Mike Shanahan’s lead lasted about as long as his tribute video

It’s beginning to look like these tributes to homecoming out-of-towners are a scam, like the email congratulating you for winning the Etruscan lottery. In Indianapolis, they honored Peyton Manning, then beat him. In Denver, they honored Mike Shanahan, then slapped him around for 38 consecutive points, like a barber’s razor on a strop.

I guarantee that somewhere, someone will write this proves Thomas Wolfe right; you can’t go home again. What this will actually prove is that almost no one alive has read this longwinded novel.

In truth, the Broncos did something to Shanahan and his current team from Washington that about half of them have been waiting to do for a long time. Last year’s top-five defense suddenly emerged from behind the curtain and replaced the impostors who ranked 32nd out of 32 teams against the pass coming in. In the process, they gave the Broncos more hope for a happy ending this season than all of Manning’s heroics combined.

“I know they haven’t done some of the things that they would like to do defensively, but I think we all know they were one of the top defenses in the league last year,” Shanahan said afterward. “And this is not the end of the season. This is not even the mid-way point. So you can judge Denver’s defense at the end of the season.”

Actually, it is the mid-way point for the Broncos, who are 7-1 and now get a week off before slogging through their remaining eight games. Shanahan’s team had its week off already, so it is one game shy of the halfway point. But his point is well taken. He used to say you wanted to be in the top five on both sides of the ball to be a true championship contender. There are always exceptions, of course, but it’s as good a way as any to deploy the ruler.

Shanahan’s return made me a little nostalgic, so I retrieved my yellowed Rocky Mountain News clips from 1984, when I was covering the Broncos as a beat writer and head coach Dan Reeves hired Shanahan, then a college assistant, to be his wide receivers coach. Attached to one of my training camp reports from Greeley that summer is a photo by my former colleague George Kochaniec Jr. of Shanahan and the quarterback trio of the day — John Elway, Scott Brunner and Gary Kubiak. They’re all very young and wearing athletic shorts they would find embarrassing today.

Youthful and cool and ready to gamble on Elway in a way Reeves never would, Shanahan is talking about offensive concepts. The three quarterbacks are listening, all eyes on him. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Shanahan and Elway formed an alliance that ultimately cost Reeves his job and set the stage for the Super Bowl championships of the late 1990s.

After Elway’s playing career ended, the relationship frayed. Elway was interested in a meaningful role of some kind with the Broncos. Shanahan had them all and wasn’t surrendering any of them. Elway did not get his current job as executive vice president, running the football operation, until after Shanahan was dismissed. So while everyone said all the right things about the pre-game Shanahan tribute, it was, in fact, about as perfunctory as it could have been. The tribute video lasted 20 seconds. The Manning tribute video in Indy ran 90.

In the 29 years since that first summer in Greeley, Shanahan has lost his reputation for being on the cutting edge. Since Elway retired, following the 1998 season, Shanahan is 114-101 in the regular season and 1-5 in the playoffs.

In Washington, he’s 23-36 over three seasons and seven-sixteenths of a fourth, but the venerable franchise in the nation’s capital has been such a freak show under owner Daniel Snyder that anybody who even vaguely knows what he’s doing gets a long leash. Still, a record of 2-5 in his fourth season, with Robert Griffin III widely considered a franchise quarterback, isn’t a great sign. At 61, Shanahan applies a sharp football mind and deep competitive desire to concepts others are advancing. He’s trying to adapt, but it’s not like the old days, when he knew he knew stuff most other coaches didn’t know.

One minute, the Broncos were behind by two touchdowns and seats on the bandwagon were being auctioned off for beer. The next, they’d rolled up 38 consecutive points without a peep from Shanahan’s team and won going away, 45-21. The bandwagon was full again and it was Washington fans wondering why he didn’t use that famous zone running scheme to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall put Washington up 21-7 when he intercepted a Manning pass intended for Demaryius Thomas, who fell down, and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Manning responded with a 75-yard drive that ended with rookie running back Montee Ball’s first pro touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14. Shanahan’s offense never actually took the field trying to protect a 14-point lead.

To get that responding touchdown, Broncos coach John Fox had to authorize going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Washington 20-yard line rather than kicking a gimme field goal. Knowshon Moreno gained five yards on the fourth-down play and three plays later, Ball was in the end zone.

“Certainly as an offense we like it,” Manning said of Fox’s gamble. “But we feel determined to make him pleased with his call. He’s kind of — he’s giving you that go-ahead because he expects you to do it. So I think there is some real motivation to please him and make it successful so you can do it again.”

Shanahan’s offense got the ball back with a seven-point lead. Of the five plays it ran before punting, three were runs by Alfred Morris, who gained 93 yards on the day, 66 of them in the first half. On those three running plays when Washington was trying to control the ball and protect a lead, Morris gained three, one and two yards, respectively. Washington punted and the Broncos drove for the tying touchdown. They went for it on fourth down again, this time at the 1-yard line. Manning converted it again, this time on a pass to tight end Joel Dreessen.

Now Shanahan didn’t have a lead anymore. Falling further and further behind, his team ran the ball only twice in the fourth quarter. Which should have worked out well, considering the Broncos entered the game ranked last in the league against the pass. But it didn’t. Griffin held the ball too long, missed open receivers and saw the ball dropped when he hit them.

The second pick of the 2012 draft, right behind Andrew Luck, RG III completed 15 of 30 pass attempts for a meager 132 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 45.4. He was no factor as a runner, rushing five times for seven yards. Jack Del Rio’s defense took away the read option without compromising the pass defense. Shanahan’s offense looked nowhere near as accomplished as it did a week ago, when it put up 45 points on Chicago.

The Broncos sacked Griffin three times — one each by Derek Wolfe, Terrance Knighton and Von Miller (a sack fumble recovered by Wolfe) — and harassed him countless other times. The sack by Knighton, listed at 335 pounds, frightened Griffin right out of the game, although he said afterward he was fine.

“I’m not sure which D-tackle it was, I think it was Knighton, came in and landed all 300-plus pounds of hisself on my leg, and I think it really just scared me,” Griffin said. “After I got up and the docs checked me, I was fine, ready to go back in the game. Talked with Mike and just the way the game had gone and Kirk (Cousins) was already out there, it was just smart to keep me off the field and be ready to go next week.”

I asked Griffin about his difficulties in the passing game against an apparently vulnerable pass defense.

“We knew that they were going to rely on their back four, the two safeties and the corners, to take away the passing game and really dedicate the rest of the guys to the run,” he said.

“We just had times when we had guys open and we couldn’t make plays. And then there were times when you had to have those tough catches, those tough throws, and we didn’t make those, either . . . . Regardless of what the Denver secondary is ranked in the pass or their defense is ranked in the pass, they have good players back there. That’s what guys have to realize. Every week you step on the field there’s good players on every team. And you have to be better than them.”

Manning had his worst game of the season, committing all four of the Broncos’ turnovers with three interceptions and a sack-fumble, but he still threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating was more than twice Griffin’s (94.3) and he deftly conducted one of the most oxygen-sucking comebacks in NFL history. When I asked Shanahan whether his defense was gassed in the fourth quarter during the 38-point onslaught, which seemed obvious just watching his players gasping and taking turns delaying the game with alleged injuries, he blamed his anemic offense.

“I think what hurt our defense was keeping them on the field as long as we did,” he said. “Offensively, we didn’t get much going, so we gave them a lot of opportunities. You don’t give Peyton that many opportunities because he’s going to take advantage of it. Normally he’s going to figure out what you’re doing and come up with some big plays. That’s what they were able to do today.”

Griffin kept giving the ball back to Manning because of Del Rio’s defense, of course. It may be coming around right on time.

“I think without a doubt that was our best defensive outing,” Fox said.

So the homecoming tour is over for a while. Well, three weeks. The Broncos get a week off, then play division rivals San Diego and Kansas City. It resumes Nov. 24, when they visit New England. That will be Wes Welker’s homecoming. Think Bill Belichick will authorize a tribute video?

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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