ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Almost the moment anyone passes through the front doors of the Denver Broncos' south suburban complex, there are two easy-to-see reminders of Mike Shanahan's tenure with the team.
The two Lombardi trophies stand watch -- bathed in the glow of their own spotlights, along with all of the hardware from the six AFC Championship Game wins in the franchise's history -- over all those who cross the lobby each day. While there aren’t many players left from Shanahan’s time with the team – Chris Kuper, Champ Bailey, Wesley Woodyard, Matt Prater and Ryan Clady – and Alex Gibbs is the only Broncos assistant to have worked with Shanahan, those coveted silver baubles from the two titles remain.
Though Shanahan has a restaurant with his name operating just a few miles from the Broncos’ practice fields, as well as an offseason home nearby, Sunday will mark his first trip back to Denver as another team's head coach. He will stand on the opposite sideline at Sports Authority Field at Mile High and make what he says is just his second trip to the stadium’s visiting locker room.
"You're there for 21 years, got a lot of great friends, great memories, where we raised our family, yeah, I’m looking forward to it," Shanahan said. "It will be enjoyable."
After an 8-8 finish in 2008, when the Broncos lost their last three games to miss the playoffs, including a crushing home loss to the Bills and a 52-21 loss to the Chargers in the season finale, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired the man he once called his "coach for life." The Broncos had won just one playoff game between their Super Bowl triumph to close out the 1998 season and the day Bowlen made the change. Shanahan exited having worked as the head coach or an assistant coach there for more than two decades.
A lot of road has been traveled by Shanahan and the Broncos since. Denver fired another coach (Josh McDaniels) before the 2010 season was over, Bowlen hired John Elway to run the football side of his team, and Elway signed Peyton Manning to throw passes for it. Shanahan, after selecting quarterback Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft, has seen his team win the division, has dealt with the aftermath of Griffin’s knee injury, and now brings the 2-4 Redskins to Denver in his fourth season with the team.
"That’s part of football, people making decisions and going different directions," Shanahan said. "… At least when I left it I felt like I left it in pretty good shape … even though we didn’t get done the last couple years as much as you’d like to. Five Super Bowls [as head coach and as an assistant], one out of every three years we were in a championship game. You do that seven out of 21 years, you feel like you’re pretty lucky being in the right place at the right time, a lot of people helping you out along the way."
Beyond Bowlen and team president Joe Ellis, the football side of the Broncos’ operation has undergone two extreme makeovers since Shanahan's last day. McDaniels first brought his version of the Patriot Way to Colorado. Then Elway arrived in early 2011 to rebuild from the 4-12 season left behind after McDaniels' second year, replacing him with John Fox.
As far as players, Prater (signed off the Dolphins' practice squad in 2007) and Woodyard (made Shanahan's last Broncos roster in '08 as an undrafted free agent) have seen a lot of change since Shanahan's departure.
"He gave me my first good opportunity in this league," Prater said. "It’s pretty crazy. It’s been a lot of transition with different coaches and different guys coming through. I’m happy to still be here."
"He was the guy who gave me my first chance to play in the NFL, so much respect," Woodyard said. "He was one of those guys who always kept it straight forward, he never B.S.’ed it, he always told you exactly what you wanted to hear from a head coach, he never cut you short, he always kept it real. … I believed in him and he believed in me."
The Broncos will honor Shanahan with a video presentation before Sunday's kickoff, a nod to those trophies in the lobby and all the time Shanahan spent with the team.
He has always said he believes the Broncos were close to being a playoff regular once again -- with Jay Cutler at quarterback -- when he was let go in 2008. Still, he spends a big slice of his offseason time in Denver, played a round of golf with Elway earlier this year during the league meetings and says he still considers Bowlen a friend.
"I had 21 great years with Pat," Shanahan said. "Sometimes when you separate, you look back at all the great times you did have. I’ve always considered Pat one of my best friends."
Asked if thought he would hear cheers or boos from the fans on Sunday, Shanahan said, "Hope they don’t boo me. I don’t think I did anything wrong to get booed. I didn’t leave. They fired me."