ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- By the time Mike Shanahan walks into Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Sunday, 1,770 days will have passed since the last time he walked through one of the tunnels in the south end of the stadium.
That last trek was on Dec. 21, 2008. At 5:12 p.m. MST that afternoon, Shanahan and the Broncos trudged to the locker room frigid less from the 17-degree conditions than a 30-23 loss to Buffalo in which the Broncos had blown a 13-0 second-quarter lead -- and with it, their best chance to win the 2008 AFC West crown. They lost again seven days later at San Diego; he was dismissed two days after that, and the Broncos and Shanahan moved on.
Still, the game -- and the season -- was close enough to lead to some what-if's, particularly after the offense was dismantled and rebuilt in the 18 months after the sides parted ways.
"Oh yeah, it could be totally different, if we would have gone to the playoffs that year and everything else," said kicker Matt Prater. "But everything happens for a reason. He's in a good spot; we're in a good spot."
Neither side experienced another winning season until last year, by which point the coach and his old team had rebuilt their reputations and recaptured the winning ways that once defined their years together. And while Shanahan's specter no longer lingers over Dove Valley, it's not hard to find -- at least for everyone who travels north on I-25 after a day's work, with the coach's eponymous steakhouse perched just a short pass east of the highway in the Denver Tech Center.
He's still the winningest coach in Broncos history. He's still the boss who was on the sideline for the club's only two Super Bowl wins, and an assistant coach on three other teams that won AFC championships. And even though the number of players left from the Shanahan era is down to five, that quintet has packed a wallop in helping the Broncos back to the NFL's elite.
Cornerback Champ Bailey and left tackle Ryan Clady are both injured now, but have combined for seven Pro Bowls since Shanahan left. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard has been a team captain for five seasons running. Right guard Chris Kuper was a stalwart starter before leg injuries struck, but remains a key backup who started last week. And Prater has scored more points since 2009 than all but seven players.
But of that quintet, Prater and Woodyard are most notable because they're examples of another trait that has defined the Broncos when they've been at their best: the ability to find contributors who were overlooked by others. Prater came to the Broncos in December 2007, when he was unexpectedly plucked off Miami's practice squad.
"I thought they were joking when they told me they claimed me," said Prater, who had also been waived by Atlanta earlier that season. "I was like, 'No way, they have Jason Elam.' So it was a surprise to me but then once he signed with Atlanta, I figured I had a good chance to compete and win the job."
A summer later, Prater beat out Garrett Hartley for the position, and aside from late in 2010 when he was injured, he's held it ever since.
Woodyard is part of an 10-year run that has seen at least one undrafted rookie make the 53-man roster coming out of the preseason, a streak that remained active this year because of the emergence of running back C.J. Anderson. It began in 2004, when cornerback Roc Alexander beat the odds to make the 53-man roster, and has become a point of immense pride for the organization's player-personnel department.
In 2008, Woodyard, punter Brett Kern and offensive tackle Tyler Polumbus all made the Broncos' 53-man roster for Week 1. All are still in the league, and Polumbus is Shanahan's starting right tackle in Washington.
If Shanahan had gotten his way when he took his current job 45 months ago, he'd have Woodyard, too.
"He was always one of my favorite guys. I wanted to bring him here, to be honest with you, when I first got here (to Washington) -- and it didn't work out," Shanahan said. "He was just a little bit undersized, but he had the big heart. Overachiever, tough, hard-nosed, everything that you look for in a football player."
Shanahan knew that right away, as he pressed hard to ensure Woodyard bypassed other post-draft opportunities to sign with Denver.
"He called me twice to make sure. One was to tell me, 'We want you here in Denver.' And two was, 'Hey, we want you here in Denver, so make sure you get out here and give us a shot,'" Woodyard recalled. "So I'm extremely proud and it was a blessing that I got a call from our head coach."
Five years and three head coaches later, Woodyard has blossomed. But he'll always be grateful to Shanahan.
"He was one of those guys that always kept it straightforward," he said. "He always told you exactly what you wanted to hear from a head coach. He never cut you short on anything. He kept it real. (He and I) had a straightforward relationship. I believed in him and he believed in me."
And that belief continues for the last five Broncos from the Shanahan era, who will always have a supporter in their former boss.
"You always root for the guys that you drafted or you were a part of," he said.
Two Super Bowl trophies will be the long-term evidence of his legacy. But for the moment, this quintet is just as vital and equally defining. It's part of the reason why Shanahan's welcome back to Denver on Sunday should be a warm one.