Ralph Wilson stayed true to his commitment to western New York for 55 years, establishing the Bills in Buffalo in 1959 and refusing to move the team despite the area’s economic downturn and the prospect of greener pastures in bigger cities.
Wilson’s death on March 25 at age 95, though, conjured up some of the worst fears for Buffalonians — of the family selling the Bills to new owners who would move the team to Los Angeles or perhaps London.
But it turns out that less than a year before his death, Wilson did Buffalo one last favor that has turned those initial feelings of fear into hope for the team staying long term.
The favor last June was a new 10-year lease between the team, Erie County, and the state of New York to keep the Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium through the 2022 season. The team would have to pay essentially a $400 million penalty to break the lease in any year except for 2020, when there is a smaller $28.4 million penalty but it would still require a lengthy legal process.
Yes, the prospect of moving still hovers over the franchise, but the forecast isn’t nearly as gloomy as it was expected to be in years past.
“What the lease does is it gives the town and the area an effective amount of time to work out a feasible solution,” said NBC news correspondent Luke Russert, a big Bills fan and the son of noted Bills supporter Tim Russert, the late host of “Meet the Press.” “The lease gave everybody who’s a Bills fan somewhat of a new lease on life.”
A couple of outside ownership possibilities have emerged — the Toronto Sun says rocker Jon Bon Jovi wants to head a Toronto-based group, and real estate mogul Donald Trump has expressed interest. Any potential owner would have to get 24 votes from the other owners to move the Bills to Los Angeles or another market, and Buffalo certainly has an ally in commissioner Roger Goodell, a western New York native.
But a sort of grassroots effort to keep the Bills in Buffalo has taken hold in the past two weeks, with several prominent families in western New York apparently in the running to buy the Bills.
According to the Buffalo News, potential buyers for the team include Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, former Sabres owner Tom Golisano, and frozen food magnate Robert Rich Jr., whose family tried to bring major league baseball to Buffalo in the 1980s.
Another person who has made no secret about his desire to help buy the Bills is Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, who for years has said he has collected a group of investors that has been preapproved by the NFL. The identity of the investors is not known, but Kelly, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments for oral cancer, would be the front man, possibly in a role similar to that of John Elway in Denver.
“That’s the guy,” said former Bills Pro Bowl special teamer Steve Tasker, who still lives in the area. “People are pulling for the group that Jim Kelly is a part of because he’s said time and again that he wants to keep the team in Buffalo.”
Another intriguing name also listed by the News is Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, a western New York native whose food services conglomerate, Delaware North, is one of Buffalo’s largest companies.
Jacobs, 74, is an active philanthropist in Buffalo and still lives in western New York.
“Delaware North is an enormous part of what goes on here in Buffalo,” said Tasker, who is friends with some of Jacobs’s children. “They’re the kind of people you want to own your team if you’re a fan, believe me. That’s an interesting fit.”
One potential hiccup for Jacobs’s purchase is the NFL’s rule that bars anyone from owning multiple professional sports teams in different markets. In a statement to the Globe, Jacobs said he has “no intention of selling the Bruins in order to purchase the Buffalo Bills.”
“His focus is on ensuring the Boston Bruins continue to be a successful and winning franchise for the City of Boston and New England. He is a strong supporter of the Buffalo Bills as a storied franchise, which has seen great success under Ralph Wilson. Mr. Jacobs would certainly be a strong supporter of any effort to keep the Bills in western New York and is a big fan of the franchise and its leadership.”
Left unsaid is that Jacobs could buy the Bills and still keep the Bruins in the family with one of his six children. The NFL allowed Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke to buy a majority share of the St. Louis Rams in 2010 as long as he relinquished financial and operational control of the Avalanche and Nuggets to his son, Josh. As long as father and son run two distinct operations, the Kroenkes can maintain control of all three teams.
“Most Buffalo fans that I’ve spoken with would be thrilled with a family like the Jacobses owning the team,” said Matt Sabuda, director of the grassroots Buffalo Fan Alliance that aims to give fans a stake in the team to help keep the Bills in Buffalo. “They’ve gone to great lengths to keep Delaware North headquartered in Buffalo.”
The Buffalo Fan Alliance, introduced on Super Bowl Sunday, isn’t quite the Green Bay Packers model of fan ownership, but is a unique proposition. The nonprofit organization, which is still being finalized, will take donations from fans to serve as a 0 percent loan to a new majority owner, who would then keep the team in Buffalo.
“It’s not a silver bullet to solve everything, but the goal would be to create a longer-lasting foundation to boost the viability of the Bills in Buffalo,” said Sabuda, 32, a real estate investor.
Whomever ultimately buys the Bills is less important than his intentions with the team.
“If Donald Trump wants to buy the Bills and guarantees the Bills stay in Buffalo, I think we would all welcome Mr. Trump’s ownership,” Russert said. “I don’t think we really care who owns the team, as long as they’re committed to Buffalo and to the region.”
Towson running back
West offers versatility
New Patriots personnel executive Michael Lombardi hasn’t attended many college Pro Days this spring, so it was interesting to see him pop up last week at Towson University, according to the Baltimore Sun.
But it’s not hard to connect the dots and figure out why Lombardi ventured to Towson, a Football Championship Subdivision school outside of Baltimore.
The main attraction that day was running back Terrance West, who set FCS records with 2,509 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns last season to lead Towson to the national championship game.
The Patriots certainly could use a big running back to replace LeGarrette Blount (6 feet, 250 pounds), who left for Pittsburgh via free agency, and West fits the bill at 5-9, 230. And in general they need to draft a running back given that their top three — Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Brandon Bolden — are all entering the final year of their contracts.
Most of the top running back prospects are of the quicker, scatback variety, but a couple of big backs could be available when the Patriots pick 29th and 62d in the first two rounds — Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde (5-11, 230) and LSU’s Jeremy Hill (6-0, 233).
West, though, could be a good midround option. He also would give the Patriots the versatility they desire, catching 26 passes for 258 yards and a touchdown last season while playing on all three downs.
“Terrance is definitely a talent,” Raiders scout Raleigh McKenzie, a former offensive lineman, told the Sun. “Some guys are better in shorts, some guys are better in pads. He’s a pads guy. That’s how he makes his money. He’s a tackle-breaker. Coming from a smaller school like him, guys are always looking for something to prove. That’s a good thing.”
Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney (5-11, 220), Boston College’s Andre Williams (5-11, 230), and Coastal Carolina’s Lorenzo Taliaferro (6-0, 229) are other big backs who are candidates for the middle rounds, although Williams is viewed as a liability in the passing game.
valued in this draft
While Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, and Blake Bortles dominate the discussion around the top of May’s draft and if the Texans will take any with the No. 1 overall pick, there’s another quarterback we find much more intriguing who seems like he could be one of the best value picks.
LSU’s Zach Mettenberger might be a first-round prospect if not for a torn ACL suffered in the Tigers’ regular-season finale in November. Draft projections are all over the map for Mettenberger — ESPN’s Todd McShay and Mel Kiper have him rated astit the eighth- and 10th-best quarterback in this draft, while Ron Jaworski ranks Mettenberger as the second-best prospect behind Bortles. Realistically, Mettenberger will likely be competing with Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois to be the fourth quarterback taken off the board, with Alabama’s A.J. McCarron possibly in the mix, as well.
But there’s a lot to like about Mettenberger, and we wouldn’t be shocked to see a team draft him early in the second round or perhaps late in the first, given the importance of the position.
Mettenberger has an impressive 6-5, 230-pound frame, passed for 3,082 yards, 22 touchdowns, and eight interceptions as a senior, and spent the last year playing under offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a longtime NFL offensive coach who utilized a pro-style system at LSU. Mettenberger also had a career-high 372 yards and three touchdowns in a breakout game against Georgia last season, and led the Tigers to a 35-21 defeat of Auburn, which lost in the national championship game.
Mettenberger does have an off-field incident from early in his college career that led to him transferring from Georgia to junior college (and then to LSU), though we find more worrisome his penchant for taking sacks — 53 the past two seasons.
But Mettenberger impressed scouts at his Pro Day last week, just 13 weeks out of surgery, and met with the Patriots before his workout, according to NFL Network.
“I think I showed that I’m going to be healthy enough to practice and compete for a job,” Mettenberger said after the workout. “And by the time the season rolls around, I’m going to be fully healed, no question.”
If the Patriots do draft a quarterback to groom to eventually be Tom Brady’s replacement, taking Mettenberger with a second- or third-round pick could make a lot more sense than using a first-round pick on Manziel, Bortles, or Bridgewater.
Naval shipments still
arriving in Foxborough
It might just be a coincidence, but Bill Belichick seems to be getting the old gang from Annapolis back together with the Patriots.
Belichick’s father, Steve, was a longtime coach at the Naval Academy, and Belichick, a 1970 graduate of Annapolis High, has always had a special place in his heart for Navy. And sure enough, two of the Patriots’ more visible hires the past two years have direct ties to Navy.
In replacing longtime radio voice Gil Santos before last season, the Patriots hired Bob Socci, who called Midshipmen football games from 1997-2012. And as of Thursday the team’s new medical director, who will perform a majority of the surgeries and oversee the rehabilitation for most players, is Matt Provencher, who did his undergraduate studies at the Naval Academy and served as the director of orthopaedic shoulder, knee, and sport surgery at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.
Belichick didn’t necessarily hire Provencher directly — Provencher’s role with the Patriots is directly tied to his gaining the position of chief of sports medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital last week after Dr. Thomas Gill stepped down — though it’s likely that Belichick and the Patriots had heavy influence over the hire given that the person would be heading the team’s medical department.
Nice job by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski last Monday night, jumping on stage, according to TMZ, at a fundraiser at Paradise Rock Club and helping collect more than $20,000 in donations to support the families of the two Boston firefighters killed in the recent Back Bay blaze.
Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall Wednesday at Gillette Stadium when news broke that A.J. McCarron, who was visiting Belichick and the Patriots that day on a predraft visit, would be participating in a reality show based around his girlfriend, Katherine Webb, a model who is planning the couple’s wedding. No confirmation that the show is titled, “How not to get drafted by the Patriots.”
One effect of having the draft two weeks later this year (May 8-10 instead of late April) is that it gives teams more time to hold private workouts with prospects. While some prospects might be able to improve their stock with the extra workouts, we saw the downside last week when Clemson guard Brandon Thomas, a midround prospect, tore his ACL in a private workout with the Saints. It’s possible that more prospects start declining workouts in future drafts, but the reality is that few players are guaranteed a top draft position and most have plenty to prove during the predraft process.
It’s certainly not a bad thing that Johnny Manziel scored a 32 out of 50 on the Wonderlic intelligence test at the combine, according to NFL Network, better than Blake Bortles (28) and Teddy Bridgewater (20) and higher than the NFL average for a quarterback (24). But it’s hard to quantify if it means much, either.
Most top quarterbacks score well — Eli Manning had a 39, Colin Kaepernick 38, Andrew Luck and Tony Romo 37, Aaron Rodgers 35, and Tom Brady 33. But a few busts had high numbers, as well — Blaine Gabbert 42 and Alex Smith 40 — while Peyton Manning only scored a 28, Cam Newton a 21, and Dan Marino a 15.
Big year coming up for the Phoenix area, which is set to host the Pro Bowl, Super Bowl, and annual owners’ meetings in the first few months of 2015. That cold-weather Super Bowl in New York was fun and all, but most of the league will enjoy the opportunity to thaw out in Phoenix next winter.Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, Raiders McKenzie’s name was originally mispelled in this football notes column. In addition, the column incorrectly identified last season’s college football national champion. Florida State won the championship.