Mike Shanahan is without question the most successful head coach in Broncos history. During his time in Denver, Shanahan was also the team’s general manager, essentially meaning, he picked the players. Mike Evans of The Fan always says Shanahan’s time in Denver came to an end because “Mike Shanahan the GM failed Mike Shanahan the head coach.” If you look back, it’s hard to argue Evans’ point.
Shanahan had hits and misses at all positions, bit it was one position group in particular that haunted him throughout his time selecting players in Denver. That was the defensive line.
Shanahan would make a series of decisions with defensive line personnel that would play a major in role in his exit from Denver.
The 2003 offseason is remembered for the Broncos signing Jake Plummer, but the free-agent quarterback wasn’t the only splash signing that offseason. Shanahan and the Broncos signed defensive tackle Daryl Gardener to a big contract that would prove to be one of the worst free-agent signings in Broncos history. Gardener barely played for the Broncos and was gone after one season.
In the 2005 offseason, Shanahan made the decision to acquire four, yes, four defensive linemen from the Browns. Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers all signed with the Broncos. Combined with Trevor Pryce, the group proved to be effective, especially against the run. However, it was just one season. Within two years, all four players were no longer with the Broncos (Ekuban would return in 2008).
Shanahan struck gold in 2006 finding outside linebacker/defensive end Elvis Dumervil. He followed that up in 2007 by drafting defensive end Jarvis Moss and signing defensive tackle Sam Adams. Adams did not see much of the field and Moss will go down as one of the biggest draft busts in Broncos history.
It wasn’t just the players Shanahan acquired that were puzzling, it was the players he chose not to retain. In the early 2000s, Shanahan would allow quality defensive lineman to leave in free agency. Bertrand Berry and Reggie Hayward were not re-signed by the Broncos despite both posting double-digit sacks in their contract year.
In the 2005 offseason, Broncos legend Trevor Pryce was not re-signed. Pryce responded by racking up 13 sacks in 2006 with the Ravens.
In Shanahan’s final two seasons, 2007 and 2008, the Broncos defenses were largely ineffective and soon Shanahan was gone. Between those two seasons, the Broncos defense gave up at least 30 points in 15 games. The problem was upfront. The team was unable to stop the run or pass. Champ Bailey, D.J. Williams and Elvis Dumervil could only do so much.
While Shanahan had misses on players in all areas, he was also able to find talent on many occasions. Clinton Portis, Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Chris Kuper, Eddie Royal, Ryan Clady, Montae Reagor, Darrent Williams, Domonique Foxworth, D.J. Williams, Tyler Polumbus and Tony Scheffler were just some of the players he drafted. In free agency, Shanahan signed John Lynch, Nick Ferguson, Reuben Droughns, Jake Plummer, Brandon Stokely and a returning Shannon Sharpe, who all were contributors to the Broncos success in the mid 2000s.
John Elway finds himself in a similar situation with the offensive line. While he has discovered some amazing talent at all positions, his inability to put together an effective offensive line continues to be a dark cloud over his reign as general manager.
He has drafted Michael Schofield, Ty Sambrailo and Garett Bolles, who have proven to not be the starting-caliber players the Broncos had hoped. Similarly in free agency, they have signed players that failed to meet expectations like Menelik Watson and Donald Stephenson.
In turn, Elway has allowed quality players to walk out the door. Orlando Franklin, Matt Paradis, Russell Okung, Zane Beadles and Chris Clark were all quality starters in Denver that Elway chose not to retain.
The Broncos issues at offensive line have plagued the team for years. Much like Shanahan with the defensive line, Elway has made questionable decisions that have resulted in turnover and lack of continuity on the offensive line.
The ongoing issues at offensive line were magnified this week as right tackle Ja’Wuan James opted out of playing in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the backlash has not been on James, but rather Elway for being unprepared and drafting a tackle in the NFL draft this past April. Broncos Country is not excited about watching Bolles and a potentially injured Elijah Wilkinson block for Drew Lock.
It’s worth noting that Shanahan’s struggles with the defensive line led to a revolving door at defensive coordinator and Elway’s struggles with the offensive line has led to a revolving door at offensive coordinator. Problems with a position unit can cost coaches their job.
Mike Shanahan and John Elway are the two most successful people in Broncos History. Shanahan’s Hall of Fame run in Denver ended because the team’s issues on the defensive line eventually caught up to him. John Elway is a successful general manager, but if the offensive line costs the Broncos wins like it has in the past, it could be the reason Elway’s time in charge comes to an end.
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