MHR University Special Report
How the change at Head Coach impacts the Broncos on the field
The news has sent shock waves through not just the Broncos fan base, but sports news outlets in general. Mike Shanahan, one of the most winning and safest coaches was fired. From his days as a Superbowl "Mastermind" and playoff contender to his class act at his final news conference at Dove Valley, Mike Shanahan has earned the respect and best wishes of all of us at Milehighreport.com.
Most of the excellent staff and members of MHR will focus on memories of Mike, and speculation about what the future holds. I will try to focus on what I know best: Xs and Os. I know what happens when change comes at head coach (though not at the pro level), but I also have an inkling of how this impacts the team from a systemic vantage.
Denver is in for a heck of a ride. Some things may (surprisingly) improve rather quickly, while some things may go south for a bit. Now is not the time to panic for Denver's future, nor is it the time for celebration. Denver is still in the midst of a rebuilding program, and the types of moves Denver makes in the next two or so years will depend heavily on the new coach.
The Locker Room
Mike was a players' coach. While no position was safe (everyone competes in training camp), Mike was not an overbearing coach. Cutler said the firing came as a shock, and I imagine that most of the players felt good about Mike and are also in a state of disbelief.
There are dangers in brining a new coach into such an environment. For example, players may chaffe under a Bill Parcells type coach (who recently restructured his contract as manager in MIA to allow him to seek an early out) if the new coaching style is too "firm". Mike's classy exit will go far to help a new coach settle in, but the key is to watch how the veteran players respond to the new coach. A lot of young players will take their lead from how they see the older players respond (and how they perceive the older players are treated).
The name "Cowher" is going to come up a lot. Along with Shanahan, Cowher is a winning coach and has a reputation as being a Players' coach. I hate to speculate, but Cowher is the kind of guy that solves several problems right off the bat:
- Quick respect from the players
- Quick respect from the fan base
- A reputation for strong defense
As a players' coach, I think Cowher would be one of the very few coaches who could come into Denver and not face a skeptical locker room. MHR Staff writer Ted Bartlett makes a good case for several other coaches (see here), and believes that Cowher, despite the name recognition, is not in serious contention. I'm not offering Cowher as the odds on favorite, but only making the point that his reputation and personality would make for a smoother transition. There are a number of coaches that can come in and help Denver win, but the name "Cowher" will be the elephant in the room until a final choice is made.
Another key is to watch (WR) Marshall. Marshall is a young man in the midst of changing his life for the good. This kind of an impact may have an effect on him in terms of trust issues, and how Marshall handles the change may indicate (to an extent) how others are coping. Remember, Shanahan stood by Marshall and helped him get through a lot.
There are many concerns here from an Xs and Os standpoint. There is the potential that a new HC may not buy into the zoneblock system. Such a coach may not want the light, agile offensive linemen that Denver has, and stars such as Clady and Harris might find themselves slowly phased out. Even if the coach keeps the system, he will be yet another coach removed from the Alex Gibbs architect, and perhaps lose a little effect.
On the other hand, a new coach will drool at the tools he has, at QB, WR, and TE. Realizing the injuries at RB, he will likely either bring in a key RB, or trust the Goodmans to do their draft magic while he rehabilitates the existing RBs. If the RB coach is kept (Turner), he might likely advocate keeping Hillis. Torain may have a chance, as might Alridge. But who is kept at RB will be a major indication of how much trust is placed in the OL line coach (Dennison) and the RB's coach. Watching the draft or free agency will determine the future for the zoneblock ("Will we obtain a one cut runner?")
There may be some confusion as to what happens with the offensive staff. Mike stated that the offensive staff will be kept, but Bowlen seemed to imply that the entire coaching staff would be overhauled. Would the new HC have the discretion to fire and replace Bates (for instance)? Bowlen needs to allow his new HC the power to make his own decisions (unlike a Jerry Jones or an Al Davis), and I expect Bowlen will give an experienced coach an awful lot of leeway.
If so, expect a new HC to take a stronger role in playcalling. This should immediately bring some balance to the team (more running), whatever system is run.
Some of Denver's trademarks may change (other than the zoneblock). Other possibilties may include the use of multiple TEs to one TE, or transitioning from West Coast (or the new '08 Spread Offense) to something completely different.
The defense is likely to see special attention. If a quality HC is brought in, or even a quality DC, this is an area of the team that is under intense scrutiny right now. I wouldn't be surprised to see the draft focused on the defense, and major changes made in the reloading season.
Before the firing, I would have expected most players to stay, with competition in the preaseason changing some slots. With a new DC and HC, I expect this to change. The defense is a failure, and any new coach is going to want to bring the defense up to the speed of the offense as quick as possible.
Expect a new HC to require a scheme to be implemented (his or the DC's). Players will fit the system or they will be gone. This is unusual. Most coaches come into a program and adjust their own system to fit the players. But with the utter lack of quality on the defense, a new coach is likely to start from scratch, and build the defense to fit him, and not the other way around.
It is far to early to speculate on 4-3 versus 3-4. Denver does not have the NT to run an effective 3-4 (though they have fair LBs at a couple of spots). Likewise, Denver doesn't have domineering LBs for the 4-3 look. It's all in the air.
While Denver is in the 3rd year of a 5 year rebuild (according to MHR Editor in Chief "Guru"), a new coach is likely to ignore the "build through the draft entirely" concept that Denver was moving towards, in an attempt to plug some glaring holes right away. DL (especially DT) and LB are likely FA moves that I would expect.
Conditioning may be audited because of the multiple injuries this year and last.
Training camp will likely change in several areas, but it is difficult to predict where. Shanahan believed in less contact, but another coach may not. Shanahan believed that the best man wins the start, but another coach may favor veteran status.
The Goodmans had a terrific year drafting last year. Will they be given the free reign to draft as they please, or will the new HC make some requirements? Is he a "best player available" guy, or a "draft by need" coach? Will the new HC butt heads with the Goodmans, interact favorably, or just stay out of their way?
Again, will he keep or replace the offensive department?
We are only a day removed from Mike's firing. This is short notice to collect thoughts, and put those thoughts to paper (or more accurately, to your screen). But I hope I have generated some thoughts from the MHR membership, and to those who link to us from Sports Illustrated and elsewhere.
First, we will miss Mike. He took us to the promised land twice, and his worst seasons were better than what most teams experience.
But Mike is gone, and will have many opportunities to be happy doing what he loves. For Denver fans, it will be important to give the new coach a chance, and to see what he does. A new coach has the benefit of having a great young QB, and great young players in many key positions on offense. He also has the benefit of having a terrific owner, who let Shanahan go with a lot of class.
Right now, two Superbowl winning coaches are available for NFL teams (Shanahan and Cowher). Any team ready for winning seasons will target either of these coaches. I like Cowher, because he addresses every issue a team could want addressed. But I would caution fellow fans from getting our hopes to high. There are plenty of rookie coaches who have made their marks in the NFL (even this year), as well as fired coaches who have gone elsewhere and done well (Shanahan came to us from dreaded Oakland).
Give the new coach a chance, and let's have a good time watching how things unfold together.
For now, best of luck and a big thanks to Mike Shanahan for all of the wonderful memories he's given us. Thanks to Pat Bowlen for being a great owner, and for being classy during the firing (along with Mike). And thanks most of all to you the fans, who stick with Denver through thick and thin awaiting the glory that will come again.
Check in frequently with Milehighreport.com to stay up to date on the coaching search, the draft, and all news and analysis that is Denver Broncos football. Go Broncos!