ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In 1984, Mike Shanahan arrived in Denver far from the heights he'd someday reach. Within two decades, he'd lead the Broncos to their first Super Bowl victories and be known around the league as the architect of the league's best offenses.
Long before that, on Jan. 24, 1984, Shanahan resigned from an offensive coordinator position with the University of Florida to join the Broncos, starting out as the team's wide receivers coach. Despite that title, close observers could tell Shanahan was destined to make an impact far beyond just his purview as a position coach — even if his youth belied his wealth of knowledge.
"He's the guy who's going to come in and provide the jumper cables for the worn-down Denver offense that has trouble getting started even in warm weather — whatever that is," Denver Post columnist Shelby Strother wrote the following day. "Shanahan is 31 years old and has eight years of coaching experience and because he's been successful everywhere he's coached, he is called a Boy Wonder."
With that reputation, Shanahan entered the NFL perhaps thinking that he knew quite a lot about the game. He was quickly disabused of that notion shortly after joining the staff when he had the chance to sit down with the Broncos' longtime defensive coordinator, Joe Collier.
"When I come in, the first time I get in the National Football League, I get a chance to sit down and talk to Joe Collier," Shanahan recalls. "He's actually been a head coach in the league in the '60s, he's been a coordinator for the Broncos — and I realized talking to him how much I have no idea about football."
At that time, Collier's pro football coaching experience stretched back nearly 25 years — he had been coaching in the AFL or NFL for the entire duration of the Broncos' existence. A legend in the game, Collier had molded Denver's defense to become one of the most fearsome units of the '70s, famously known as the "Orange Crush."
"He was doing things with defenses back in the mid-'70s implementing the 3-4 defense [when other teams weren't]," Shanahan says. "Colleges were doing it, but the pros weren't doing it. He was doing things where he was utilizing his players. … You look back on the people that really influence you, and Joe Collier was the first guy in pro football that influenced me in a big way."
Throughout that first year in the NFL, Shanahan made note of how Collier operated, and in the decades that followed, the impact on the Ring of Fame coach, the Broncos and the NFL would be immeasurable.
"When you're around a guy like that and you watch the way he prepares and the way he handles himself and the way he prepares himself in big games," Shanahan says, "I said, 'Hey, if I get a chance — hopefully I can be like him someday.'"
Just over a decade later, Mike Shanahan's evolution was entering its final stage.
Named Denver's head coach in 1995, he may have lost the "Boy" part of the Boy Wonder label at 42 years old, but he continued to impress.
In the 11 years since first joining the Broncos, Shanahan rose quickly to become head coach of the Raiders for a brief two-year stint from 1988-89, returned to Denver to be quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator for three seasons and then landed with the 49ers in 1992 as an offensive coordinator under Bill Walsh. During that time, Shanahan continued to learn, and by the time he returned to Denver, he had the knowledge of exactly what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it.
Having been around John Elway for several of his finest years, including his 1987 MVP season, Shanahan had a foundational level of trust with his star quarterback that allowed him to put his strategy into motion. His plan focused on building a balanced offense that maybe took the ball out of Elway's hands more to rely on a powerful running attack while still giving him all the same potential for game-breaking passing plays.
"You've got to keep defenses honest," Shanahan says. "You get one-dimensional on any defense and they will figure it out. There's a lot of smart people that are out there, and if they know what you're going to do, I promise you they will make adjustments. You have to keep people off balance and you have to keep people honest and you've got to have a lot of people playing extremely hard and playing hard."
Despite an 8-8 season to begin his tenure as head coach in Denver, Shanahan and the Broncos offense found their footing quickly. The team ranked third in total offense and ninth in scoring offense in 1995, then jumped to first in total offense and fourth in scoring offense the following year as Denver posted a 13-3 record.
Over the next two seasons, as Denver won back-to-back Super Bowls, the Broncos became nothing short of an offensive goliath. The '97 team's offense ranked No. 1 in scoring offense and total offense, second in rushing yards per attempt and fourth in passing efficiency. The next year's group was second in scoring offense and third in total offense with a dominant rushing attack led by 1998 league MVP Terrell Davis, who became the fourth rusher in NFL history to run for more than 2,000 yards.
"One thing with a great running game is you know it takes a whole defense to stop it, if you know how to run the football," Shanahan says. "And then with the flexibility of having different formations, different shifts, different motions, you can really capitalize on a defense when they think a run's coming, when you suck people up, if it's linebackers or safeties, to have a chance to come up with a big play. So, you always want to keep a defense honest, just like a defense wants to keep an offense honest."
Even after Denver's Hall of Fame quarterback retired following Super Bowl XXXIII, the Broncos' offenses under Shanahan were extremely effective. During the 10 seasons that followed before Shanahan and the team parted ways, Denver ranked in the top half of the league in rushing yards, with five seasons in the league's top five. No team ran for more yards during that span, and the Broncos ranked second in rushing yardage per carry. Denver's passing attack also was dangerous, and it ranked third in yardage during that span.
Simply put, Shanahan's tenure in Denver as head coach is unparalleled.
The Super Bowls speak for themselves, as do the overall regular-season and postseason win totals, which rank tops in franchise history.
But Shanahan's reach was felt far beyond just the walls at team headquarters, particularly because of the offense that he led. During his 14 seasons from 1995-2008, the Broncos totaled more than 81,000 yards; the closest franchise was more than 2,000 yards behind Shanahan's Broncos teams.
So while Shanahan hasn't coached in the NFL for nearly a decade, his influence is widespread across the league today as teams hope to emulate that level of success and the style of offense that proved so effective.
His disciples stretch across the league now. Sean McVay, head coach of the Rams, was an offensive assistant and position coach under Shanahan in Washington; Matt LaFleur, head coach of the Packers, was Shanahan's quarterbacks coach in Washington during that same span from 2010-13; Kyle Shanahan, Mike's son, is head coach of the 49ers and spent four years on his father's staff during that Washington stint; former Broncos running back Anthony Lynn worked with Shanahan for three seasons as an assistant coach and later became head coach of the Chargers before taking his current position as offensive coordinator of the Lions in 2021.
And, of course, there's Gary Kubiak, who later followed in Shanahan's footsteps as a Super Bowl-winning head coach in Denver. The former quarterback played for Shanahan and later became an apprentice under him as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach before becoming a head coach with Houston and then Denver.
"His contributions are immense," Broncos Head Coach Vic Fangio says. "There's plenty of guys that coach in this league — both as head coaches and assistant coaches — that somehow came through Mike. Obviously with his son, Sean McVay, LaFleur in Green Bay and others. Mike's system that he evolved to over the years — when Mike was the coordinator with the Niners, that's not actually the system he became really famous for. He incorporated some of that with what he thought. That's what these guys are running now. Mike has had a great impact on the game and was a great head coach."
Shanahan shrugs off legacy talk, but the truth of that is beyond his control at this point. The West Coast offense he developed for his Broncos teams affects the way the game is played today
"I think your legacy is kind of like everything you've done throughout your life, the process of being part of it," Shanahan says. "That's one thing about the journey: If you're in coaching, the journey is never easy, but you have to fight through it. You're going to have the highest highs and the lowest lows, and tough times don't last — tough people do. If you've got that type of mindset, then good things will happen to you."
Good things happened to Shanahan, and great things happened to the Broncos. The team's first Super Bowl victories, of course, are a large part of that, but so is the standard of success that's followed the team and the expectations that have made Denver a destination for players, coaches and staff members hoping to find success of their own.
For many of the people that came before him in Denver, success at a championship level eluded them, but as Shanahan recognizes, that doesn't make them any less important than him to the team's history. Without them — and perhaps especially Joe Collier — it's entirely possible that Shanahan would not have been the kind of coach he became.
"I'll be honest with you: It's truly a process," Shanahan says. "Me, but how about all these guys from 1960 to 1973 — how long it took to have that first winning season — and then all the success they had before the Super Bowl. You take a look at '75 and '76, those defensive teams. And then the Super Bowl, even though we came up a game short playing those Cowboys, we set a standard to get there. And then it took us a while to win it. But everybody was part of that process."
After being elected to the Broncos Ring of Fame in 2020, Shanahan will soon finally be enshrined. His pillar on the Ring of Fame plaza and his name on the façade at Empower Field at Mile High will be unveiled, and at long last, Mike Shanahan's place in Broncos history will be cemented.
Look back through the coaching career of the Broncos' all-time winningest coach — new Ring of Famer Mike Shanahan.