Bills open to continuing Toronto series
The Buffalo Bills have held talks to continue playing annual games in Toronto. And quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't going anywhere, but needs more talent around him.
Those were among the messages Bills owner Ralph Wilson delivered during a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.
Speaking from his home in suburban Detroit, Wilson said the Bills and Rogers Communications Inc. have held talks to renew the team's series north of the border, and is optimistic an extension will be reached before the current five-year deal expires after next season.
"Oh yeah, we want to renew it. We were talking to them recently, and they want to renew it," Wilson said. "I think that Buffalo can have a very successful franchise embracing Rochester, Buffalo and Toronto as we move forward."
Without going into specifics on the terms of a potential new deal, Wilson said one of Rogers' key conditions for renewing the agreement is lowering ticket prices. He said the Toronto-based communications giant acknowledged ticket prices had been too high, averaging around $180 US per seat.
The ticket prices led to series organizers having difficulty selling out games at the 54,000-seat Rogers Centre.
Reducing ticket revenue also has the potential of lowering the price tag of a new deal after Rogers paid $78 million to have the Bills play eight games, including five annual regular-season games.
The current deal expires after the Bills play a pre-season and regular-season game in Toronto next year.
A Rogers spokeswoman said the company had nothing to announce at this time. Rogers has previously expressed interest in renewing the deal, and was especially interested in adding an additional regular-season game if the NFL expanded its schedule.
The Bills' series in Toronto is regarded as crucial to the small-market franchise's future in western New York.
The deal was reached in 2008 with plenty of fanfare in making the Bills the NFL's only team to play annual games outside the United States. The Bills have benefited, gaining a boost in season-ticket sales from a growing base of fans from southern Ontario. Rogers has benefited, too, combining its NFL partnership with its numerous entities to capitalize on the league's popularity across Canada.
The NFL is on board in wanting to keep the series going. It not only plays into the league's attempt to globalize the sport, but is also considered key in keeping the small-market Bills viable in western New York.
"Right now our focus would be making what we've done here with the Bills playing the one game in Toronto successful," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said during a visit to Ralph Wilson Stadium in October. "The more we work on that and focus on that makes it even better for this market and for Toronto, because for us, it's all one region."
Wilson touched on several other topics, including the state of his team which, at 5-9, is in the midst of a seven-game slide and will miss the playoffs for a 12th straight season.
Wilson said his only message to fans was "patience" because he projects it's going to take several more years to build a contender after the team essentially started from scratch two years ago under new general manager Buddy Nix and new coach Chan Gailey.
As for Fitzpatrick, Wilson gave full support to his slumping quarterback while saying the criticism directed at him was unfair. Wilson blamed Fitzpatrick's struggles on a rash of injuries that have hampered the offence, and the lack of a supporting cast.
"We've got to get receivers. If he hasn't gotten anybody to throw to, he's not going to win many games," Wilson said.
"Listen, we're not giving money away," referring to the $59-million, six-year contract extension Fitzpatrick signed in late October. "We think he's a good quarterback, and we're going to stick with him and get him some better players, get him some runners, some tight ends that don't get injured and some wide receivers and we'll be OK."
Fitzpatrick has been the target of criticism in going 1-7 since signing his new contract. After throwing 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions in helping the team to a 5-2 start, Fitzpatrick has thrown eight TDs and 12 interceptions during the seven-game skid.
The Bills traded Lee Evans, their most experienced receiving threat, to Baltimore in August. And it's unclear whether Stevie Johnson fits into the team's plans. The Bills leading receiver is eligible to become a free agent this off-season after talks broke down between earlier this month.
Injuries have played a key role in the slide.
Buffalo has 15 players on injured reserve, including nine regulars. The Bills have lost their top offensive threat, running back Fred Jackson, as well as their top lineman, centre Eric Wood. The defence is just as banged up, playing without defensive tackle Kyle Williams and cornerback Terrence McGee.
"I don't think I've ever seen so many injuries in some 60 years that I've been involved in the game," Wilson said. "We had to lead the league in something, and we do: We lead the league in injuries."
Wilson wouldn't discuss any potential off-season changes, except to say he will meet with management and the coaching staff shortly after the season to "evaluate everything."