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Joe Ellis: 'A very good chance' NFL moves to 17 games in 2021

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Broncos may add another game to their 2021 schedule.

President and CEO Joe Ellis said Tuesday that "there's a very good chance" the NFL will move to a 17-game regular-season schedule next season.

When the league's new collective bargaining agreement was agreed upon last spring, the NFL gained the ability to add a 17th regular-season game to the slate beginning in 2021. The league's owners have not yet officially exercised the option to move to a lengthened schedule, but Ellis suggested the move could be on its way.

"The big decision on that I think comes down to how many preseason games you're going to play," Ellis said. "We need all [of them]. The games are important. The fans might not like to hear that, but there will be alternate slates if you go to 17 and [two preseason], where you're playing nine games at home one year and 10 games at home the next. I think those games being absent for us, this past year, had an effect on how we played, for sure."

According to a recent report by Albert Breer, the Broncos' opponent for that extra game may already be decided. Breer reported that AFC West teams will play the corresponding team in the NFC North that finished in the same division standing in 2020. The Broncos would be slated to play the fourth-place Detroit Lions, though it is unclear where the game would be played.


As the Broncos enter the offseason, Ellis said that while he is hopeful the Broncos can host a full capacity of fans next season, he remains unsure what the future holds in light of COVID-19.

The same is true for the status of any upcoming events — including scheduled concerts — at Empower Field at Mile High.

"The answer is that I really don't know, and our whole stadium staff wishes they knew," Ellis said. "I think some events are set — or slotted — but there's no confirmation today. We still don't know where COVID will be, we still don't know where the vaccinations will be, and so for me to predict or forecast, I think, would be irresponsible. The word everybody uses is hopeful. I'm hopeful for all of us that instead of me sitting in this empty auditorium [for Tuesday's press conference], you guys will be here some day and we can chat in person and not on this screen. But for now, we just don't know when that day is, and I can't predict that. I'm optimistic that we'll be back to maybe a full capacity of fans in August, but for me to tell you that that's going to happen, I just don't know that.

"That's part of the complexity of where we are and the anxiety that's created because of that. Nobody really knows what the future holds, but you do have to be optimistic. You do have a vaccine, you do have people taking it. [General Counsel] Rich Slivka, our fellow trustee over the age of 70, he got in line and he's up [and] he got his vaccine on Monday. … It's sort of almost day by day, week by week, then it turns into month by month. I do think things will improve. I think we'll have fans back in the stands. I do know this: Fans are itching to get back to the stands, and they may have a short window on our lack of success over the past three years and they may let us know that when they get back in the stands, and I understand that. But they want to come watch us play, and I'm in that category.

"I want to see fans in the stands. I want to go to games. I can't go to the Pepsi Center this winter — none of us can. I think everyone's itching to see live events. So, I'm hopeful that we can get there."


Ellis credited Brittany Bowlen, the Broncos' vice president of strategic initiatives, for playing a major role in the Broncos' ability to complete a 16-game season in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ellis appointed Bowlen to lead the COVID Task Force in early March, and she worked with other executive stakeholders to develop policies and protocols and work with state and league officials.

"She managed the process weekly, she worked with the league, she worked with the state very effectively," Ellis said. "I think it was all-consuming for her, so some of the other things she was working on, she still was able to do, but the rest of us were sort of all COVID, all the time. She was able to keep the trains on the track. I know we had a couple of hiccups during the season — none of that was her fault, but at the same time, we did play every game and we got through the season. I think it's a remarkable accomplishment for the league and it was a remarkable accomplishment for us. I commend the players, the staff, the coaches, everybody for being able to do so. Brittany was at the forefront of that."

Ellis said Bowlen is also working on projects related to stadium improvements, fan experienceenhancement and an international initiative. She'll soon have an office at UCHealth Training Center to be more involved with "big-picture finances" and be more exposed to football operations.

"She still needs experience," Ellis said. "Experience is critical for her and we're trying to get as much of it as we can for her. We haven't made a decision, but she certainly is the family member that would be on track if there can be an agreement amongst family members and others. Brittany, obviously, as I've said, no different from last year, would be the person to be chosen if it would be a family member. Again, we haven't made that decision today."

Bowlen will also be involved "peripherally" in the Broncos' GM search, though she will not participate in the interview process.

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