Getting Denver Over the Hump: Mike Shanahan knew how to win

Mike Shanahan
Nov 1, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos former head coach Mike Shanahan before the game against the Green Bay Packers at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Broncos, every single year, have a stated, clear and concise goal: Win the Super Bowl.

That’s it. Pretty simple, really. It doesn’t matter what the roster looks like, who the coach is or what the Vegas oddsmakers say – the goal never changes. And the thing is, it’s not just lip service, not a football version of “corporate speak.” After playing in eight of them (which ranks second among all NFL franchises) and winning three (tied for No. 7 on the all-time list) – not to mention 10 trips to the AFC Championship Game – there’s proof that this particular goal is no pipedream at all.

While the organization has been excellent for quite some time, that annual aim is typically credited to the late, great Pat Bowlen. Mr. B was a winner – wanted to win, demanded only the best and gave only the best. Under his leadership, the Broncos won and won a lot, but despite the annual goal, they didn’t actually achieve it until Jan. 25, 1998 when John Elway hoisted Denver’s first Lombardi Trophy.

And speaking of Elway, he was, and still is, a winner, too. As the Broncos quarterback, he was one of the fiercest competitors to ever play the game. That was plain to see, as evidenced by Elway willing Broncos teams to three Super Bowl losses before winning on his fifth and sixth attempts.

Which is when and how Mike Shanahan began his journey toward being named a Denver Broncos Ring of Famer, an honor that was announced yesterday by the team.

Forget for a moment that Shanahan is the organization’s winningest head coach, most regular season wins, most playoff wins, et al. Yes, all of that counts, but that first Super Bowl win counts biggest.

It’s not that Pat Bowlen or John Elway didn’t know how to win. But it’s a fact: Nobody who called themselves a Bronco ever won a Super Bowl until Mike Shanahan took the reins.

Wait. Stop before you start. This is not one of those “Who was more important, coach or quarterback?” articles. I’m very happy – extremely happy – to ride the fence and say that everyone – Bowlen, Elway, Shanahan – needed each other equally to climb one of sports’ biggest mountains.

In terms of coaching though, it was Shanahan that showed Denver the blueprint for winning it all. No coach could say that at the time. Being the first is worth something – something big. Neither Dan Reeves nor Red Miller, both Ring of Famers, could do it prior to Shanahan, nor could a myriad of other Broncos coaches. And John Fox got to the big game after Shanahan, but couldn’t quite hoist Lombardi. Gary Kubiak, a disciple of Shanahan, was able to win it all in 2015.

Shanahan got Denver over the hump. In doing so, he guided Denver to the title it coveted most.

And, he met Mr. B’s stated goal.

There’s no way of saying whether or not Denver would still be in search of its first Lombardi Trophy if Shanahan was never given the job of head coach. But it’s factual to say that Shanahan was the first to crack the code. Just for good measure, he did it twice.

The Ring of Fame is a nice honor, but if there’s a Broncos “Mount Rushmore” the first coach to ever deliver a world championship is surely on that, too.

The stated goal is always to win it all. Shanahan was the first one to do, breaking the seal and paving the way for the Broncos to become one of the most powerful brands in sports.

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