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The Key Link
Michael Silver
September 04, 1995
At its best, the relationship between a coach and his quarterback can elevate a team. At its worst, it can destroy an entire season
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September 04, 1995

The Key Link

At its best, the relationship between a coach and his quarterback can elevate a team. At its worst, it can destroy an entire season

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Shanahan's relationship with another premier signal-caller, Elway, makes for an even more intriguing study of the mentor's role. When Shanahan joined Dan Reeves's Bronco staff as the wide receivers coach in 1984, he earned Elway's respect by joining him in workouts and weightlifting sessions and pushing him to throw in the off-season. When Elway tried to beg off with the excuse that no receivers were in town, Shanahan would lace up his sneakers and run patterns for him in Piney Creek Park.

When Shanahan left to coach the Raiders in 1988, a great deal of strain developed between Elway and Reeves. After being fired by Raider owner Al Davis during the 1989 season, Shanahan returned to Denver, first as the quarterbacks coach, then as offensive coordinator. Elway's mood perked up, but Reeves fired Shanahan after the '91 season, resulting in an open clash between Elway and Reeves that led to Reeves's being fired the next year.

"It's almost like when Mike left there was more responsibility on me," Elway says, "because the coach that came in [Jim Fassel] didn't do things the same way and wasn't as organized. I had a good relationship with Fassel, but he had only been in pro football one year when he came here. There were times when I had to teach him the game. Plus, Mike was kind of my buffer. I could tell Mike what I was thinking, and Mike could go talk to Dan about it, and Dan would yea or nay it. With Mike gone, Dan and I clashed."

Now Shanahan is back in Denver, but with more responsibility, meaning his relationship with Elway must change. In addition, the new offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak, was Elway's backup, drinking buddy and roommate on the road for nine seasons. Sensing the distance their new situation will require, Elway has avoided acting chummy toward Kubiak in the presence of teammates. But the true test will come during games, when Kubiak will demand that Elway defer to his authority. "A coach has to be able to jump on your butt," Elway says. "Otherwise you don't have that same respect."

Walsh agrees: "The relationship can't be so familiar that the quarterback doesn't take his coach seriously. A lot of these coaches are overwhelmed by the significance of the quarterback. They're in awe of him. They're just pleased to be in the quarterback's company. So they become an errand boy."

When asked to cite an example of the mentor-quarterback relationship at its best, Elway recalls a game in the late '80s. He doesn't remember the opponent, the year or the location, but he does recall a chat with Shanahan that included a lot of non-FCC-approved language.

"We were on the phone, and it got ugly, so I just hung up on him," recalls Elway. "He came up to me after the game, put his finger in my chest and said, 'Don't you ever hang up on me again.' Then I apologized, and we both started laughing. That's the type of relationship we had."

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