How Mike Shanahan and John Elway agreed on a deal, before Joe Ellis vetoed the decision

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

by Justin Michael

On Sunday night, Woody Paige dropped a bombshell with his report on how John Elway nearly tried to hire Mike Shanahan to replace Vance Joseph last winter.

According to the report, Elway was interested in bringing back his former head coach to return to the same role, but Denver Broncos team President Joe Ellis wanted the organization to conduct a thorough review of multiple candidates if they were going to make a change. In the end, Elway decided to bring back Joseph for a second season, which has left much of the Broncos’ fanbase feeling confused.

On Monday afternoon, Les Shapiro of Mile High Sports FM 104.7 | AM 1340, explained that the complicated relationship between Elway, Ellis and Shanahan actually dates back nearly two decades.

Following an illustrious 16-year playing career, Elway wanted to join the organization in a business role and begin learning more about the functions of the team’s salary cap in 2000. Ellis, who was in charge of the team’s new stadium at the time, felt like Elway was intruding on some of his responsibilities and was reluctant to bring him on staff.

“That was the beginning of a frosty relationship between those two: John Elway and Joe Ellis,” Shapiro said.

Eight years later (2008), the Broncos were coming off of a three-year stretch in which the team went 24-24 and made zero trips to the postseason under Shanahan. Just a few years after Pat Bowlen had called Shanahan his coach for life, frustration over Denver’s lack of success from 2006-08 was beginning to boil over at Dove Valley, especially with Ellis, who had become the team’s Chief Operating Officer at that point.

When a Denver columnist printed that the Broncos would not make any serious changes because Shanahan had all the power, the organization reached its tipping point.

“That led to a frosty relationship between Ellis and Shanahan,” Shapiro said. “All of these relationships were beginning to fray at once and Ellis had consolidated his power.”

Ellis then proceeded to hire Josh McDaniels in January, 2009. Shapiro explained that Ellis felt like he was hiring a younger version of Shanahan, someone that could rejuvenate Denver’s stagnant offense, but still be controlled by Broncos brass. Ellis quickly realized that this was not the case though, as McDaniels proved to be about as controllable as a bull in a china shop.

“Ellis found out quickly that there was no controlling Josh McDaniels,” Shapiro said. “The next 1.5 years (were) hell for everybody in the building, everybody. McDaniels was a tornado that swept through Dove Valley and destroyed everything in its path.”

With no choice but to fire McDaniels, Ellis moved on from the controversial coach and began to rebuild the Broncos’ organizational culture from the ground up. Ellis eventually went with Elway, who he was not in love with as a candidate for Broncos management, but had an excellent reputation with the local fans and media.

“By hiring Elway and handing over the football reigns to him, Ellis could go back in the shadows, relieving himself of having to make any real football decisions,” Shapiro said.

At this point in time, Elway had been retired from pro football for a decade and not a lot was going well for him. He had never received an employment opportunity with the team he had accomplished so much for on the playing field and had to deal with a variety of things in his personal life, including a divorce and losing both his sister and father. Despite his successes with the Colorado Crush, Elway felt some bitterness towards the Broncos, more specifically Shanahan.

In 2016, the awkward relationships between the trio of Elway, Shanahan and Ellis once again became a factor when the Broncos were looking to find a replacement for Gary Kubiak. Denver’s front office had every intention of hiring Vance Joseph as the next head coach, but after interviewing an up-and-coming Kyle Shanahan, Elway was conflicted.

The Broncos’ front office had been eyeing Joseph for a few seasons, but K. Shanahan was so impressive in his interview that Elway paused and considered hiring the then-Falcons offensive coordinator instead. Ultimately Elway’s respect for Joseph and leadership qualities won over the front office. But, according to Shapiro, the other big factor that led to the Broncos picking VJ over Kyle was Elway and Ellis did not want Mike’s influence in the building.

“They both had frosty relationships with Mike at the time and didn’t want him around,” Shapiro said.

So, what changed? Following the 2017 season, just about everyone in the Mile High City including Elway, could recognize that Joseph was in over his head. At this point, Elway’s relationship with M. Shanahan was improved and the two could be considered buddies again.

“The relationship was better and Elway was telling people at the country club that Shanahan was the most brilliant coach he ever played under,” Shapiro said. “Elway decided it was time for Vance to go and Mike was his choice to succeed VJ.”

On Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, two days before Denver was scheduled to host Cincinnati in Week 17,  Elway and Shanahan met at John’s residence to discuss the potential of him returning as head coach. By the end of the meeting, Elway offered M. Shanahan a three-year contract and the two agreed on a deal, even though Mike doubted Ellis would approve. He was correct as Ellis said absolutely not and vetoed the decision to bring back the legendary head coach.

“It was a done deal but Ellis put the kibosh on it,” Shapiro said.

Had Ellis not rejected Elway’s plan to bring back M. Shanahan, the Broncos may not have just had a different coach. According to Shapiro, Kirk Cousins still frequently talks with the coach that drafted him in Washington and was willing on signing in Denver on a significant discount if M. Shanahan was hired.

Listen to the full segment below:

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