Broncos ownership battle leaves leadership void at the top

Beth Bowlen Wallace and Pat Bowlen. Credit: CPR.org/AP

Pat Bowlen is the man.

He talks the talk and then backs it up by walking the walk. Under Bowlen — the best owner in Denver sports from 1984-2014 — the Broncos motto was always “Super Bowl or Bust,” and they went to America’s biggest game seven times under his leadership.

But, as of late, leadership is exactly what the Broncos have been lacking. From the top-down.

Bowlen is still the owner of the team, but President/CEO Joe Ellis — who’s been with the franchise in the front office since 1998 — is the de facto owner ever since Bowlen was diagnosed and publicly announced as dealing with Alzheimer’s.

Ellis — along with Bowlen’s lawyer Rich Slivka and Mary Kelly, another lawyer — make up the group which has been entrusted to find the next owner of the Broncos. The new owner could be one of the many children from the Bowlen family, but does not have to be.

The Wall Street Journal, on Sunday, published a great look into the saga of the Broncos ownership, with children from two different marriages fighting over control of one of the most successful sports franchises in America. Those battles have gone from behind-the-scenes to out into the public eye as of late, the WSJ writes.

We know back in the summer that Beth Bowlen Wallace — daughter of Pat’s first marraige — publicly threw her name into the ring, wanting to be the next Broncos owner, but the trust decided she was not fit to do so.

“As trustees honoring the clear wishes of Pat, we have thoroughly evaluated whether Beth is capable of succeeding her father as controlling owner,” the trustees released in a statement in late May. “We have determined that she is not capable or qualified at this time.”

Bowlen Wallace obtained a law degree from the University of Denver, as Nicki Jhabvala explained here on The Afternoon Drive, with the goal of one day owning the team. Bowlen Wallace also worked for the Broncos in 2012 as “director of special projects” but — the WSJ alleges — Annabell Bowlen became upset when the daughter attended an ownership meeting in 2012.

Meanwhile, Brittany Bowlen — daughter of Annabell, Pat’s second wife — announced in October she also wants to own the team. At 28 years old — 20 years younger than Bowlen Wallace — she’s worked with the Broncos and the NFL league office, but Ellis said in July she’s not ready “yet” either.

And to complicate matters further, former minority owners John and Bill Bowlen — Pat’s brothers — both back Bowlen Wallace. In a statement from the Denver Post, “As minority owners of the team, we would be proud and thrilled to have (Beth) as the leader of this franchise. There is strong support as well from fans who favor her bid for controlling ownership.”

Bill Bowlen has also filed a petition against the trustees, saying they “have no accountability,” the trustees filed a stay motion, and he responded by filing an objection to the stay calling it a “delay tactic.”

Meanwhile, the trustees have now asked the NFL to mediate; the family feud has become the courtroom version of a fist fight. And the answer to “Who will own the team next?” seems more convoluted than ever.

While the children fight for control of the team, the Broncos are floundering through a rough, three-year stretch in which they’ll miss the playoffs three straight times. That happened only once during Pat Bowlen’s ownership, from 2006-2010, and he fired two different coaches in Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels.

What the Broncos need right now more than anything else is a strong-willed leader, like Pat Bowlen was for 30-plus years.

At 6-7, Denver just flopped in the biggest game of their season, a must-win contest against the terrible San Francisco 49ers in California. Something says that if Bowlen was still the acting owner of the team, he would have moved on from head coach Vance Joseph today.

There’s precedent, too. McDaniels was fired with four games left in the 2010 season, and Wade Phillips was fired after only two years as the Broncos head coach in the early 90s, and that even included one postseason appearance.

It’s not just about Joseph — though his lack of leadership on the field has been a major reason Denver’s been so down the last two seasons — but if Bowlen were still running the show, it’s possible he’d be looking at replacing John Elway as general manager, too.

Bowlen hired Elway in 2011, and Elway started making the day-to-day decisions immediately; he hired John Fox, was in charge of drafting Von Miller and then completely rebuilding the team in 2012. With Elway calling the shots, Denver’s gone to two Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl 50.

The Duke of Denver deserves a lot of praise for turning the franchise around so quickly, from 4-12 in 2010 to battling for Super Bowl XLVIII only three years later. And to sustain that success and reach the pinnacle again with the Super Bowl 50 victory was huge.

Still, Elway’s draft pedigree has come into question nearly every season since he’s been the GM; in one of the greatest sports ironies, one of the NFL’s best-ever quarterbacks can’t draft a quarterback. He’s been superb on the defensive side of the draft, but has regularly reached for quarterbacks like Paxton Lynch and Brock Osweiler, tackles like Garett Bolles and Ty Sambrailo, and even at pass-rusher with Shane Ray. And, as Doug Ottewill wrote today, Elway choosing Joseph over Kyle Shanahan was a mistake.

With Elway seemingly making all the decisions — not Ellis — it’s Elway’s call on Joseph, too. He could act and fire the coach who’s sporting a 6-18 overall record, and a 4-11 record on the road, by firing Joseph now, saving face for the program as well as for himself.

Or, maybe Elway’s waiting until the end of the season to see which other coaches could be available. We know Mike McCarthy is looking for a new job after being fired by the Green Bay Packers, and Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh will likely be available, too. Each would be major improvements over the current regime.

But, if Elway doesn’t fire Joseph — who’s made some strides but continues to seem way in over his head as a head coach — it will be difficult for even the staunchest sports of the “Duke” to defend him.

There, again, is where the owner should be able to step in, take the heat and fire the head coach, who’s woefully underperforming.

The best thing that can happen for the Broncos now is to have a new owner figured out sooner rather than later, but, it also has to be the right, qualified person. If Bowlen Wallace isn’t the best of the bunch — given her age, experience and degree — than no one from the Bowlen family should be the next Broncos owner and the board of trustees must move forward with finding a new owner immediately.

Or, without needed leadership, the Broncos may be destined to flounder for years to come.

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