Bills cannot be relocated before 2020 — the long-reported $400M buyout option does not exist

It’s Wilson’s last ‘enormous gift’ to Buffalo, Sun Media has learned

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Buffalo Bills aren’t going anywhere until 2020 at the earliest, Sun Media has learned.

Not to Toronto. Not to Los Angeles. Not anywhere.

It’s Ralph Wilson’s last “enormous gift” to the people of Western New York, according to Marc Ganis, president of Sports Corp. Ltd.

Widely circulated reports since December 2012 that a $400-million buyout option exists through 2019 in the NFL franchise’s stadium lease with the state of New York and Erie County are “flat-out wrong,” Ganis told me.

In an interview Wednesday morning at the conclusion of the NFL annual meeting, the prominent sports-franchise consultant said that whoever should buy the Bills in the wake of Ralph Wilson’s death on Tuesday cannot relocate the team from Western New York at any time over the remaining nine years of their lease agreement, which expires after the 2022 season.

The exception is the brief, well-known period of time following the seventh year of the extension — that is, after the 2019 season.

“I’m very familiar with the Bills’ new lease in Buffalo, and Ralph Wilson gave the people of Buffalo and Western New York an enormous gift,” Ganis said at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes.

“In this new 10-year lease that he signed, for the first seven years there is no opportunity to buy that lease out, or terminate it. None. That team is required to stay in that stadium for at least for the first seven years, and one year already has passed in that lease, so for the next six years.”

Ganis was intimately involved behind the scenes in the relocation in the 1990s of both the Los Angeles Raiders back to Oakland and the Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis. He walks behind the velvet ropes at NFL owners meetings, and is a trusted confidante, friend and adviser to many of the league’s power brokers.

In the 15 months since the Bills renewed the lease, the existence of a $400-million ‘out’ clause has been universally reported in Western New York, in Ontario, by me, even on the Bills’ own website. But that clause has been misinterpreted, Ganis said.

“That is written simply as a backup liquidated-damages matter,” he said.

Translation: in the extremely unlikely event the next owner should somehow win a court decision allowing him or her to break the Ralph Wilson Stadium lease, a $400-million penalty would still exist.

“But they cannot win the threshold issue (in court),” Ganis said. “We have something in the U.S. that we call a specific performance clause. Teams cannot terminate under a specific performance clause — cannot.

“New York State and Erie County wrote this in properly to keep the team in there for at least seven years. And Ralph Wilson, (president/CEO) Russ Brandon and (CFO) Jeff Littman knew exactly what they were doing. And the NFL knew exactly what it was doing when it approved it. I’ve spoken to almost all of these people about it.”

The lease’s brief opt-out window after the 2019 season allows for the Bills to be relocated for a $28.4-million fee — peanuts in a purchase-and-relocation transaction that might easily exceed $1 billion.

Ganis said that once this opt-out window closes, the club again cannot be relocated until the lease expires following the 2022 season, for the same reason.

“They all knew exactly what they were doing when they agreed to this lease and approved it,” Ganis said.

This was the quid pro quo for the state of New York and Erie County paying for $130 million in upgrades to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park. Such construction ramped up this off-season.

As for Wilson’s successor, speculation has practically petrified into fact that some deep-pocketed individual would buy the Bills and relocate the club to Toronto, Los Angeles, or elsewhere.

Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News reported Wednesday that, following Wilson’s death at age 95 on Tuesday, the club “will be placed in a trust … and no quick sale of the team is expected. In fact, the trust is likely to control and manage the team for at least a couple of years before any sale of the team is arranged, both team and National Football League sources tell the Buffalo News.”

The long-held belief that Wilson’s survivors — wife Mary and daughters Christy and Edith — plan to not keep the club in the family and will sell it is indeed accurate, Gaughan reported.

Now for the much-discussed Toronto speculation.

CBS Sports reported in late November that rocker Jon Bon Jovi — a friend of several NFL owners who is “consumed” with becoming an owner himself — “is among the parties positioning to purchase the Buffalo Bills when the team comes up for sale.”

Canadian reports followed that by saying top executives of Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment — the Toronto company that owns the NHL’s Maple Leafs, NBA’s Raptors and the Air Canada Centre, among other properties — are in league with Bon Jovi in his bid to buy the Bills, including MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum.

Tim Leiweke, CEO of MLSE, confirmed as much in an interview with the Toronto Star.

“Jon and I are very good friends,” Leiweke told the Star. “We talk weekly about his NFL ambitions. And so we’re actively engaged, but I think it’s still a work in progress.”

Another long-murmured potential Toronto buyer of the Bills is Edward Rogers III, deputy chairman of Rogers Communication Inc., the Canadian cable and telecommunications giant. His late father Ted Rogers — founder of the company that bears his name — actively sought an NFL franchise for Toronto in the 1990s.

Today it probably would cost close to $1 billion US to buy the Bills. Construction of a new stadium large enough to meet NFL standards (which Toronto’s Rogers Centre does not) probably would cost another $1 billion.

An NFL-calibre headquarters and training complex would increase the pricetag by perhaps $50 million more. On top of that the NFL would slap perhaps as much as a $200-$400 million relocation fee (no one knows) onto the Bills-to-Toronto bill.

The ballpark $2.5-billion total presumably would only increase by 2020.

But such speculation is all moot for now.

“At least for the first seven years there is no opportunity — no chance — that the Bills will leave Buffalo. Period, end of story,” Ganis said.

“So any speculation to the alternative is flat-out wrong.”

- – -

 

Toronto & Buffalo co-existing NFL teams?

Commissioner Roger Goodell weighs in

ORLANDO, Fla. — Could the nearby cross-border cities of Buffalo and Toronto ever have co-existing NFL franchises?

QMI Agency asked that of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday morning, at the conclusion of the league’s annual meeting.

“I’m not sure that I’ve studied that enough to know,” Goodell said. “I know there are a lot of (Ontario) fans that come (to Bills games), having been from Western New York. They are close from a proximity standpoint and there are fans that come from Toronto, and there are fans that go from Buffalo up to Toronto.

“They have worked very hard in Buffalo, and obviously Western New York and Southern Ontario to regionalize that team, to attract a broader area.”

Indeed, Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon said last month that 18% of fans at any Bills home game come from Canada.

“Again, that’s important and that’s something that we want to encourage.”

Bills’ maverick owner Ralph Wilson dies at 95 — reactions, tributes from NFL owners, commissioner and former GM Bill Polian

Ralph

ORLANDO, Fla. — Ralph C. Wilson Jr., founding owner of the Buffalo Bills and one of the most resolute yet respected leaders in NFL history, died Tuesday at his home in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.

He was 95. A cause of death was not immediately disclosed.

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009, Wilson had been in poor health for several years. Wheelchair bound after breaking a hip in 2012, he had attended only one Bills game over the past two seasons.

For 54 years Wilson was one of the most passionate, football-loving, down-to-earth owners in the pro game — throughout the existence of the American Football League, and since 1970 in the NFL.

Wilson played an integral role in the merger of the two pro leagues, which in the early and mid 1960s had despised one another.

Neither born nor raised in the Buffalo area, and never even a Buffalo resident, the Detroit-based Wilson nevertheless remained fiercely loyal to Western New York. He always vowed that the Bills franchise would remain in Buffalo as long as he lived, and proved true to his word.

In turn, most Buffalonians loved him for it.

Ralph“He has passed away peacefully at his home with his beautiful wife, Mary, and his daughters by his side,” Bills president and CEO Russ Brandon said in a statement.  “We have lost our founder, our mentor, our friend, and this is a very difficult time for us all.

“This incredible man was the personification of the Buffalo Bills. His life was grit, determination and resolve. He was bigger than life in many ways and yet he was the everyday man, driving his Ford Taurus to the local store and greeting everyone as they called out, ‘Hi Ralph!’”

Rampant speculation as to the future of the Bills in Buffalo began immediately. The popular belief in Western New York long has been that Wilson’s heirs — presumably his wife Mary and/or two surviving daughters, Christy and Dee Dee (Edith) — would sell the club upon his death. But neither he nor his family has ever confirmed as much.

Toronto, of course, is always presumed to be a likely eventual destination for the franchise. As we have written, however, it would cost well over $2 billion to do so — to buy the franchise valued last year by Forbes at $870 million, to spend close to $1 billion on a new stadium and headquarters (the Rogers Centre doesn’t meet NFL standards), and to pay a relocation fee to the NFL of perhaps as much as $400 million — all in American dollars, currently worth 10% more than the loonie.

What’s more, before 2020 it would cost any purchaser of the Bills a fee of $400 million to buy the Bills out of their lease at the county-owned stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., named after Wilson. Nine years remain on that lease, but there’s a brief, one-time window following Year 7 — that is, after the 2019 season — in which the opt-out penalty would be only $29 million.

Deep-pocketed stakeholders of Rogers Media or MLSE are rumoured to be among those who potentially might jump in with a Toronto-based bid. Western New Yorkers despise such speculation, and pray that should Wilson’s heirs sell the club, someone locally will step up, buy it and keep it right where it is.

“We understand our fans’ curiosity in wanting to know what the future holds for our organization, and that will be addressed in the near future,” Brandon said in his statement. “But at this time, we are committed to honouring the life and legacy of Ralph C. Wilson Jr., the man who delivered the NFL to Buffalo.”

Wilson did not attend the NFL annual meeting, but he hadn’t in years. Brandon has had the final word on all team decisions since Jan. 1, 2013 — when Wilson passed the title of team president, which he’d always held, to Brandon.

It was during a Tuesday afternoon session of owners and other team personnel that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell politely asked everyone to leave the room except owners. He then broke the news that Wilson had died.

“There were a lot of tears in the room,” Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said. “He’s one of the icons of the NFL, the AFL, but much more than that.”

News of Wilson’s passing spread quickly through the halls of the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes resort, one day before the annual meeting concludes.

Goodell issued this statement: “Ralph Wilson was a driving force in developing pro football into America’s most popular sport. He loved the game and took a chance on a start-up league in 1960 as a founding owner of the American Football League.

“He brought his beloved Bills to western New York and his commitment to the team’s role in the community set a standard for the NFL. As a trusted adviser to his fellow league owners and the commissioner, Ralph always brought a principled and common-sense approach to issues.”

Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints since 1985, told me, “I sure am going to miss him, I’ll tell ya.

“When you look back, I think a lot of his legacy was in the meetings themselves, because he didn’t let anybody pull anything over him. And he really fought for a lot of rights. What a great guy.”

Tributes soon flowed from other owners, in statements and in person.

“It’s the end of a real important era,” said New York Jets owner Woody Johnson. “He was so important in developing football into what it is today.”

Johnson pointed out that his AFC East counterpart established the Bills franchise “when Buffalo was thriving. And he persevered when Buffalo starting declining a little bit, because most of the business moved out. And so he was very loyal to Buffalo and that part of the state.”

Loyal. And unswayable. Lurie said he will miss Wilson’s famously unbending stances.

“He was a great independent thinker,” Lurie said. “There was no issue where Ralph was a vote you could count on. He would speak his mind. I tried to model myself that way a little, because this shouldn’t be groupthink. It’s independent think.”

John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, cited examples.

“I can think of any number of votes that were 31 to 1 or 30 to 2, and he was one of the dissenters,” said Mara, whose late father Wellington was close to Wilson. “He was not afraid to speak his mind and vote his conscience.”

Such as the times when Wilson voted against New York City getting the Super Bowl this past February.

“I think he even voted against our (MetLife) Stadium deal, to tell you the truth,” Mara said.

One of Wilson’s nieces, Mary Owen, is the Bills’ executive vice-president for strategic planning. Wilson himself contracted the Bills-in-Toronto series in 2008, which is now on indefinite hold. Owen has been the point person for the Bills in the partnership with Rogers Media Inc.

While the Bills won two AFL championships in 1964-65, more than anything he yearned to win a Super Bowl. He never did, even though his four consecutive teams came achingly close, losing Super Bowls from 1990-93.

“He wanted it for the players, the coaches and the franchise,” Brandon said. “But mostly he wanted it for the fans. No owner has wanted a title more for these reasons than Mr. Wilson. In the end, he was extremely proud that his Bills are the only team to have played in four consecutive Super Bowls.”

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft spoke for many when he observed of Wilson, a World War II navy veteran: “I think all of us who love this game should be grateful for the role he played, and just take a moment to thank him in our own way.”

 

 

Polian reflects on straight-shooting Wilson

ORLANDO, Fla. — Bill Polian, the best GM that Ralph Wilson ever hired for his beloved Buffalo Bills, summed up his longtime boss this way.

“He kept his word. He was a man of his word,” Polian, now an ESPN commentator, told me early Tuesday evening at the NFL annual meeting.

“He said the Bills would never move in his lifetime, that they would remain in Buffalo and he was true to his word. That’s what he did in every facet of his life — business, personal, professional. If he gave you his word, you could take it to the bank. You didn’t need a written contract.

“I knew there was no chance the team was ever going to move.”

It didn’t, of course.

Polian was Bills GM from 1986-93, acquiring a nucleus of future Hall of Famers — such as Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith — that led the team to four straight Super Bowl appearances. Wilson fired Polian before the last one. But there were no grudges held.

“We remained friends from the day that I left,” an emotional Polian said in a hallway outside owners meeting rooms in the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes resort, on Day 2 of the NFL annual meeting. “There was never any hard feelings … I was forever grateful that he gave me the opportunity to be a general manager.

“One of the happiest times of my life was when he called just about two years ago at this time that I had been named to the Bills Wall of Fame.”

Polian, who went on to become GM and then president of the Indianapolis Colts from 1997 to 2011, said Wilson took pride in his team’s Super Bowl dynasty of sorts.

“Oh yeah. He did, absolutely. Even in the short run I remember him talking to the team in mini-camp, after maybe the second Super Bowl, where he said, ‘There’s no shame in being the silver medallist. You went and did a great thing. Everybody’s proud of you. We all want to win, but you did the best you could and that’s all anybody can ask for.’

“I know he was very proud of that legacy that probably no one else will ever equal, and very proud of that team. They truly are Buffalo’s boys of autumn. They’re one of a kind, and he was proud of that.

“We’ve lost a great leader. Everybody in Western New York I know feels that loss, because it’s all a Bills family. And there are so many spread across the nation, many right here in Florida.

“This is a rough time for the Bills family. For people in Toronto, maybe they don’t sense it. When I joined the Bills, one of the coaches told me, ‘If you stay here for more than one season, you’ll be a Bill for life.’ At first I didn’t recognize the bond that exists between the team and the fans. It’s real. It’s tangible. You feel it. You know it. And if you stay any length of time as a Bill, you are a Bill for life. You’re always welcomed back with open arms, so that bond remains.

“Our thoughts are for the Wilson family, and our prayers are for the Kelly family. This is a really tough time for the Bills family, but everybody in Western New York believes that tough times don’t last; tough people do. And we’ll get through it, but it’s hard.”

Ralph

Wilson with Marv Levy, head coach of the Bills during their Super Bowl run.

(PHOTOS OF RALPH WILSON, COURTESY OF THE BUFFALO BILLS)

 

 

Pro Football Hall of Fame VP was close friend

Joe Horrigan, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s vice-president of communications and exhibits, told me on Tuesday he knew Ralph Wilson “virtually all my life.”

“Aside from being a great man in pro football, he was a great friend,” said Horrigan, whose father Jack was the first newspaper beat writer in Buffalo to cover the fledgling AFL team in 1960, and who eventually went to work for Wilson as VP of public relations until his death in 1973.

“It was an era where people liked Ralph,” Horrigan said of the time in 1959-60, when the AFL formed and Wilson bought a charter franchise for Buffalo. “It transcended football as a business. It was a sport, and guys who loved the sport, and the sportsmanship. He had been a tiny minority owner of the Detroit Lions, just so he could feel a part of it.

“But it went beyond that. The AFL owners were all family, the coaches and players and owners socialized together. The media even travelled on the planes. It was just a different world back then. For Ralph, he was as loyal as the day is young. His former players will tell you, to a man, how good he’s been to them, and he was great to my family when it had some needs. Just a great guy. And most of this you never hear, because he never talked about that. It’s just a sad day.”

Horrigan shared a few more gem stories…

ON WILSON’S LEGACY:

“When he was a candidate for the Hall of Fame, when people were summarizing him, they often referred to him as a conscience of the league.

“That comes from having been a legacy owner, a guy that built his team, franchise and league on trust. And he believed in that. He believed in doing the right thing. I think of him as a kind man who made decisions based upon what should be considered. He had ample opportunities to move his franchise to bigger markets, that would have made him more money for sure. He chose not to do that. And it wasn’t his home — Detroit’s his home. But he committed to Buffalo in 1960, and he would tell me the story often: ‘I’m here, this is where I’m going to make my team.’ It wasn’t about money. He once said to me, ‘What am I going to do, pile my money on the table and count it every day?’

“We have a thing at the Pro Football Hall of Fame called the Ray Nitchke Luncheon. That’s where the Hall of Famers get together in a private room, and they swap stories. And those stories get embellished, you can be sure.

“Well, Ralph was in the room for the first time and he was 90 or 91 years old, or whatever, and he enjoys being around these guys. He loved being around football people, and they’re all telling their stories. Then they go to Ralph, and he had been patiently listening. He said, ‘Well, gentlemen, I’m the only guy in the room here who saw all of you play.’ And he left it at that. They all got the message.

“I don’t know that he ever cited a joke, but he had that kind of wit.”

HIS WILSON’S ROLE IN THE AFL/NFL MERGER:

“Often the story is told from the conclusion, as opposed to what built up to it. And it was the years that were being quietly done. Ralph and Carroll Rosenbloom (owner of the Indianapolis Colts) were meeting very quietly, trying to set up the ground rules by which a merger could happen. Ralph would take it back. I think it was like eight different meetings that they had. And this is where the end comes in, where (Kansas City Chiefs owner) Lamarr (Hunt) and (Dallas Cowboys chief executive) Tex Schramm had this one final meeting after all the ground rules were established and, frankly, rejected — Hunt and Schramm kind of said let’s give it one more shot. That’s not to say they weren’t intimately involved; they were. But Ralph would go to Carroll. They would meet in Florida, and there were long, hard discussions.

“He was a great friend, a great friend of football, and a great friend of the Hall of Fame.”

Ralph

 

More tributes for Wilson

In a joint statement, Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and president Art Rooney II said:

“We are deeply saddened by today’s news of the passing of Ralph Wilson, one of the most respected owners in our league. Ralph made many contributions to both the AFL and NFL, playing a major role in the growth and development of both leagues.

“His impact helped make the NFL a success, and he always kept the league’s best interest in mind to better the game of professional football.”

- – -

Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said in a statement:

“Ralph Wilson was a good friend. He was one of the great pioneers of the AFL and great owners in the NFL. We are all going to miss him.

“Our relationship extended beyond the football field. We were both involved in thoroughbred racing and had many happy moments together watching horses training and competing.

“Our condolences go out to Mary and his family. We wish them the very best as they deal with their loss.”

- – -

Former Bills head coach Gregg Williams (2001-03), in a statement from the St. Louis Rams, for whom he is now defensive coordinator:

“I join the entire football community in mourning the loss of a truly great man in Ralph Wilson. I’m forever grateful to Mr. Wilson for giving me the opportunity to be a head coach in the National Football League. As a coach, Mr. Wilson was everything you could ask for in an owner. He was a very passionate football fan. He was progressive in his thoughts, he loved his players and he provided every resource you could ask for. It’s hard to imagine where our game and our league might be today were it not for his role in creating and more importantly sustaining the American Football League. My thoughts and prayers are with the entire Wilson family at this difficult time.”
- – -
Kansas City Chiefs chairman and CEO Clark Hunt, in a statement:

“On behalf of my family and the entire Chiefs organization we’d like to express our deepest sympathies to the Wilson family and the Buffalo Bills. Ralph had a significant impact on the evolution of pro football. He took risks and made decisions that helped mold the NFL into what it is today. As two of the original members of the AFL’s Foolish Club, my father and Ralph shared a unique bond and a special friendship.”

- – -

Owner Dan Snyder and the Washington Redskins, in a statement:

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of the great Ralph Wilson. All of us have lost a NFL legend whose passion for his team was inspiring. We will always be thankful for Ralph’s contributions to the development of the AFL and NFL.”

- – -

More from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft:

“You know, I was thinking when the AFL was created and how privileged I was to come in and be in the division with one of the founders, Ralph Wilson. I remember I was so excited the first year of owning the team, I used to try to go out — when we visited different cities — I’d try to go out with that owner for dinner the night before. Ralph was so kind, and took me and my wife out to the Buffalo Country Club and was the ultimate gentlemen.

“This is the passing of a generation, and a man who really represented the smaller markets. Before I got to the NFL they made the great decision to share national revenues, television revenues, and I think Ralph was always the voice of the small markets, making sure his loyalty to the fans of Buffalo was very special.

“Ralph would always, in a gentlemanly way, be very clear what his position was. He was not bashful, whether it was popular or not. He had the gravitas and the history of playing his role for so many years.”

- – -

More from New York Jets owner Woody Johnson:

“I heard his Hall of Fame speech at (age) 91. It was better than most people give at 31. Really, just an incredible leader — great vision. So it’s an end, really, of a major, major part of American football, to lose a guy like Ralph Wilson.

“He just described the satisfaction that he got from working with the players and the fans and building this league … We’re going to miss him. We’re lucky to have had a guy like that.

“If we were going off course, he would let us know.”

- – -

More from  John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants:

“He was always a spokesman for the small-market teams. When he got up to speak, which was not all that often, you could hear a pin drop. He was somebody that people in the room listened to and respected quite a bit. We’re going to miss him a great deal.

“My family goes back so many years with him. He and my father were very close, and my mother remained close to him for years. He was at a lot of events together with my family, and he was just a warm and gregarious and generous guy who I think all of us are going to miss.

“He was a dear family friend. He voted his conscience and he was not afraid to be the one dissenting voice in that room, and that’s something that I always respected about him.”

- – -

Arizona Cardinals president  Michael Bidwill, in a statement:

“At a critical juncture in the National Football League’s history, Ralph Wilson provided a level of leadership and vision that helped make the NFL what it is today. He not only recognized the sport’s potential popularity and success but was pivotal in helping to achieve it. Our hearts go out to his wife Mary, the Bills organization and everyone in Western New York on their tremendous loss.”

 

 

Roundtable interview with Bills coach Marrone: on EJ, Corey Graham possibly a safety, the 4-3 LBs and more

BILLSORLANDO, Fla. — Doug Marrone of the Buffalo Bills is as hard working as any NFL head coach, and proved it early Tuesday morning at the AFC head coaches breakfast.

He started taking questions five minutes early and went 10 minutes past the one-hour allotment. An hour and 15 minutes. Hey, we’ll take it.

As you can imagine, in that expansive time frame Marrone touched on numerous subjects. Here’s a transcript of some of the exchanges — reordered, in part for better flow:

 

 

As GM Doug Whaley suggested to me a day earlier, opotentially keeping two placekickers on the roster — Dan Carpenter as well as Dustin Hopkins, who missed his rookie season with a bad hammy:

“If Dustin can go in there and (kick touchbacks) 90% of the time, and I’m just throwing a number out there … If we can take that play away, and Dan’s not at that higher percentage, I have no problem with that.”

 

On whether the team will attack as much on defence (a question one of my Twitter followers, @ohays119 , suggested beforehand):

“I’d like to make this point, so people understand. We pressured more (in 2013) than we did the year before. The year before they didn’t pressure at all. (In reality) we didn’t pressure as much as people think, to a point where we thought we were low.

“If you’re talking about attacking meaning “one-gap, go ahead and attack,” without a doubt that’s what we’re going to be. But if you’re talking about attacking as in sending the house all the time, that’s going to be game by game, situation by situation — no different than it was last year.”

 

On the status of RT Chris Hairston, who missed all of the 2013 season with lower leg injuries:

“We’re talking to docs about him and seeing if he’s able to pass the physical and come back.”

 

On his optimism:

“I feel great going into this season.”

 

On quarterback EJ Manuel:

“The injuries probably affected him quite a bit. He’s a player who had not been hurt before … He’s hungrier now than he’s been before.”

“We have a lot of work ahead of us on offence, we really do.”

 

More EJ:

“Make no mistake about it — EJ Manuel is our starting quarterback.

“I’m excited. The kid, EJ, obviously was injured last year. He’s a player who’s really learning how to protect himself.

“When people come out and say, ‘Can this player stay healthy? Is he the quarterback? Is he that?’ Ya know, he has really taken that and turned it into a challenge for himself to come back.

“He to me seems hungrier, more determined now having had like a taste of it, to come back and really perform well. When you’re a head coach or an offensive coordinator or a team, you’re truly excited about that. And he has to get on the field and prove it to everybody.”

 

On EJ’s health:

“EJ’s fine. He’s actually been back in the building, working on rehab with trainers.”

 

On replacing safety Jairus Byrd:

“We do feel like we do have players in the building that can step up and play that position, and play at a very high level.”

 

On where Corey Graham fits into the secondary:

“I’m looking to get him out on the field, because there are a lot of things he can do. He’s been in this league for a long time. I really like his demeanour, really like how he spoke. I really like the fact that he’s from Buffalo. There is a lot of added pressure when you’re playing in your own hometown.

“What’s interesting about him is that he can play an outside corner, and play it well. You know, we have two good corners coming back. He can play nickel, and start at nickel, and that would be a good competition in there. He’s also a physical player who had about 70 tackles and four fumbles recoveries and things like that, that he may be in the mix back there at the safety spot.

“So there are a lot of things that we’ve been talking about with Corey and with ourselves as far as a defensive staff.

“We’ll go out there in the OTAs and it will be the same thing … I like to, and always have, move some guys around a little bit. That’s the time where you do it. And as you get closer to the season, you don’t want to be doing that stuff, you know, two weeks before the game.”

 

What about last year’s dynamic undrafted rookie slot corner, Nickell Robey?:

“There could potentially be …. With the way the league’s going and you look at three wide receivers, four wide receivers … there’s a lot of dime now on the field.  I mean, now you’re talking about six DBs on the field, and you need six guys that can cover man-to-man.

“And the other factor is injuries occur in this league. Very rarely are you going to get by (without injuries)… It’s a physical game.

“You can never have enough good players, and Corey Graham is a heck of a player.”

 

On the proposal to snap extra points from the 25-yard line, making them 43-yard kicks:

“I don’t know if that’s the right yardage. I haven’t studied it enough to know if that’s going to be an advantage, let’s say, for teams that play indoors, because we’ll be outside for 16 games a year. I don’t know if that’s the right yardage.

“I know that when you’re talking about something that’s 99-point-something percent (successful) and the rules are you can’t overload, can’t push, can’t do a lot of things that you were able to do before that could get you those blocks.

“If it makes the game more competitive, and makes it better, I’m fine with it. Where it goes? I don’t know. But I’d have to do a little bit more research on my own of how that would affect (us).”

 

On moving Kiko Alonso to WSB from the middle:

“We knew he was better suited to make more plays and do more things for us outside. We talked about that when Mike (Pettine) was with us.”

 

On how they’ll deploy LBs this year:

“Last year we were basically a two-linebacker team. Manny played on the line, and we had two linebackers in the back going against 21 and 12 personnel.

“Now we have a little bit more of a switch to a three-linebacker approach — three players back there. We won’t be multiple. But that would be the biggest difference.”

 

On which coaching staff would have the advantage if the Bills were to open the season against Mike Pettine’s Cleveland Browns:

“Probably Cleveland, right? I would think, because they know both sides of the ball. They know what personnel on the defensive side of the ball (we have) but might not know our schematics, and they know a lot of things that we’ve done on the offensive side of the ball. And they’ll know our special teams, too. Whereas with Cleveland, I’m only really going to know what they do defensively.”

 

On his team’s unsung players:

“There are guys that deserve more (recognition) than they got.

“Could Kiko Alonso have been rookie of the year? He played well enough to be rookie of the year. And you know, Eric Wood. He played at a very high level.

“And (LT) Cordy Glenn. Cordy Glenn probably gets the least amount of publicity for the job that he does. Again I’m going back to the O-linemen. But really, I didn’t realize until the end of the season how few sacks he had given up [1.5, per Mark Gaughan of Buffalo News]. I’m like, ‘Holy cow.’ And I don’t ever want to be that coach that takes players for granted. That was important for me. As soon as I found that out I went up to him and said, ‘Hey, that’s a great job, and we really appreciate that, and are thankful for it. I want our players to know that we don’t take things for granted … He’s quiet. He’s a good football player.”

Cards GM to check out Duvernay-Tardif personally on Thursday

SteveORLANDO, Fla. – Steve Keim likes what he sees of Montreal’s Laurent Duvernay-Tardif on game tape.

So much so that the Arizona Cardinals GM (photo, right) is going to check out Duvernay-Tardif personally on Thursday, at the McGill University offensive tackle’s pro day in Montreal.

“Through the scouting process we cast a wide net, and our college scouting found him,” Keim said during the midday break at the NFL annual meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes.

Keim confirmed my report last week that the Cardinals are the first NFL team planning to bring Duvernay-Tardif in for an official pre-draft visit.

The 6-foot-5, 320-pound med student is the top-ranked draft-eligible Canadian university football prospect. Because his demanding med-school studies meant he was able to practise only one day per week with the Redmen, Duvernay-Tardif is more raw than your average draftable tackle.

“We talked at length about his size, his physical tools. I don’t know that there’s anybody that’s too raw. As long as you have the skill set, and you have the desire and the passion, you certainly have a chance to develop into a real player.”

LaurentDuvernay-Tardif told me he hopes to do 40 reps of 225 pounds at his pro day, when only one of 50 offensive linemen at last month’s NFL scouting combine was able to exceed 36. He also hopes to run the 40 in 5.0 or 5.1 seconds, when only three at the combine who weighed 320+ ran under 5.2.

“The key to it, in the way I look at it, is you can teach a player to play the game of football — whether it’s technique or angles or that sort of thing,” Keim said.

“You can’t teach them to be bigger, stronger or faster. And when you have the type of tools that he has, he’s a guy that people get excited about.”

Later this week, Keim said the Cardinals will fly in Duvernay-Tardif for an official visit.

“We’ll spend some time with him, have our medical staff look at him, and talk a little football with him and see where he’s at mentally, and just to get to know the person.

“(His intelligence) is the other thing that you have to like. You have to like the guy’s work ethic, and then the commitment that he has shown to the medical profession. I think he’s certainly going to be on several teams’ radars.”

Including the Buffalo Bills’. GM Doug Whaley on Monday confirmed my report that Bills personnel plan to meet with Duvernay-Tardif in Montreal this week.

“(He’s) a very interesting prospect,” Whaley said. “He’s got some size — very intriguing. So we want to do our due diligence and make sure, as close as he is to us (geographically), that we get this guy right.”

Of his strength and speed measurables, Whaley said: “Rare combo. And his film speaks for itself.”

 

Q-and-A: GM Doug Whaley says Bills were not in Michael Vick hunt, that Rivers and Spikes were ‘at the top’ of his free-agent board, and a lot more

ORLANDO, Fla. — Once NFL owners, executives, GMs and coaches finally broke for launch on Monday here at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes resort, a gauntlet of reporters practically jumped their targets.

I got almost 10 minutes alone with Buffalo Bills GM Doug Whaley, who is in his 10th month on the job.

Whaley talked to me about his team’s wide-receiver position, whether the team tried to woo QB Michael Vick, whether he’s still looking to land a free-agent safety to help replace Jairus Byrd, that linebackers Keith Rivers and Brandon Spikes were “at the top” of his free-agent lists, that their addition gives the Bills potentially a “very good” linebacker corps (potentially the best since he’s been with the team, 2010). Whaley also discussed Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans, whether a prospect’s stinky pro day really matters, and he confirmed what I reported last week, that the Bills are meeting this week with McGill University’s Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, an offensive-tackle prospect gaining buzz.

Here’s the transcript:

 

I know you cannot talk about DeSean Jackson specifically, but hypothetically if a top wide receiver should become available soon, would you be interested in him?

“We’re pretty secure with our wide-receiver position right now, but we will do our due diligence on anybody that we think can make us better.”

 

Michael Vick. Did you have any conversations with his agent before he signed with the Jets. Was there anything there?

“No. We’re secure with our quarterback position. Obviously we’re all in with EJ (Manuel), and with Thad (Lewis) and Dennis Dixon and Jeff Tuel. We’re really excited with what we bring to the table at that position. We didn’t venture into that subject.”

 

Regarding EJ, in considering upgrading at backup quarterback, do you consider if that might unsettle your starter?

“We wouldn’t do it unless they knew they were coming in as a backup and a mentor to EJ, so it would have to be the right fit. And they would have to come in knowing their slot.”

 

Did you have any discussions about bringing back Ryan Fitzpatrick?

“No.”

 

Might you yet sign a free-agent safety?

“Again, we’ll always keep our eyes open, but we’re very confident with the guys we have on campus. Between (Da’Norris) Searcy, Duke Williams and Johnathan Meeks, and then also another year of Aaron Williams playing the position, we’re very excited about that position. I know a lot of people have some question marks. We don’t.”

 

At UB’s pro day you promised me you’d be aggressive in free agency.

“We had a plan, and we executed. Fortunately for us, we hit all our marks. A lot of times you can’t in free agency, but we’re very happy with what we accomplished.”

 

You also said that you had free agents that you planned to target. Were Keith Rivers and Brandon Spikes atop that list?

“They were at the top of the list, so we were very excited to be able to get the top-of-the-list players — and at every position. Anthony Dixon, Corey Graham, all those guys. And then also being able to get Chandler back, Carpenter back and extending Aaron Williams. We’re really excited about what we did this off-season.”

 

This potentially is the best situation the Bills have had a linebacker since, well, when?

“You tell me. I’ll let you write that one.”

 

Well, since you’ve been in Buffalo then?
“I’d have to say potentially, yes. If those guys come and play the way that we expect them to play, and the way they’ve shown they can play in the past, we’re going to be VERY good at the linebacker position. You add that to the fact that we’ve got three Pro Bowl defensive linemen? It’s not that hard to be very productive with that up front, so we’re excited with the direction we’re going.”

 

Stephon Gilmore is still just starting to hit his potential, isn’t he.

“I think at the end of the year, you saw what he’s capable of. He got stunted with his progress, with his (wrist) injury the first part of the year.”

 

With those big hands, grabbing on and being physical is a big part of his game, isn’t it.

“Absolutely, and he couldn’t use them like he wanted, especially because we’re a big press team, so he couldn’t press a guy. But at the end of the year people saw how he was playing — the interceptions he had, and game-changing plays, like in Tampa. We’re expecting bigger and better things from that guy.”

 

The conjecture especially among Bills fans is, with the defensive holes you filled in free agency, that you’ll choose either a right tackle or wide receiver with the ninth overall draft pick. True?

“I have to say this much. With what we’ve done, we’ve set ourselves up to (pick) at any position that we think could help our team. We’re not pigeon-holed, because I always believe if you have a need and you want to address it in the draft, that’s going to force guys up (your draft board), and you have a greater chance of missing on a guy — that he looks a lot better to you because you need a guy at that position.”

 

Tall receivers — are they harder to gauge than the smurfy-slot types?

“They’re not hard to gauge. They’re just hard to find, because there aren’t too many of them. So that guy is going to have his chance to fail, let’s put it that way, a lot more than a smurfy guy, because they’re a dime a dozen. You can always find that guy, but you can’t find that monster.”

 

When you see Texas A&M’s Mike Evans, do you worry that his frame is almost too big? That if he eats three pizzas he’s going to look like a tight end?

“That never enters my vernacular — “too big.” You can’t be too big. As long as you can play, “big” wins in this league. And he can play.”

 

What pre-draft visitors do you have lined up?:

“I can’t give you names.”

 

The offensive tackle from McGill University in Montreal, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. I understand the Bills have a meeting planned with him in Montreal around his pro day on Thursday:

“Yes, for his pro day. A very interesting prospect. He’s got some size — very intriguing. So we want to do our due diligence and make sure, as close as he is to us, that he get this guy right.”

 

He told me he’s hoping to do 40 bench reps, and hopes to run the 40 in 5.0 or 5.1:

“Rare combo. And his film speaks for itself.”

 

Are you attending his pro day?

“I will not be able to. I’ll be going somewhere else. But I’ll have someone else up there.”

 

Do you still go to a lot of pro days?

“Same as before. Scouting is what I know. As often as I can get my hands dirty, I get my hands dirty.”

 

Are you going to Johnny Manziel’s on Thursday at Texas A&M?

“Well, Johnny Manziel is throwing to Mike Evans so we’re going to go to see both those guys, absolutely.”

 

In general, does a pro day performance — even if disappointing — really affect your draftboard rankings?

“It’s something that you layer in there. If it helps to answer a question, that’s great. If it brings up a question, then you have to do more work. But it’s not one of those things that makes you say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to take that guy now.’ … Film doesn’t lie.”

 

Now that you’ve re-signed Dan Carpenter, does that give you an asset in Dustin Hopkins that you can maybe trade?

“No, no. You look at it this way. We’re stressing special teams. So if you’ve got a kicker that can kick the ball out of the end zone, that eliminates one of your special teams. So if we’ve got Hopkins and an accurate field-goal kicker, that’s a double bonus for us.”