ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Some plays just don't fade from your memory.
Among them, for Broncos Head Coach Sean Payton, was John Elway's iconic pass to Rod Smith in Super Bowl XXXIII.
The 80-yard pass from Elway to Smith gave the Broncos a two-touchdown lead in their quest to win back-to-back titles, and it's a play that still stands out in Payton's mind.
It's also a play that is indicative to Payton of why former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Man, there's just so many things that he's done from an innovative standpoint," Payton said. "The Super Bowl, where Elway runs the deep boot and Smith runs the comeback post — we've never seen that route before. It was like, 'Ah!' We were all putting that in. 'Tupelo' — we gave it a name. Mike invented that. He was a part of that. And then to hear it was like a sideline adjustment was [incredible]. He's real smart, real detailed."
Shanahan is among 12 Coach/Contributor semifinalists who remain in the running to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2024. On Tuesday, the Coach/Contributor committee will select one of the semifinalists for final consideration for next year's class. Payton also noted that Dan Reeves — another former Broncos head coach and Coach/Contributor semifinalist — had a "fantastic career" and has the credentials to be a Hall of Famer.
Payton, though, knows Shanahan well — and his aforementioned offensive ingenuity is just one facet of an impressive resume.
The all-time winningest coach in Broncos history, Shanahan is one of just six coaches in NFL history to lead a franchise to back-to-back championships. Only Shanahan and Bill Belichick, who remains an active coach, have not been inducted into pro football's most exclusive fraternity.
"Mike is someone who has won two Super Bowls," Payton said. "When you look at his numbers offensively and where he has been — [including a Super Bowl win with] San Francisco — the body of work for Mike is super impressive."
Payton also joked he thought the only reason why Shanahan had not yet been inducted was because of the time he has spent with the 49ers and his son, Kyle.
"I thought his five-year clock didn't start," Payton said with a laugh. "That's what I thought the holdup was."
Payton acknowledged that he's a bit biased toward Shanahan's case, as the two share an alma mater in Eastern Illinois. While the two didn't overlap at EIU, Payton said everyone was aware of Shanahan and what he was doing as a young coach in the NFL.
"We all knew of Mike when we were there," Payton said. "As a young player, you knew. Mike was coaching in the NFL when I was playing at Eastern Illinois. … I've kind of known him for quite a while. We had some tough games against him, shoot, when he was still coaching. Offensively, just all of it. He's one of those guys — play-caller, quarterback, offensive scheme — and then the results."
Shanahan ranks 15th in NFL history in total wins and consistently posted some of the league's best offenses, particularly on the ground. A decade after he last coached, Shanahan's influence is still evident both through his lasting scheme and his coaching tree.
"Absolutely we do," said Payton when asked if he still utilizes Shanahan's concepts. "We stole a number of things that we pretend we invented. He just did so many different things that help the quarterback play better, and John would know certainly [with] his relationship. And Mike always valued the running game."
Payton said across his coaching career, he's studied six or seven teams, and Shanahan's teams were always among those groups. That influence on Payton's teams spread to New Orleans, as Payton welcomed Shanahan's longtime offensive line coach, the late Alex Gibbs, to work with the Saints.
"He was a guy we brought in for the season and he'd come in every month and then postseason," Payton said. "Two years he was with us working on the wide zone, running game, protections, boots. I think [Shanahan] had a good staff, as well. I think he had a keen eye in what he was looking for in teachers. He knew personnel. He knew what he was wanting to get out of each player.
"The career he had is unbelievable."