ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Ever since soon-to-be Hall of Famer Pat Bowlen stepped down from his daily duties as owner of the Denver Broncos, team president and CEO Joe Ellis ran the team in a "What would Pat do?" sort of way.
With Bowlen's death last month, that's no longer the case.
Ellis told The Associated Press that while the team will always honor Bowlen's memory, it's time for the Broncos to establish a new identity.
"I got to thinking about that," Ellis said Thursday from the sideline as the Broncos became the first NFL team to open training camp . "I think it's a fair question at this point because he's no longer with us. He was with us (the last five years) even though he was not out here. I got to go see him and I always sort of felt his presence. And I think Pat would want us to move on from him a little bit, you know? I don't think we're going to be able to do that totally because of what he's provided all of us ...
"But it's time to buckle up your chin strap here and do things the Broncos way," Ellis said. "Yeah, we want to make Pat proud. We're going to honor him. It's a subtle honoring with the decal on the helmet and he'll always be in the back of my mind. But you know what, we have to act independently now in some fashion. I hope you can make sense of this."
Bowlen died June 13 at age 75, nine weeks shy of his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When Alzheimer's forced him to step away five years earlier, Bowlen entrusted Ellis to operate the team with full authority and represent the Broncos in league matters until one of his seven children was deemed ready to take over. Ellis drew on his working relationship with the notoriously publicity-shy Bowlen that spanned nearly three decades to continue operating the team as Bowlen would have during those five years.
Ellis said he doesn't want to look back anymore.
"There's been so much talk about Pat and his excellence and everything that he's done and it's all well-deserved and it's well-acknowledged — he's going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Ellis said. "But I know if he were here and he were advising me, he'd say, 'Listen, you know, your job is to get everybody in the organization to pull together and do this for our fans and do this for themselves and each other, players, coaches. And do what I always wanted to do and not make it about me, make it about them, make it about yourselves, make it about the fans. Make it about winning. Let's focus on that. Let's not focus on me anymore.'"
Ellis noted the Broncos have to change the way they do things to reverse their recent slide that includes back-to-back double-digit losses for the first time since the 1960s.
Even with those 5-11 and 6-10 seasons, the Broncos have as many Super Bowl appearances — seven — as losing seasons during Bowlen's ownership that began in 1984.
"We need to establish our own identity," Ellis said. "So much of our identity the past several years has been based on the success of Pat in some ways, right? And people talk about the Pat Bowlen era. Even if a child were to take over, it's not the Pat Bowlen era anymore. So, this is kind of in some ways this is Year 1 of establishing a different identity as an organization. Never forgetting everything that was Pat.
"No one's ever going to forget what he did. We'll remember him. We've got the decal on the back. His name is on that field house. His father's name is on this facility's front here at UC Health Center. So, he will continue to be honored and remembered, but I do know that he would want us to put our own stamp on this program. I just know that in my heart."
Ellis said he'll meet with Brittany Bowlen, who is hoping to take over the franchise, next week about returning to the team to gain more front office experience. She's currently working for global consulting firm McKinsey & Company in Denver. Ellis said her role would be generally focused on the business side.
"She's going to come here and work hard. She's got to prove herself," Ellis said. "There's more pressure on her than any other employee. And then we'll see. If that works out, then there's room for growth. Pat always said, 'Listen, I'd love to be able to keep it in the family if I can and have a child run it, but if that's not the case, then the team will be sold.' And so we're not there to assign anybody that role yet."