Laying the groundwork for Super success

Mike Shanahan was the right man at the right time when the Broncos hired him in 1995. The NFL was changing. Free agency was creating a fluid market that few teams had discerned how to exploit. Offenses were becoming more aggressive in this era, with San Francisco’s intricate West Coast attack and the early 1990s run-and-shoot philosophy of the Detroit Lions, Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons beginning to scratch the surface of the type of pinball numbers that could be achieved in a game where rules increasingly hindered the defense.

Shanahan offered a change in stylistic direction. Having honed his technocratic chops with the 49ers in the previous three seasons, he returned to Denver, where he coached from 1984-87 and 1989-91, ready to bring Bill Walsh-honed concepts to the Rocky Mountains.

In the 1980s and 1990s, San Francisco raised the bar for professionalism and detail-oriented approach, first under Walsh and then with his successor, George Seifert.

When Shanahan worked in San Francisco, he helped get his former Broncos backup quarterback, Gary Kubiak, on the staff. Kubiak would follow him back to Denver as offensive coordinator, and the two would create some of the league’s most dynamic, productive offenses for the next 11 seasons. In eight of those years, the Broncos had one of the league’s top five offenses; six times, they were in the top three. Attention to detail was a primary reason why.

“Mike is a stickler for detail in everything he does and he teaches you how to prepare and how to not leave any stone unturned in what you do, whether you’re trying to win a football game or whatever you’re trying to do in coaching. It’s something he drives into you every day,” Kubiak said. “I think that when you work for him it’s something that you’re going to learn right away or else you’re not going to last very long.”

By bringing the 49ers’ West Coast scheme with him from San Francisco, Shanahan placed a heavier emphasis on zone blocking than the Broncos had ever known, since it was what powered San Francisco’s running game via the tutelage of long-time assistant coach Bobb McKittrick.

Alex Gibbs, who had worked with Shanahan under Dan Reeves from 1984-87, was tapped to teach zone blocking to a group of offensive linemen that featured a future Hall of Famer at left tackle (Gary Zimmerman), an unheralded second-year center (Tom Nalen), with the rest of the group fitting in the extremes.

The genius of zone blocking, when it worked, was in its simplicity.

It also helped to have Terrell Davis. The Broncos drafted him in 1995, but didn’t really find him until they went to Tokyo for their second preseason game that year.

Propelled by his special-teams breakthrough against San Francisco on kickoff coverage in that game, Davis had the first of four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in 1995 as a rookie — and the Broncos had a key piece to their eventual world-title equation.

1995 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/3 Buffalo Bills 22-7
9/10 at Dallas Cowboys 21-31
9/17 Washington Redskins 38-31
9/24 at San Diego Chargers 6-17
10/1 at Seattle Seahawks 10-27
10/8 at New England Patriots 37-3
10/16 Oakland Raiders 27-0
10/22 Kansas City Chiefs 7-21
11/5 Arizona Cardinals 38-6
11/12 at Philadelphia Eagles 13-31
11/19 San Diego Chargers 30-27
11/26 at Houston Oilers 33-42
12/3 Jacksonville Jaguars 31-23w
12/10 Seattle Seahawks 27-31
12/17 at Kansas City Chiefs 17-20
12/24 at Oakland Raiders 31-28

Aug. 5, 1995: The Broncos defeat the 49ers 24-10 in the American Bowl in Tokyo, Japan. At this point, the Broncos are one of just three teams to play in five American Bowl games.

1995 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb john elway 16
rb rod bernstein 3
rb aaron craver 12
rb terrell davis 14
rb glyn milburn 1
wr vance johnson 1
wr ed mccaffrey 4
wr anthony miller 14
wr mike prtichard 13
wr rod smith 1
te dwayne carswell 2
te jerry evans 2
te shannon sharpe 12
c tom nalen 15
c ralph tamm 1
t broderick thompson 16
t gary zimmerman 16
g brian habib 16
g mark schlereth 16

Nov. 5, 1995: John Elway surpasses the 40,000-yard passing plateau, becoming the seventh player in pro football history to accomplish that feat.

Dec. 10, 1995: Simon Fletcher plays his last home game as a Bronco, having announced his intention to retire before the season.

Feb. 4, 1996: Denver is represented in the annual AFC-NFC Pro Bowl by Steve Atwater, Jason Elam, Glyn Milburn, Anthony Miller and Shannon Sharpe. Gary Zimmerman was selected but did not play because of injury.

Record: 8-8
Fourth Place, AFC West

1995 defense

Pos Player Starts
de shane dronett 2
de harald hasselbach 10
de dan williams 6
dt james jones 16
dt michael dean perry 14
lb allen aldridge 12
lb elijah alexander 8
lb glenn cadrez 7
lb simon fletcher 16
lb britt hager 5
lb dante jones 5
lb dave wyman 11
cb ray crockett 16
cb lionel washington 16
s steve atwater 16
s tyrone braxton 16