Bills' Wood calls Toronto game 'a joke'

Centre Eric Wood considers the Buffalo Bills' annual games in Toronto to be "a joke," believing the team gives away its home-field edge by playing under a dome and in front of ambivalent crowds.

Likes city but not loss of home-field edge

Centre Eric Wood expressed his frustrations with the Bills' "home" games in Toronto following Sunday's 50-17 loss to Seattle. (Gary Wiepert/Associated Press)

Centre Eric Wood wasn't laughing when referring to the Buffalo Bills playing so-called home games in Toronto as being "a joke."

That was the opinion Wood expressed during his weekly show on Buffalo's WGRF-Radio on Monday, a day after a 50-17 loss to the Seattle at Toronto. And he stuck by his comments Wednesday, saying he believes the Bills are giving away their home-field edge by playing under a dome and in front of ambivalent crowds north of the border.

"Yeah, I did call it a joke," Wood said. "It stunk that we were up there. And I was heated when I said it was a joke. And I'm not going to sit here and retract all my statements because that's what I meant and what I felt."

Buffalo's stadium lease expires in July

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said Wednesday that progress is being made in lease negotiations between the county, state and Buffalo Bills to keep the team at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

The talks, the latest of which took place Tuesday, have picked up in recent weeks, Poloncarz said, after slowing while state officials dealt with the preparation and aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated parts of the East Coast in October.

"We've made plenty of progress. It's a very complicated deal," Poloncarz said. He declined to discuss details or say when an agreement might be reached.

The Bills' current lease expires July 31.

The Bills and county officials earlier this year raised the idea of extending the current agreement by one year amid concerns about the pace of negotiations. Poloncarz initially said he hoped a deal in principal would be reached by the time the Bills opened training camp this past July.

"We are certainly talking about everything but I think we all agree it makes more sense to get a long-term deal done than negotiate a one-year deal and then in six months have to pick it back up again," he said by phone Wednesday.

Buffalo Bills spokesman Scott Berchtold declined to comment on the talks. Earlier Wednesday, chief executive Russ Brandon told WGR radio that "we're making progress."

Though the franchise's future in Buffalo is uncertain once 94-year-old owner Ralph Wilson dies, team officials have maintained their commitment to staying in Buffalo and continuing to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park.

The biggest obstacle in negotiations has been determining how to divide up the costs for $200 million US in renovations and upgrades the Bills are seeking to have done to the 39-year-old facility.

Wood expressed his complaints despite not making the trip to Toronto. He stayed home because he's recovering from a sprained right knee. And yet, he saw enough on TV and also heard from teammates to appreciate how familiar the atmosphere was to the two games he's played in Toronto.

Wood was unhappy the Seahawks got the chance to play inside the Rogers Centre, as opposed to outdoors at Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the elements usually play a factor in December.

Wood cited the mixed support the Bills get in Toronto, noting there are sometimes as many fans cheering for the visiting team as for Buffalo. And he added, there are times when fans don't know when to cheer.

"Those non-Bills fans that go to the game are just cheering for plays as opposed to cheering for a team," he said. "And that kills you." 

Defensive tackle Kyle Williams was in Toronto, and expressed similar sentiments.

"It's very similar to a road game, but also I understand the business side of things," Williams said. "I don't think you'd find a guy in here that wouldn't agree that they would much rather be in Ralph Wilson Stadium."

Wood understands how playing in Canada's financial capital and largest city benefits a small-market team such as the Bills by generating additional revenue and luring fans to attend the team's games at Orchard Park.

He emphasized he wasn't criticizing Toronto as a community, because he enjoys making numerous trips there.

"I love the city of Toronto for eating and for pleasure," Wood said. "But the game just has a different feel. And it's not a whole lot of fun to play in at this point."

Bills have struggled in Toronto

The Bills are 1-4 in regular season games at Toronto since the series began in 2008.

The five-year deal, in which Rogers Communications agreed to pay the Bills $78 million US to play in Toronto, has now expired. The two sides have been in negotiations and are close to extending the series for what's expected to be another five years.

"I don't blame Russ for this," Wood said, referring to Bills CEO Russ Brandon. "I respect the decisions that he makes to keep us in this market and provide a good business plan. But from a playing standpoint, unless it improves, it's not a whole lot of fun to play there."

The latest complaints echoed those made by Bills veteran safety George Wilson last year.

Saying it's not a home game, Wilson described fan support in Toronto as being "a night-and-day difference" to Buffalo.

Last year, in a 23-0 win over Washington, the crowd was doing the wave, which led to the Bills offence jumping the snap on third down. On Sunday, there was little crowd noise drowning out Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson calling plays at the line on several third-down situations.

Customarily, home crowds remain quiet when their team's offence is on the field, and they grow louder to disrupt the opposing team's offence.

"That just doesn't happen at Ralph Wilson Stadium," Wood said. "There have been times when there's been 40,000 people in there, and they're still not doing a regular cadence on third down in the first quarter."

The announced crowd of 40,770 was well below the downtown stadium's capacity of 54,000. Many who stuck around for the second half started rooting for the Seahawks. By the fourth quarter, the fans who were left began chanting, "Let's Go Blue Jays!"

Organizers went so far in a bid to drum up support by having Korean pop star PSY perform his hit "Gangnam Style" at halftime.

Wood was so worked up that he was preparing to share his frustrations on his Twitter account, before remembering the NFL rule barring players from using social media while their team is playing.

"I wrote and deleted about three tweets during the game," Wood said. "That was probably best. Yeah, it kind of ticked me off."