Shanahan has been adaptable throughout his career, assimilating the positive qualities of various employers: Barry Switzer, for whom he served as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma in the mid-'70s (bluntness, people skills); former Florida coach Charley Pell, his boss from 1980 to '83 (organizational skills); and Seifert (the ability to sublimate his ego for the good of the team). Though he and Al Davis are bitter enemies, Shanahan lauds the Raiders' managing general partner for "leaving no stone unturned in his preparation"—something virtually everyone in the Broncos' organization cites as one of Shanahan's strengths.
Name an aspect of Denver's operation—strategy, personnel, salary-cap management, meals on airlines—and Shanahan's hands are all over it. He studies as many as 70 videocassettes of each week's opponent and tapes every Broncos meeting, even though he watches some of them live in his office on closed-circuit television. For every team he has a list of salaries, enabling him to scan for potential salary-cap victims who might be available down the road.
Still, Shanahan derives his greatest edge from his understanding of the game. At various stops in his career he has been exposed to the wishbone, the run-and-shoot and the West Coast offense. He has modified the last of those schemes to allow for Elway's abilities (through the shotgun) and for a power running attack. "But he also has a great grasp of defensive theory," says Denver defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. "Few people in football have the perspective he has."
Just ask the Panthers, who managed only seven first downs and 147 yards on Sunday and fell victim to the Broncos' defensive-line stunts throughout the second half. Offensively, Shanahan provided a blueprint of How to Neutralize the Zone Blitz. Leaning heavily on a seldom-used protection package known as 2-Jet, which calls for a second tight end, Dwayne Carswell, to serve as an extra blocker against blitzing linebackers and defensive backs, Shanahan crafted a game plan that afforded Elway time to take seven-step drops and still find Sharpe, who was often left in man-to-man coverage. The Broncos also attacked Carolina with basic running plays for Davis (21 carries, 104 yards), many of which went against Denver's tendencies and helped set up play-action passes.
Shanahan was fine-tuning the game plan last Saturday night when Bill Harpole, the Broncos' director of operations, was summoned to the unlit observatory. Shanahan wanted the Evander Holyfield-Michael Moorer fight shown on a nearby big-screen television so he and the players could watch it while eating their late-night snack. "We've got five cable-company guys working on it," Harpole said. (The problem ultimately was solved when a 580-foot cable was strung from the hotel lobby to the projection screen, a development that earned Harpole a high five from Shanahan.)
Later Shanahan went back to eavesdropping on the offensive and defensive meetings. "Most of the players know about this room now," he said, "but at first, no one knew I was up here. I'd hear them say things about me—how they didn't like something I did at practice, or how I was bugging them in some way. So I'd file it away, and later I'd approach those people and say, 'So, you didn't like what we did in practice?' They'd get an amazed look on their face, and I'd just smile and walk away. They'd wonder, How the hell did he know?"
On Sunday the Panthers' players and coaches were asking themselves the same question.