Next Broncos coach will have some big shoes to fill |

Next Broncos coach will have some big shoes to fill

Lynn DeBruin
Rocky Mountain News
Denver, CO Colorado
Chris Schneider/Rocky Mountain NewsMike Shanahan coaches in his last game Sunday with the Broncos against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. The Broncos lost 52-21.

DENVER, Colorado ” One was a long shot, a former college receiver with a thin resume and a birth date not much older than some of his veteran players.

The other was a flashy college coach known as much for his plastered hair as his devotion to football.

What Mike Tomlin and Jimmy Johnson had in common was their ability to succeed following an NFL legend, something the next Denver coach will hope to do after Tuesday’s firing of Mike Shanahan.

Tomlin, in his second year after taking over for Bill Cowher, guided Pittsburgh to a 12-4 record and AFC North Division title this season, and has the Steelers primed for another potential Super Bowl run. Johnson, who took over in Dallas when Tom Landry was unceremoniously shown the door, went on to win back-to-back Super Bowls with the Cowboys.

“When you have (Ben) Roethlisberger in place and Jay Cutler in place and (Troy) Aikman in place, all of those (transitions) become a lot easier,” said senior writer Gil Brandt, who was personnel director under Landry.

Still, Brandt said, the odds are that replacing Shanahan won’t be easy.

“Coach Landry always said when you’re going to replace somebody, be sure that who you’re replacing them with is better than the guy that was there,” Brandt said. “All you have to do is look at the coaches that failed, and (know Denver) had a proven commodity. They might get a proven commodity (again). I’m not sure. But I just think Mike was special.”

Though Steve Mariucci won division titles, he never could duplicate the success the late Bill Walsh and George Seifert had in San Francisco.

Washington is still trying to regain its luster of the golden days under Joe Gibbs during his first go-round.

And one could argue the Cleveland Browns never have gotten it together since the Paul Brown-Blanton Collier days, though John Elway helped change that course of history.

Whoever Broncos owner Pat Bowlen ultimately chooses will have some big shoes to fill, what with Shanahan leaving as the winningest coach in franchise history and two titles.

“It’s going to be tough,” said former Bronco tight end Shannon Sharpe, who won two Super Bowls rings in Denver and a third with Baltimore. “The measuring stick is his record. Granted, the last few seasons have been .500. But he’s got two (Super Bowl) trophies in the lobby. It’s like replacing John (Elway). You just can’t get anybody to replace John.”

Some would argue that the Broncos still haven’t replaced Elway, even with Cutler’s rocket arm and cock-sure attitude.

“Until Jay Cutler learns how to protect the football around the goal line, this program will live and die with him,” said former quarterback Joe Theismann, who went to two Super Bowls under Gibbs and won one. “Mike Shanahan put a lot of faith in Jay Cutler. And he’s very talented. But somebody has to teach him the things to do to win. It’s not a knock on him; it’s part of the growth process. He’s going to have to do this for Pat Bowlen to achieve what he wants.”

Players who know Bowlen see more than a man with an open checkbook and a year-round tan.

“I think there are people who underestimate his competitive nature,” said former defensive end Alfred Williams, who recalls rehab days at the facility trying not to be shown up by Bowlen on the Stairmaster. “He may be very quiet, and in the background, but it’s always with the understanding that this thing is about winning.”

To that end, former safety Tyrone Braxton sees Bowlen’s role changing with the departure of Shanahan.

“Mike always had his thumb on everything. Now it will be time for people to step up and do their jobs,” Braxton said. “I think Pat will get more involved, like a Jerry Jones.”

He doesn’t believe it will be a quick fix.

Williams, however, is hopeful.

“I hope the next guy…can get a good grasp on the players intent,” Williams said. “It’s one thing to be a pro athlete and another to be a professional athlete. We’ve got to have more professional athletes, who play with their heart and soul to win on Sunday.”

He thought back to when Shanahan was hired back in 1995.

“He wasn’t a celebrated head coach when he got to the Broncos,” Williams said. “But he became one. Pat Bowlen will find another one who’s capable. If not, he’ll get rid of him quickly. I just have a lot of respect for his willingness to do what it takes to win.”

Bowlen showed as much even as he choked up.

“I may end up regretting this decision,” he said during his New Year’s Eve press conference. “But right now, I am very comfortable with this decision that we’ve got to go in a different direction.”

Brandt said it certainly is an attractive job.

“You’ve got a quarterback. You’ve got a left tackle. You’ve got some good offensive linemen. What job is more attractive? Detroit or Denver? Cleveland or Denver? Jets or Denver? This is a quarterback-driven league and when you’ve got a guy like Cutler, you’ve got something going for you.”

While the shock value of Shanahan’s firing rates up there with that of Landry, Brandt said nothing should shock him anymore.

“If you would have …told me that Tony Sparano is going to win 10 more games than the year before (at Miami) or that Mike Smith as a head coach was going to do what he did (in Atlanta), I would have told you you were crazy,” Brandt said.

“But picking a head coach is somewhat like picking the winning lottery. It ain’t easy.”

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