Mike Shanahan became the latest and most stunning victim of the NFL coaching purge, fired Tuesday by the Denver Broncos after a late-season collapse knocked the team out of the playoffs for the third straight year.
Shanahan joined Eric Mangini, Rod Marinelli and Romeo Crennel on the unemployment line after going 24-24 over the last three seasons, including three straight losses in 2008 that turned a three-game division lead to an 8-8 record.
Despite that, and the 52-21 loss to the Chargers that ended Denver's season Sunday, this was a shocker: The ouster of a 14-year coaching veteran who won two Super Bowl titles for Denver and was considered my many in this town to be a lifer.
"After giving this careful consideration, I have concluded that a change in our football operations is in the best interests of the Denver Broncos," owner Pat Bowlen said.
Shanahan's record was 146-89, but the Broncos remained stuck at only one postseason victory since John Elway retired in 1999 after Denver's second championship.
This season was especially ugly. It included a historic collapse that saw Denver become the first team since divisional play started in 1967 to blow a three-game lead with three games left.
The Broncos' defense gave up 448 points, third worst in the NFL, including 112 during the three-game collapse at the end. It was ranked 29th in yards allowed and tied for last in the NFL with a minus-17 turnover margin.
In years past, Shanahan had relieved defensive coordinators — Greg Robinson, Ray Rhodes, Larry Coyer and Jim Bates — in almost revolving-door fashion.
This year, as the defense floundered, it became obvious it wasn't just a coaching problem. It was an issue of talent on the field, and in Denver, Shanahan makes all the personnel decisions.
His top two draft picks in 2007, Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, were barely a factor this season. Two of Denver's top veteran acquisitions from last year, Niko Koutouvides and Dewayne Robertson, also did very little.
"I'm very shocked, extremely shocked," said rookie Spencer Larsen, who played fullback and linebacker this year. "I don't think any of us saw this coming."
Messages left on Elway's cell phone by The Associated Press were not immediately returned.
Bowlen and Shanahan were scheduled to hold news conferences Wednesday. Shanahan had three years left on his contract, worth about $20 million.
Known as "The Mastermind" during his tenure with the Broncos, Shanahan shouldn't have much trouble getting another job if he's interested — and willing to part with the 35,000-square-foot house he's building in a fancy part of Denver.
He earned the reputation honestly, returning to lead the Broncos after a short, unsuccessful stint with the Oakland Raiders, where he was fired by Al Davis in a contentious parting that still isn't fully resolved. (Shanahan still claims he's owed $250,000).
Shanahan became a coaching star as a coordinator and confidant of Elway's while the Broncos were being coached by Dan Reeves. But Reeves ended up firing Shanahan, accusing him of insubordination for supposedly conspiring with Elway to hatch game plans behind the head coach's back.
That made for a great subplot for the Super Bowl 10 years ago, when Denver met Reeves and the Falcons, for what turned out to be the last great moment for a franchise that Shanahan took to the top.
Denver's two Super Bowl victories came behind the running of Terrell Davis and the brilliance of Elway, but Shanahan pulled the strings and finally helped deliver the title to a city that had been through four painful Super Bowl losses, three with Elway at the helm.
Shanahan was regarded as a coaching genius when it came to creating mismatches on the field, confusing defenses by using different personnel groupings to run the same set of plays, series after series and game after game.
Davis. Olandis Gary. Reuben Droughns. Clinton Portis. Tatum Bell. They all ran for 1,000 yards for the Broncos and the basic thought was that anyone could do it.
But after Elway retired, it was never quite the same.
His replacement, Brian Griese, never panned out. Jake Plummer got the Broncos to the AFC title game in 2005, but Denver was blown out by Pittsburgh. Shanahan drafted Jay Cutler the next year — an indication he was blowing up a team that had come so close a year before.
Cutler, along with receivers Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, make up the core of what could be a very promising offense in years to come. But the defense Shanahan assembled was wretched — allowing more than 400 points over the past two seasons — and the Broncos hardly looked like contenders.