DENVER - He was known as a genius, a mastermind and, yes, a Super Bowl champion. Shockingly, though, Mike Shanahan has a new title: unemployed coach.

Shanahan became the latest and most stunning victim of the NFL coaching purge, fired yesterday by the Denver Broncos after a late-season collapse knocked the team out of the playoffs for a third consecutive year.

Shanahan became the fourth coach to be fired this week, joining Eric Mangini, Rod Marinelli and Romeo Crennel, after going 24-24 over the last three seasons. That included three straight losses this year that turned a three-game division lead into an 8-8 record.

"After giving this careful consideration, I have concluded that a change in our football operations is in the best interests of the Denver Broncos," owner Pat Bowlen said.

Bowlen had been steadfastly loyal to Shanahan, rewarding the coach who brought the long-awaited Super Bowl title to Denver with what seemed like carte blanche for life.

But Denver has won only one postseason game since John Elway retired in 1999 after back-to-back championships. Shanahan finishes at 146-91 over 14 seasons in Denver, including playoffs; his final game was an unseemly 52-21 loss to San Diego with the division title on the line.

"I'm very shocked, extremely shocked," said rookie Spencer Larsen, who played fullback and linebacker this year. "I don't think any of us saw this coming."

Quarterback Jay Cutler certainly didn't.

"I was talking to Mike yesterday about personnel moves," he said in an interview on KCNC-TV in Denver. "I'm as shocked as anybody else. I think it's the wrong move."

For any other coach, on any other team, this kind of thing wouldn't have come as such a surprise, considering the season that just ended.

It included a historic collapse, with Denver becoming the first team since divisional play started in 1967 to blow a three-game lead with three games remaining.

The defense gave up 448 points, third worst in the NFL, including 112 during the three-game collapse at the end. It was ranked 29th in yards allowed and tied for last in the NFL with a minus-17 turnover margin.

"I don't know if necessarily they'll find a better football coach," said linebacker Bill Romanowski, a former Eagle who was a key player on Denver's Super Bowl teams.

"Mike is an outstanding football coach, one of the better coaches I had, if not the best. But players start to get tired of the same routines, the same kind of play-calling. A new, fresh coat of paint sometimes does a whole lot of good."

Bowlen and Shanahan are scheduled to hold news conferences today. Shanahan had three years left on his contract, worth about $20 million.

Shanahan ran everything. As things went downhill, he relieved defensive coordinators - Greg Robinson, Ray Rhodes, Larry Coyer and Jim Bates - in almost revolving-door fashion.

This year, as the defense floundered, it became obvious it wasn't just a coaching problem. It was an issue of talent on the field, and in Denver, the buck stopped with Shanahan.

He focused on defense in 2007, using two of his four picks for defensive linemen Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder, neither of whom were much of a factor. Also of late, Shanahan wasted a third-round pick on Maurice Clarett (2005), spent millions on running-back bust Travis Henry (2007), and got hardly anything from Boss Bailey, Niko Koutouvides and Dewayne Robertson (2008).