After a rough start in a season and a quarter as the head coach of the Raiders, Mike Shanahan has gone on to become one of the more successful head coaches in the league while coaching the Denver Broncos.
One of Shanahan’s acknowledged strengths is his ability to assess running back talent. He has had a number of successful running backs and gotten most of them as castoffs from other teams or late in the NFL Draft. There is debate whether the running backs have been that good or if the Broncos “system” is what allows them to excel, but there can be no debate regarding their productivity.
Let’s take a look at the history of Shanahan’s running backs:
1995 saw rookie running back Terrell Davis shred defenses as he came out of nowhere (actually he came out of the University of Georgia, but wasn’t drafted until the sixth round) to run for over 1,000 yards and catch almost 50 passes. Davis’ backup that year was journeyman Aaron Craver who had his most productive season gaining over 300 yards and also catching over 40 passes.
With each year, Shanahan’s late round steal Terrell Davis seemed to get stronger. Rushing for over 1,700 yards in 1997 and breaking the 2,000 yard mark in 1998. In 1996, Shanahan was even able to get a 5+ yard per carry average out of castoff running back Vaughn Hebron in a backup role, along with another productive year from Aaron Craver as a backup as well.
The wheels came off the Terrell Davis bus hard in 1999 with a serious injury. The Broncos were still able to get another 1,000 yard performance by a running back though, this time from Olandis Gary who in 12 games during his rookie season ran from 1,159 yards. Olandis Gary had been taken in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, passed on by many teams before being selected by the Broncos.
The year 2000 saw another Broncos rookie running back have a 1,000 yard season. This time it was Mike Anderson’s turn, he gained 1,487 yards and averaged 5 yards a carry doing it. Mike Anderson took after Terrell Davis in another respect, he too wasn’t drafted until the sixth round.
2001 was the first year since 1994 that the Broncos lacked having a 1,000 yard rushing performance (leading rusher that year was Leonard Russell with 620 yards). Time was split in 2001 between Mike Anderson (687 yards) and a recuperating Terrell Davis (701 yards). As a team, it was still a very productive year running the ball.
The Broncos finally used a high pick on a running back in 2002 (albeit a second rounder, still not a first round pick) and took Clinton Portis out of the University of Miami. Portis exploded onto the scene with 1,508 yards and a yards per carry average of 5.5 yards. Portis was backed up by two other former 1,000 yard rushers in Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson, both averaging four or more yards per carry.
Clinton Portis proved his rookie season was no fluke by again rushing for over 1,500 yards and averaging 5.5 yards a carry for the second straight season. Portis backup that season was, among others, Rueben Droughns who would play a significant role for the Broncos during the next season.
With the trade of Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins for cornerback Champ Bailey, the Broncos were in need of someone to step up and exert their dominance from the running back position. Rueben Droughns, a former third round draft pick by the Detroit Lions out of the University of Oregon, would be that man. Droughns had backed up behind Portis, Quentin Griffith, and Mike Anderson the year before, but in 2004 he would run for over 1,200 yards with a 4.5 yards per carry average.
The 2005 season would see Rueben Droughns again rush for over 1,000 yards, the only problem was that this time he did it for the Cleveland Browns after an offseason team change. Mike Anderson, who had rushed for over 1,000 yards for the Broncos during his rookie season in 2000 (5 years earlier) and been a backup for the Broncos since then, would return to the starting role and put up over a thousand yards for the second and final time of his career. Tatum Bell, a second round pick out of Oklahoma State University, had also done quite well putting up 921 yards with a 5.3 yards per carry average. Also of note on the 2005 Denver Broncos team was former Heisman Trophy winner and New York Giants running back Ron Dayne. Dayne played in a limited role, but had some key runs, gained over 250 yards and averaged over 5 yards a carry.
2006 was Tatum Bell’s year to lead the Broncos in rushing as he put up just over 1,000 yards while averaging a very respectable 4.4 yards per carry. Backing up Bell that year was Mike Bell, an undrafted free agent, who although he rushed for less yards (677 yards), scored six more touchdowns than the starter Tatum Bell.
Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan has gotten more out of different players from the running back position than many people thought he’d be able to, and rarely did he give up something too valuable or use a high round draft pick to get the personnel he used.
1,000 Yard Rushers During Mike Shanahan’s Tenure (Through 2006)
Mike Anderson – 2000, 2005 – 6th Round Draft Pick
Tatum Bell – 2006 – 2nd Round Draft Pick
Terrell Davis – 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 – 6th Round Draft Pick
Olandis Gary – 1999 – 4th Round Pick
Clinton Portis – 2002, 2003 – 2nd Round Draft Pick
Rueben Droughns – 2004 – Free Agent
Through a twelve year stretch, Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos had eleven thousand yard rushing seasons produced by six different running backs, none of whom were first round draft picks or big name free agent signings. A pretty amazing amount of production from a wide variety of players playing one position for one team.