Broncos' Ellis: How the Bowlen-Elway bond led to the NFL's franchise tag

Photo courtesy of USA Today

Denver owner Pat Bowlen vowed never to lose star quarterback John Elway. Then he made sure he'd never have to.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the Joe Ellis interview, fast-forward to 24:15 of the attachment above)

There was something more than Super Bowls, league commitments and TV contracts that distinguished the career of Denver Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen, now part of the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2019.

There was an uncommonly close and rare relationship with his star quarterback, John Elway.

When Elway won his first Super Bowl after three previous tries, it was Bowlen who stood in front of cheering fans, held the Lombardi Trophy over his head and announced, “This one’s for John.” And when Bowlen needed a general manager 13 years later, it was Bowlen who again said, “This one’s for John,” turning to Elway for the job he now holds.

Bowlen was outspoken in his admiration of his quarterback, and Elway was resolute in his support for Bowlen as a Hall-of-Fame candidate. Theirs is ... and always has been … an extraordinary friendship.

So what's behind it?

Denver president and CEO Joe Ellis explained on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast, pointing out that the Bowlen-Elway bond was so strong it actually changed history -- leading to one of the most important components of today's NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.

The franchise tag.

“In his early years of ownership,” Ellis said of Bowlen, “he recognized how important the position of quarterback was to the football team -- and that he had on his team one of the game’s greatest players at that position and one of the game’s greatest athletes at that position. And he had to do everything he could to keep him.

“The other parts weren’t fungible. You had to have other good players. But you absolutely had to have a franchise quarterback.

"And the franchise tag … I don’t think a lot of people know that … but Pat stood up at a league meeting (I was at the league office at the time) and said, ‘If we’re going to do a deal with free agency… and we’re going to go to unrestricted free agency, I’ve got to be able to protect one guy on my team. Because if I’m not able to do that ... if I am forced to lose him and allow him to leave ... I say it’s a huge problem with my fan base.’ "

And so the franchise tag was introduced in 1993, allowing teams to protect a designated player scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. It has been in effect ever since, with few persons aware that it was Bowlen's connection to Elway that created it.

Until now.

“I think there are probably a handful of owners left over in the room today who would remember that," Ellis said of Bowlen's address. "I remember that.

"And, so, I think their relationship bonded out of respect for Pat’s respect for John and how much he meant to the organization and John’s appreciation of Pat doing anything and everything he could to putting all of the resources he could into the team to try to win Super Bowls."

Now, of course, they've been joined together again -- this time in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, with Bowlen inducted this August. Elway was enshrined in 2004.

"It's the greatest individual honor you can achieve in pro football," said Ellis.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
brian wolf
brian wolf

Would like to give a shoutout to the late, great Cedric Hardman who passed away...

Yes, he wasnt great against the run as a DE, but he had god given talent at rushing the passer. If I am not mistaken, he had 126 career sacks and also had postseason sacks that helped the 49ers go to two consecutive championship games against the Cowboys and three straight years overall, where the Cowboys were to much.

In 1980 he went to the Raiders where he had 9.5 more sacks and put alot of pressure on Dan Fouts in the AFC Championship game, that helped the Raiders win, where they advanced to the SB to give Hardman his only championship.

With the HOF adding many pash rushers over the last ten years, I hope Hardman gets the consideration he is long overdue.