver Broncos"! Personally I have a great fear that this feud between the Bowlen Children and "The Trust" could result in a very bad solution.

BRONCOMOJO
BRONCOMOJO

Control of personnel decisions....blah blah blah. Kyle wasn't hired because of one reason/person period, Joe Ellis!

Brainco
Brainco

Often Alzheimer’s has a significant effect BEFORE it is diagnosed. Ellis was chosen to lead the trust, basically to run the team, at a time when Pat no longer had his full mental capacity. As I mentioned elsewhere, the NFL should (but won’t) step in and force a sale of the team.


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