Mike Shanahan faces what could have been with Denver Broncos

NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to take you directly to the topic):

» Terrelle Pryor's growth as a quarterback.
» How Case Keenum caught the Texans' eye.
» Can the resurgent Jets keep this up?
» And much more, beginning with a blast from the past for a veteran coach ...

It's hard enough leaving any place that you have committed to for over a third of your life, but what made the end of 2008 so difficult for Mike Shanahan wasn't just all the seasons left behind.

It also was the prospect of what might've been coming in Denver.

"The thing that was interesting, we were first in the AFC in offense, and second in the NFL," Shanahan recalled Thursday afternoon. "And the defense had lost so many people to injury. The next year, they came back and were (seventh) in the league. We had so many guys hurt. So you look at it, and I felt so good about the team; we knew it was very, very talented, and we left it in very good shape."

It's been nearly five years now since a relationship that originally dated to 1984 ended in divorce. On Sunday, Shanahan returns to Denver with a new team, rebuilt over four seasons in his image, and a new franchise quarterback in Robert Griffin III -- along with a lot of strong, old feelings for the city he still considers home.

His focus, to be sure, is on digging Washington out of an early season hole, the same way he and Griffin and the rest of the Redskins did in 2012.

But it's hard not to look at Washington's opponent this week and think about how much has changed -- and how, with one decision by Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, all of that was set in motion. When Bowlen's team dumped Shanahan, Jay Cutler and Tony Scheffler were 25, Chris Kuper was 26, Elvis Dumervil and Brandon Marshall were 24, and Ryan Clady and Eddie Royal were 22.

They were all there as the result of a plan hatched by Shanahan after the 2005 season -- which ended with a loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC title game -- to go all in with younger players and build a new era of Broncos winners that would rival the teams of his early years. The next season, Shanahan followed through, even sending veteran quarterback Jake Plummer to the bench in favor of Cutler with Denver at 7-4.

Shanahan was able to pull it off on the fly -- the Broncos never fell off a cliff, putting together a three-year record of 24-24 -- but season-ending swoons in 2006 and '08 eventually cost him the chance to see the project through.

"At the end of the day, you go back, and if you're a head coach in one place for 14 years, you feel good about that, and you go back and look at the good things," he said. "I think that's what I did. Pat (Bowlen) had the right to go in that direction; he owns the team. And when he did go that way, he made the statement that he wanted to take back control of the organization and be the guy. And I said, 'Hey, if you're the owner, you can do whatever you want to do.' So who knows what would've happened."

It didn't take long for the Broncos to undergo a facelift. Cutler and Marshall were out the door right behind the coach who drafted them. The new man in charge, Josh McDaniels, didn't make it through a second season before Bowlen took more dynamite to the organization's structure and brought in Shanahan's old quarterback, John Elway, to conduct another fix.

Today, just five Shanahan Era players remain in Denver: Kuper, Champ Bailey, Wesley Woodyard, Matt Prater and Clady, who's on injured reserve.

It's a different place now. Shanahan joked that he'd look forward to going back "if they weren't so good." Still, he's maintained a relationship with Elway, and current Broncos coach John Fox is an old buddy of his, so it's not like Shanahan is marching back into town with a score to settle.

Plus, he's done this before. Following his first stint as a Broncos assistant (1984-87), Shanahan returned to Denver as head coach of the Raiders. And then, following his second stint on the Broncos' staff (1990-91), Shanahan faced his old team again in San Francisco as 49ers offensive coordinator -- just before he wound up replacing Wade Phillips as Denver's coach in 1995.

It surely will be a little funny to be on the other sideline. Shanahan will probably never completely erase the "what ifs" associated with the potential of Cutler, Marshall and Co.

But, he says, "There's nothing but positives for me when it comes to Denver. My seven years as an assistant there were great. My 14 years as head coach, a lot of great memories. Having been there three times, finally getting a chance to win a couple championships, be a part of a great organization, I'll never forget that."

And the feeling he had of finally getting over the top will not fade.

"It was extra special to go back and do it in Denver," he said. "When we won in San Francisco, that was expected, and Steve Young played great. But they had won so many times, they expected to win. We had a really good team, and we expected it, too. In Denver, after we lost three, and to beat a team like Green Bay (in Super Bowl XXXII), and get the monkey off our back, it was pretty special."

As is Shanahan's legacy there.

Even if it's tough to shake the thought that he, and the former new-era Broncos, never really got the chance to add to it.

Terrelle Pryor pushing to become a well-rounded quarterback

Terrelle Pryor isn't going home this weekend, but he will be playing against his hometown team, and the fact that it's the Pittsburgh Steelers isn't the only point of significance.

Through five starts for the Raiders this season, Pryor is throwing for a higher completion percentage than Carson Palmer did with Oakland last year and has compiled a nearly identical passer rating -- and that's without accounting for the enormous athletic gap between the two. There's no question Pryor has made progress. The Raiders' 2-3 record under Pryor's watch is nothing to sneeze at, considering the circumstances.

Now, he has the bye week behind him and a veteran defense in front of him, with plenty left to prove.

There's still no telling what Pryor's place with the club will be beyond this year. At this point, the third-year pro is adamant that he can't get caught up in any of that.

"There have been big improvements; I'm proud of my work," he said after meetings on Wednesday. "And I have confidence that if I continue to work hard, I'm gonna get where I wanna be -- and I wanna be one of the best. ... I know I can do things other people can't. But what I'm focused on is doing my job, getting better at being a quarterback, and when the time calls for it, make those plays that other people can't make. I'm trying to live in the present, not the future."

The things he can do that others can't represent the part of the story that's often forgotten. Pryor was, rather recently, considered one of the better high school athletes of his time, elite in basketball and the top-ranked prep football player in the country.

That's why, if you're the Raiders, Pryor merits a rather long look. To spin his words forward: As deep in quarterback talent as the 2014 NFL Draft might be, there isn't much those kids can do, physically, that Oakland's current starter can't.

Trouble is, until very recently, Pryor was much more of an athlete than a quarterback, something he's spent three years trying to amend. He told me he's built a library of cut-ups of Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- he loves Brees' balance in the pocket, how Manning always has his feet pointed toward his target, and the overall fundamentals in Brady's setup -- and has tried to implement elements of the tape. The overarching thing Pryor has taken away: An understanding that footwork and accuracy go hand in hand.

"I'm good sitting in the pocket; I'm not as worried about that anymore," he said. "For me, now, it's understanding defenses better, staying on schedule, remembering it's OK to check down, not press, and take what the defense is giving me. When I did the film on Brees and Brady and Manning, you see it, on first and second down, they take what the defense gives them. They pick and choose their spots."

The trick for Pryor is striking the balance between exploiting his genetic gifts and playing the position the way it's drawn up, which is still a work in progress. He admits that against the Chiefs in Week 6, he was too quick to use his feet in certain spots when he should've stuck in the pocket. In other spots, he scrambled, and Justin Houston and Tamba Hali tracked him with discipline, forcing him to hold the ball too long. "I learned a lot from that game," Pryor says of the 24-7 loss in which he threw three second-half interceptions.

Pryor reiterated that his focus is on now -- today -- to the point where, just as he says he's not worried about the Raiders' plans for 2014 at the position, he also can't assess how far he's come, because he can barely remember where he was three summers ago. But that doesn't mean Pryor doesn't have his own take on the kind of player he is -- and can become.

"I see myself as a starter in the league, leading a team and having a lot of success doing it," he said. "What's important is that we keep moving forward."

The saga of Case Keenum

After touching on Case Keenum in last week's notebook, I got a text from one general manager who had a second-round grade on him coming out of the University of Houston in 2012.

I get the feeling the Houston Texans felt similarly back then.

"He may not have been drafted because he lacks prototype size, but that was probably the only negative I saw with him," Texans quarterbacks coach Karl Dorrell said. "He had all the qualities you want an NFL player to have at the position. We knew it'd take some time, coming from a spread system, being able to understand everything, working under center, adjusting his footwork. But when I met with him, I felt like he was a fast learner, a driven young man, who wanted success."

The Texans haven't given word yet as to whether Keenum or Matt Schaub will get the call on the other side of their Week 8 bye. Dorrell wasn't tipping us off there, saying only that the decision is in Gary Kubiak's hands. But there's little question Keenum hasn't made it any easier to go back to Schaub.

In Week 7, Keenum finished 15-of-25 passing for 271 yards and one touchdown in a one-point loss against one of the league's best defenses, playing at hostile Arrowhead Stadium. Keenum's poise in that environment, in fact, was what Dorrell was most impressed with, given that the young quarterback had to go back to his college days to recall playing four quarters in an unfriendly place. That, of course, doesn't mean there weren't plenty of corrections to make.

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"I would give him a 'B'," Dorrell said. "On some things, he played really well. But there's an expectation level, a level we expect you to play at, and it doesn't matter if you're a 10-year vet or making your first start. He didn't meet that, but he played well. He's made a big jump, that's for sure. He can play in this league. But he has a lot to fix."

Keenum is, in many ways, a pet project for Dorrell, who worked with the former University of Houston star when the Texans held their pro day for local prospects two Aprils ago. Intrigued by the workout and the quarterback's body of work, Dorrell kept in touch with him, knowing the Texans might not use a pick on the position, and that Keenum could go undrafted, which would turn the coach into a recruiter.

In part because of Keenum's size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and in part because of questions about his ceiling -- as well as the fact that he was still limping as a sixth-year senior (he blew out his ACL in 2010) -- that's exactly how it played out. And that added the final layer for Dorrell, who saw a once-lightly-recruited high school prospect go unnoticed again -- and come out of it looking better than most expected.

"I felt that he should've been drafted," Dorrell said. "But that doesn't matter anymore. Now, it's a matter of getting an opportunity."

We'll see if the Texans give him another one.

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Four downs

1) Are the Jets for real? You don't make sweeping conclusions in Week 8, but it's fair to say this much now: The Jets have far exceeded what most of us expected, and that's a huge credit to Rex Ryan. When they started -- then re-started -- their GM search in January, it was under the presumption (with the Darrelle Revis saga as the backdrop) that the roster's decay and the cap situation's complexities would add up to a long rebuild. Instead, the team is currently 4-3, coming off an overtime win over its arch nemesis, the New England Patriots. So how much can we read into this? "I think they're better than the media gave them credit for, but they always had a good D," one rival AFC executive said. "The offense is better, but I still see a .500 team that will be in every game because of their D. The OC (Marty Mornhinweg) has made a difference. They can run the ball. But they got New England twice at less than full power, they got the Tampa game given to them, and I don't think the Atlanta win will shine as bright in the end." In other words, this is a team capable of taking advantage of fortuitous situations, which usually is a sign of a well-coached group.

2) Closing the book on Brandon Weeden. Colleague Rich Eisen tweeted the other day that the Browns "appear to be running out of benches for Brandon Weeden," and that's the honest-to-God truth. Though the new regime didn't draft Weeden, that doesn't change the fact the franchise invested a first-round draft pick in him. Thus, CEO Joe Banner, GM Michael Lombardi and coach Rob Chudzinski owed it to themselves to find out if Weeden could play. They sure seem to have found their answer. Weeden was demoted after Cleveland opened the season 0-2, got his job back by default when Brian Hoyer went down and then dropped on the depth chart again Wednesday -- this time, losing the starting gig to Jason Campbell. Cleveland knows Campbell's not the long-term answer at the position. It's not difficult to read these tea leaves: With the Browns in the process of evaluating the roster, coaches simply felt they needed to give the other 10 guys in the huddle a better chance to show what they can do than they were given with Weeden leading the charge.

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3) Detroit's defense is growing up. At halftime of the Lions' Week 6 win over Cleveland, Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham delivered an enough-is-enough speech to his players, and they responded by suffocating the Browns in the second half. The group's Week 7 showing wasn't quite as impressive, as the Cincinnati Bengals rang up 27 points to get the win, but there were continued signs that a maturation is underway. A big part of Cunningham's impassioned rhetoric focused on discipline, and against Cincinnati, his unit was responsible for just two penalties, simple offside calls against Willie Young and Ziggy Ansah. Coach Jim Schwartz told me: "I think the veteran players have helped us to be resilient." One of those guys, middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, was more specific, saying, "We're eliminating the dumb, after-the-whistle penalties. ... We're looked at a little different, amongst the league, and we understand that. We have to keep our cool. We know teams are gonna try to draw personal fouls against us, and we understand that. As opposed to last year or the years before, when we'd try to retaliate, the ultimate goal is to win each week." It's working to a reasonable degree -- at 4-3, the Lions entered this week as an NFC wild-card team.

4) Is the value of offensive linemen on the decline? With the trade deadline rapidly approaching -- it's next Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, to be exact -- we've already seen three deals involving left tackles who originally were drafted in the top 10 (Eugene Monroe, Levi Brown and Bryant McKinnie). This underscores the fact that while everyone bemoans the league-wide lack of depth at quarterback, issues up front remain pressing in their own right. That said, four of the last five teams to win it all -- the 2008 Steelers, 2009 Saints, 2010 Packers and 2012 Ravens -- dealt with serious questions with their front five over the course of those seasons. That should tell you a couple of things. First, teams feel comfortable handling O-line problems on the fly, which might be because, inherently, NFL offensive linemen are expected to be smart and adaptable. And second, the value of those positions might not be what it was in the days when the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers rode dominant groups to championships. Next year's NFL draft, with another bumper crop of left tackles expected, could provide an interesting case study. Will teams remain as hell-bent on drafting the position as highly as they typically have?

Three checkdowns

1) This 7-0 start in Kansas City probably doesn't have the locals reminiscing fondly about the Scott Pioli era, but say this for the former Chiefs GM: He got his final first-round pick correct. Nose tackle Dontari Poe's rise has been a big key to the defense's emergence as one of the league's best.

2) We spotlighted a number of college coaches last week. Baylor's Art Briles is one who later was raised to me. A scout mentioned how the Redskins have implemented some of Briles' concepts and said he'd fit somewhere. Still, word is he'd like to be at Baylor when the school opens its new stadium next fall. And that he loves Waco, Texas.

3) One thing that could hamper trade-deadline movement: Mediocrity has kept more teams close enough to believe they can make a run. Only three clubs are more than three games behind their respective division leaders: Oakland, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.

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Two college players to watch Saturday

1) UCLA OLB Anthony Barr (at Oregon, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN): The quarterbacks (UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon's Marcus Mariota) will take center stage in this showdown, but in the opinion of most evaluators, Barr will be the best player on the field. "He's easy to scout -- a freak athlete," one NFC personnel director said. "He needs to prove he can handle setting the edge, controlling the point of attack against the run." Oregon's spread won't challenge him directly there as much as it will test his discipline playing against Mariota and the option. And while there will be plenty of chances for Barr to rush, which is his forte, doing that against the Ducks is different. "Games against Oregon are hard, because he won't get the true rush opportunities, or in the run game at the point of attack," one AFC GM said. "You'll just get to watch him run around and chase plays." Simply put, this is a chance to see a great defensive player try to make it work against an unconventional -- but ridiculously productive -- offense.

2) Alabama OT Cyrus Kouandjio (vs. Tennessee, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan represent the cream of the O-line crop in college football. Last month, Nick Saban bemoaned Kouandjio's inclusion in that group in some rankings. The Crimson Tide coach, apparently, thought the talk was a little premature. And Kouandjio hasn't been quite what some thought he'd be early in 2013. Still, one AFC college scouting director said this week that the big Bama tackle is "for sure" in the class of Matthews and Lewan, and this week's game is one where he can take a serious step forward, against a much-improved Tennessee defense. An area scout assigned to the SEC called Kouandjio "good, but not dominant at all," and a player whose potential has long outweighed his performance. That'll make his work against Vols veteran defensive lineman Jacques Smith, in particular, worth watching.

Extra point

It's always fun to throw around potential trades when the deadline's close -- but much harder for clubs to actually pull them off.

The salary cap won't help this time around. As of Thursday afternoon, seventeen of the NFL's 32 clubs had less than $3 million in breathing room, making adding a big number to the books, at best, a challenge.

That's one reason it was tough to pry potential trade-block names when I asked around this week. Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon was mentioned. The Redskins have actively shopped tight end Fred Davis. So then I decided to go broader and ask a few league folks which names would make sense. Here's one I wasn't expecting to hear: Miles Austin. To be clear, Dallas isn't shopping him, but a couple clubs said that it'd be logical for the Cowboys to listen if calls come. One Dallas source agreed with that notion.

Austin is in a group of seven Cowboys on the books for roughly 70 percent of the team's 2014 cap, so freeing up some future space would make sense. Also, rookie wideout Terrance Williams looks like a viable No. 2 opposite Dez Bryant, and Bryant himself is in line for a wallet-busting deal soon, with the final year of his contract in 2014. To simplify all that, something eventually will have to give here, and while an Austin trade would leave a heap of dead money, there would be long-term relief.

The flip side is Austin might be tough to move because of the big numbers left, but he's still just 29 with a real track record in the league.

The problem, of course, is finding a suitor when taking the above into account. As it stands right now, there are four teams with a) winning records and b) more than $5 million in cap space: Green Bay ($10.2 million), Cincinnati ($8.5 million), Denver ($6.7 million) and New England ($5.9 million).

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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