You could blame the weather, but Bronco fans have toughed it out through much worse storms. In the glory days of the Elway era -- not to mention the gimpy miracles of the Craig Morton era or even the forlorn hopelessness of the Steve Tensi era -- a little bone-chiller like this one would hardly have merited breaking out the big parkas, and the handful of wussy no-shows who couldn't cut it would have been roundly booed.
You could blame the team. Rattled by injuries to key veterans, out of sync and unfocused, the Broncos are floundering in folly. This poor excuse for a game has been played largely at Denver's end of the field, a procession of fumbles and dropped passes, with scarcely a first down to cheer about. One, two, three, punt. One, two -- whoops. Even though the Broncos have somehow scratched out a 10-0 lead over the equally dismal Redskins, the fans can already smell the coming defeat. Later, after Washington puts 17 unanswered points on the board, Mike Shanahan will call the Broncos' effort the worst offensive performance he's ever seen in the NFL.
But the fans have stuck around for worse drubbings. Today they're clearing out while Denver is still ahead. Something has shifted in the Broncomaniac's relationship with his team; the game has changed from emotion-packed ritual to mere spectacle, something you stop watching when it stinks, like a boring TV show.
You could blame the stadium. For the most part, these are the same fans who inhabited Mile High, but there are more distractions here, more glitz, more commercial blitz -- starting with the name itself. There is no place for fans to hang their hand-lettered signs and no escape from the flashing ads, the corporate logos, the endless reminders that Bowlen's dream stadium, like most modern sports palaces, exists to drain your wallet. And, of course, the luxury suites, where the seats go for as much as $900 a game and the buffet is extra, are more prominent here, bunkers of privilege hunkered over the so-called cheap seats. Squads of security people guard the elevators and escalators leading to the suite levels, friendly buffers between these very, very special fans and the rabble below.
In the suites, there is no hint of the cold outside. Sealed off from the action as well as the weather, the box-holders have no reason to abandon their seats. But that doesn't mean they're enjoying this game any more than the few hardy, shivering spectators left outside.
In one upper-level box, a group of middle-aged men are talking point spreads and checking a computer screen for scores from other games around the league. Their wives huddle around the bar, comparing their children's schools. A developer is on his cell phone, inquiring about the over-under on the Dallas Cowboys.
An attorney has his back to the windows, watching the San Francisco-Tampa Bay game on a television above the bar. He has five large riding on San Francisco, which is trailing by eight points late in the fourth quarter. Incredibly, the 49ers march down the field in the closing seconds, score a touchdown and a two-point conversion, and steal the game with a field goal in overtime. The spread is two points, so the attorney covers.
This is exceedingly good news to everyone in the suite. For sheer drama, it beats anything happening on the field below, a mute clash of soggy, dispirited men that hardly anyone is watching.
So it has come to this: a team without heart, playing in a stadium without a soul, for fans who couldn't care less. This is not the dream Pat Bowlen was chasing when he closed the deal with Edgar Kaiser seventeen years ago.
In the owner's suite at Invesco Field, the chandeliers shimmer brightly over the imported wallpaper and carpets. The fireplace flickers with warmth. Outside, the wind howls.