For months commentators have been engaged in a coded whisper campaign about Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen's health and diminished role in the organization. As the 2-6 team staggers into a bye week amid raging concerns about its leadership, talk about Bowlen's admitted "short-term memory loss problems" and low profile has intensified, even as club officials insist that everything's fine. Nonetheless, knowledgeable sources tell Westword Bowlen is no longer the team's major decision maker on key subjects.
The rumor mill started grinding in earnest last year, after Bowlen informed Denver Post columnist Woody Paige that his memory isn't what it used to be and that he was even having trouble recalling details of the Broncos' championship seasons in the late 1990s. Never the most accessible of NFL owners, Bowlen has granted few audiences to journalists since that exchange; his last interview was more than nine months ago.
The revelation prompted other writers less obeisant than Paige to ask whether the memory problems had played a part in the acrimonious Jay Cutler trade. Cutler insisted he'd responded to Bowlen's efforts to contact him during the tense standoff; Bowlen recalled no such thing. On his ESPN blog, Rick Reilly wondered whether the owner's slippery recall "and other curious goings-on" in Bronco management would cost the team for years to come.
A little forgetfulness is part of the aging process, of course, but even Paige has intimated that it may be something more serious. After the Broncos' collapse in London last week, his column on the debacle fueled more online chatter about the boss by hinting at the degree to which the organization has closed ranks around him: "Bowlen stood quietly on the sideline at the end of the loss Sunday night and did not talk to the media afterward. He has medical issues, and is maintaining a much lower profile (read: no profile at all) this season."
That's not quite accurate, according to team spokesman Patrick Smyth. "Mr. Bowlen is heavily involved in all matters of the organization and remains a key figure on several NFL committees," Smyth wrote in an e-mail to Westword. "He does, however, maintain a less visible role with regard to interviews and media appearances."
But Bowlen's involvement in the team's current woes may be much more limited than most fans suspect. According to two sources knowledgeable about front-office operations, Broncos chief operating officer Joe Ellis, who was deeply enmeshed in the firing of head coach Mike Shanahan and the hiring of Josh McDaniels, is now the team's major decision maker on most, if not all, key financial and management questions.
Ellis puts an upbeat spin on Bowlen's vanishing act in an interview with Mike Klis in today's Post, insisting that Bowlen is "doing well," is still active in day-to-day operations and "speaks to the coach every day." There's clearly a concerted effort to present the transition of power as Bowlen's call: "He's elected at this point in his life to step back and not be in the spotlight as much as he was," Ellis tells Klis. But all these assurances by the new voice of management only raise more questions about why the owner isn't speaking for himself.
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Since buying the team from Edgar Kaiser and other interests in 1984, Bowlen has been a driving force in shaping the Broncos into one of the most-prized (and most-scrutinized) franchises in the NFL. Even if he chose to go public with what Paige cryptically refers to as his "medical issues," it's doubtful that such a move would put the speculation to rest.
Yet it seems particularly unfortunate that, at a time when the Broncos seem to hitting depths of disarray they haven't seen for years, the man who steered them through so many good and great moments is -- for whatever reason -- silent and sidelined.