ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There are four pillars to success for an NFL team: Ownership. General manager. Head coach. Quarterback.
It’s when the final three pillars are wobbling or crumbling that ownership needs to stand up strong.
New Denver Broncos controlling owner Rob Walton and his two chief partners, Greg and Carrie Penner – who also happen to be family – are taking over at a time when the team’s other three pillars are solidly in place.
George Paton, the Broncos’ general manager, has four and a half years left on his contract. His first one and a half years have mostly drawn positive reviews.
Nathaniel Hackett is the new head coach who is a couple of months into his four-year contract. He has helped breathe renewed energy and enthusiasm in the workplace.
Russell Wilson is the new quarterback with two years left on his contract, and because of the haul of draft picks and players Paton surrendered to get him, an eventual contract extension is a certainty.
What impact will the Walton-Penner ownership group have on the Broncos going forward? Merely by their presence, there will be an enhanced level of accountability. Every company employee from Starbucks barista to university professor feels anxious when presented with a new boss. The former boss liked you. It’s why you’re employed. But what if the new boss owes a favor to a friend who needs a job?
Speaking of Starbucks and university professors, Mellody Hobson and Condoleezza Rice have been added to the Broncos’ ownership group as limited partners. Hobson is chairwoman of Starbucks, among other responsibilities. Rice, our country’s Secretary of State from 2005-09 under President George W. Bush, is a political science professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and Director at the school’s Hoover Institution.
Hobson and Rice will give the Walton-Penner leadership diversity of thought and intelligent, strategic influence. Limited partners, though, don’t usually have voting power. Broncos outgoing limited partner John Bowlen owned 40% of the team for years and still holds a 22% stake he is ready to convert into $1.02 billion. But he has always held 0% of the voting rights on Broncos’ decisions. His brother Pat Bowlen held 100% of the vote. He may have listened to what his brother John had to say, but Pat made the decisions.
The expectation for Walton and the Penners is to primarily spend the 2022 season observing and absorbing. They could do worse.
The Green Bay Packers don’t have an owner and they’ve entered each of the past 20 seasons as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They’ve also had quarterbacks Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers over those 20 years. (Proving that the most important of the four pillars is quarterback.)
The Dallas Cowboys have a Hall of Fame owner in Jerry Jones, and they’ve gone 26 years without getting past the second round of the postseason.
Greg Penner is expected to take on the Joe Ellis-type role and be in charge of the Broncos’ day-to-day operations. Ellis will stick around for several months to help Walton-Penner with the transition.
Ellis leaves with a mixed record. The franchise appears to be strong financially and is award-winning with its community involvement. The 21-year-old stadium that is Empower Field at Mile High needs work, but upgrades have been made periodically. The team’s UCHealth Training Center headquarters have been upgraded almost on a yearly basis. The team spends to the edge of the salary cap each year. The food in the team cafeteria is top shelf.
Unlike other companies and businesses, though, the Denver Broncos are a sports company in the business of winning. In Ellis’ first five seasons in charge, the Broncos won five AFC West Division titles. Five out of five. They had the best four-year regular-season stretch in team history – 13-3, 13-3, 12-4 and 12-4. The Peyton Manning years. (Has it been mentioned the most important of the four pillars is quarterback?) There were two Super Bowl appearances and one Lombardi Trophy.
The last six years of Ellis’ reign, though, were devoid of a playoff appearance. The last five seasons of 5-11, 6-10, 7-9, 5-11 and 7-10 marked the franchise’s worst stretch in 50 years. It wasn’t Ellis, though, so much as general manager John Elway lost his golden touch in building a roster, and a couple head coaches, Vance Joseph and Vic Fangio, didn’t win with the players they got.
And the reason why it didn’t work for Ellis, Elway, and the coaches was because the Broncos didn’t have a top 10 quarterback in the past six years. An owner, thus, is only as good as his quarterback.
The Broncos have a top 10 quarterback now in Wilson, and so it looks like the GM Paton and head coach Hackett are going to be fine.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to call a special meeting next month with the other 31 owners to formally approve Rob Walton as controlling owner and the Penners, Hobson and Rice as part of the Broncos' new ownership group. No Walton-Penner press conference at the training camp media barbecue next Tuesday. But soon enough.
Rob Walton and the Penners are inheriting a team whose immediate future is pointing up. If the unexpected happens and the Broncos are again disappointing this season, that’s when the fanbase will be counting on the new owner to make an impact.
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