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Friday, July 20, 2007
Updated: July 22, 11:17 AM ET
Shanahan has lofty expectations

By Graham Bensinger
Special to ESPN.com

With Denver having trouble scoring, Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan made a late-season change at quarterback in 2006. With five games remaining, rookie Jay Cutler, the 11th overall pick in the 2006 draft, took over for veteran Jake Plummer.

Denver's quest for a playoff berth came down to the season's final game at Invesco Field. In overtime, the Broncos lost to the 49ers and finished the season at 9-7, the best record of teams that didn't make the playoffs.

Hours after Denver's final game, cornerback Darrent Williams was shot and killed on New Year's Day. Only weeks later, third-string running back Damien Nash collapsed and died after a celebrity basketball game.

As the Broncos prepare to enter training camp, following an offseason of mourning, ESPN.com caught up with Shanahan.

Graham Bensinger: How would you assess the play of the Broncos last season?

Mike Shanahan: Any time you don't make the playoffs, you are pretty disappointed. In the offseason, you do whatever you can to get back to and possibly win a Super Bowl. It's not just about getting to the playoffs, but doing something once you get there.

Bensinger: You've been involved in switching starting quarterbacks on several occasions. What's that process like for you?

Shanahan: I do what I think is best for the team. This past year, we were averaging about 17 points per game. We weren't going to do anything once we got to the playoffs unless we started scoring more points. When Jay [Cutler] came in, the last five games, we started scoring about 24 points per game. We made some improvement there and Jay has worked extremely hard in our offseason program to get better. Time will tell.

Bensinger: After you made the decision to switch from Jake Plummer to Jay Cutler, what was that meeting like when you informed Jake?

Shanahan: It's just like when you inform everybody. I sat down with him and gave the reasons that I made the decision. Jake handled it very well and was very supportive of Jay Cutler. Obviously, he was disappointed that he didn't stay the starter, but he understands it's a business and that's the tough part of it.

Bensinger: What did you see in Cutler that wasn't evident in Plummer's game?

Shanahan: I don't go into that. I just make decisions that I think gives the team the best chance to win. It has a lot to do with how a guy practices, his strengths, weaknesses, and the talent around him. There are a bunch of factors.

Bensinger: You continually hear people say that when a player takes over for a legend, there is added pressure and it makes it increasingly difficult for the individual to live up to the expectations of the fans. How much do you buy into that?

Shanahan: I think it's very hard to be a legend! John Elway had it as hard as anybody could have it. He overcame the pressure and wound up winning a couple of Super Bowls, but it took him until his 15th and 16th years to get it done. That's what's tough. It's the perseverance for a guy like Elway to fight through all the criticism and all the adversity, and still have the fortitude to go out there and get the job done.

Bensinger: He certainly hasn't made it easy for the QBs that have manned the position since. Obviously, the Broncos have had several. When you bring a quarterback in, do you talk about that?

Shanahan: You always talk about the pressures of a place like Denver. The expectations are very high. Anything short of winning a Super Bowl is not acceptable. We all understand that and so do the QBs. We try to give them the best supporting cast, so the Super Bowl can be a realistic goal.

Bensinger: How would you describe a leader?

Shanahan: There are all different types of leaders. Some guys are very quiet leaders and some are very emotional. You have to separate yourself from the rest of the class by the way you handle yourself and the way you react under pressure. Those guys usually become leaders.

Bensinger: Do you consider all starting quarterbacks leaders?

Mike Shanahan
Coaches are up against the clock when speaking to their quarterbacks.
Shanahan: No. Not at all. Some are natural leaders, others have to work at it, but not all are leaders. You'd like for your quarterback to be a leader.

Bensinger: How much of an indication do you get from sitting down and talking to a player about whether he'd embrace being a leader?

Shanahan: The only way you can lead is by playing extremely well. A lot of times you don't know how a guy is going to play until it is a game situation. It's judged over time. You don't know for sure when you meet a guy if he's going to be a natural leader because you aren't sure how he's going to play when the pressure is on.

Bensinger: A hitter's stats are generally inflated when he bats at Coors Field. If you knew nothing about the Broncos' offensive line, you could gather the same holds true for your running backs.

Shanahan: No ...

Bensinger: Come on. Look at all the 1,000-yard backs you've had: Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns, and now Tatum Bell. That's in an eight-year period!

Shanahan: We've had a few great running backs. Terrell Davis was the greatest of them all. Clinton Portis had a few great years with us. It's not that special to get 1,000 yards in the running game. It is very special to get 1,500 yards in the running game and average over five yards per carry. Unfortunately, we've had players go down which has given some guys an opportunity to showcase themselves in our offense. That's the reason why we've had so many RBs gain a significant amount of yards. We've just had injuries at that position. Rueben Droughns used to be our fullback! We didn't move him to tailback until we lost three in one season!

Bensinger: How much would you attribute their success to their talent, and how much is due to your system?

Shanahan: It's a combination of everything. You have to have a great system and great players. You need excellent schemes and a great supporting cast. You need a little bit of everything. You just don't do things in the NFL without being good in all different areas.

Bensinger: What are your expectations for Travis Henry?

Shanahan: Well, if he stays healthy, I'm hoping he can get 1,500 yards.

Bensinger: There's no proper segue into this. I know it's been a rough and saddening offseason. How have you been doing?

Shanahan: Oh, I've been doing really good. It's very tough to go through a tragic situation like we did -- the death of two players. Any time you lose two quality guys that the team and I care a lot for, at the age of 24, there are no words you can come up with [to describe the situation]. The only way I look at it is that those guys are both up there in heaven with God. They just went there a little earlier than they were supposed to go.

Bensinger: How did you view your role following the players' deaths?

Shanahan: I'm the head coach of the football team. Those are my players. I wanted the families to know how special the players were to our organization. I wanted to offer as much support as I possibly could because of the tragedy. Then, I wanted to be sure they are financially taken care of, or at least somewhat taken care of, for the rest of their lives. That their kids can get a college education and that they have a nice place to live. It's the same thing that you would want from your employer if you were doing a good job for them and happened to pass away at a young age.

Bensinger: Training camp is fast approaching. This is usually an exciting time as the season nears. What will this year be like?

Shanahan: It will be like all the other years. You just want to be able to do something special so at the end of the year you can hang your hat on something and say, "Hey, we're the best in the world!" I've been fortunate to be around a few Super Bowl teams and all we're looking for is to be the best at what we do.

Bensinger: What would make this coming season a success?

Shanahan: Win a Super Bowl. That's our goal.

Bensinger: Obviously that's the goal every season ...

Shanahan: But it's a realistic goal. If I don't believe it, then the players won't believe it. In my third year in Denver, we didn't have anybody pick us to be a playoff team and we won the Super Bowl. The mind-set has to be right, guys have to believe in each other, and you have to be lucky with injuries. It starts in the offseason with free agents and the draft. There are a number of teams that are talented, but I feel like we have a legitimate chance.

Bensinger: If you don't win the Super Bowl, can the season still be successful?

Shanahan: No. You can look at it and say we did some good things that we can build on, but there's only one team that's happy and that's the team that wins it.

Graham Bensinger is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Visit his Web site at: TheGBShow.com. You can e-mail him at graham@thegbshow.com