At exactly nine o'clock last Saturday night at an Englewood, Colo., hotel, Mike Shanahan rose from his perch in a darkened room overlooking two Denver Broncos meetings and prepared to give his players their last major speech before they faced the Carolina Panthers the next day. He had spent the previous half hour privately viewing simultaneous meetings of the Broncos' offense and defense—with audio piped through the speakers in his observatory by way of an elaborate sound system. Now the NFL's most thorough head coach walked downstairs to join his entire squad and to speak about special teams. "It's been a long time since we've had a breakout game in that area," Shanahan told his players. "This is the week we've got to put a total game together."
Four days earlier, in a meeting at the Broncos' practice facility in Englewood, Shanahan had challenged his defense, saying of the Panthers, "They're going to try to run the ball right down our throats, I guarantee you that. It's got to be a coming-out party for our defense."
Shanahan issued no such challenge to his offense, despite the Panthers' zone-blitzing scheme and its potential for wreaking havoc. When you have a future Hall of Fame quarterback (John Elway), a burgeoning-superstar halfback (Terrell Davis) and perhaps the most innovative offensive mind since Bill Walsh's, why get overly concerned about a few 300-pound defensive linemen dropping into coverage? As Shanahan said shortly before emerging from the darkness to deliver his Saturday night address, "Our goal is always to score over 30. If we play to our capabilities, we can move the ball on anybody."
Asked which offensive player he thought might have a big game against the Panthers, Shanahan said, "If things unfold the way we expect them to, Shannon Sharpe will come up huge."
What took place the following afternoon at Mile High Stadium made Shanahan look psychic. The Broncos (9-1), who share the league's best record with the San Francisco 49ers, jumped to a 14-0 lead on a pair of punt returns for touchdowns by Darrien Gordon—one of Shanahan's key off-season acquisitions—and rolled to a 34-0 victory. The Denver defense shut down Carolina and forced four turnovers, including strong safety Tyrone Braxton's 27-yard interception return for a touchdown. Though the offense produced only 13 points, the Broncos neutralized the Panthers' blitzes and moved the ball expertly, with Sharpe, their All-Pro tight end, catching eight passes for 174 yards.
By the time the snowy afternoon had ended and darkness was descending upon Mile High, Shanahan seemed capable of predicting anything: from Sandra Bullock's next love interest to the onset of El Niño. In a league in which coaches such as the Jets' Bill Parcells, the Dolphins' Jimmy Johnson and the Packers' Mike Holmgren seem to will their teams to greater heights through the force of their personalities, it may be that Shanahan, a cherub-faced, 5' 10", 180-pound former small-college quarterback, has quietly emerged as the most powerful presence in his profession.
Walsh, the Hall of Fame coach who built the 49ers into a dynasty, calls Shanahan "one of the four or five best men in football." Elway says Shanahan is the No. 1 coach in the NFL, and numerous players on other teams—some of whom have met Shanahan only in passing—concur. "The word is out around the league," says Broncos defensive end Neil Smith, a five-time Pro Bowl performer for the Kansas City Chiefs who signed with Denver in the off-season. Shanahan is not only a shrewd strategist but also a demanding yet fair boss who lets his assistants coach and his players live, breathe and smile. As Broncos defensive lineman Mike Lodish, an eight-year veteran who spent his first five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, says, "He treats you like a man, until you need to be treated like a boy."
Shanahan, 45, has grown into his role as Denver's coach and personnel honcho. Ten years ago Raiders owner Al Davis hired Shanahan away from the Broncos, where he was a hotshot offensive coordinator, and made him the league's youngest head coach. The two mixed like filet mignon and Velveeta. Shanahan says he was "totally unprepared" to deal with the overbearing Davis, and their relationship was chilly from the outset. Shanahan went 7-9 in 1988 and was fired after a 1-3 start the following season, the first of two major career setbacks that sullied his reputation. Following the 1991 season, Shanahan, who had returned to the Broncos in '89 as quarterbacks coach, was dismissed by then Denver coach Dan Reeves, who accused Shanahan of going behind his back to plot strategy with Elway.
Though he felt wronged on both occasions, Shanahan kept a low profile, resurrecting his career as the 49ers' offensive coordinator from 1992 to '94. He figured that his name would be cleared with the passage of time, and judging by the numbers, it has been. Davis's Raiders are 3-7 and headed for their fourth consecutive nonplayoff season; they have had three coaches during that span. Reeves, fired by the New York Giants after last season, coaches the 2-8 Atlanta Falcons. Meanwhile Shanahan's Broncos have won 23 of their last 28 games, with only a shocking 30-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in an AFC divisional playoff game last January marring their run of excellence.
Inside the Broncos' organization Shanahan is revered, in no small part because he listens. Shortly after the Broncos finished 8-8 in '95, Shanahan's first season, he met with each player to solicit input. Guard Mark Schlereth, who had won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins following the '91 season, spoke glowingly of how his former coach, Joe Gibbs, fostered camaraderie and occasionally rewarded players by giving them an extra day off after victories. Shanahan responded by hosting a barbecue for players and their families at his house the following summer—a popular event he repeated in August—and by allowing players the luxury of coming to the facility on their own time for film sessions and workouts on the Mondays following a victory. "He's a players' coach," Terrell Davis says. "He doesn't feel a need to bark at you. He's straightforward, and he treats his players with respect. In return, he wants you to play hard for him. What else can you ask for?"