Sorry to come off like a grump on the holiday. I know we have a lot to be thankful for right now, like having both of our major professional sports teams in the hands of competent and popular men.
One thing I’m surely not thankful for is the Bills’ annual “home game” in Toronto. I didn’t intend to make a fuss about it this year. But the closer it gets, the greater my sense of responsibility to rip the whole misguided enterprise.
Maybe it was the Jon Bon Jovi business that set me off this time. It’s hard to believe it was a complete coincidence that we found out about old Jon’s interest in buying the Bills a few days before the annual ripoff in the Rogers Centre.
The Bon Jovi bombshell drew attention from the fact that the Falcons are a bad team and a dubious draw. And naturally, it reignited the dread in Bills fans, whose greatest fear is someone buying the team when Ralph Wilson passes on and taking it out of Buffalo – in this case, to Canada.
This isn’t exactly a novel concept, that someone might want to take the team north of the border. The fact that it was a famous if overrated musician, a buddy of Doug Flutie with close ties to power brokers in Toronto, makes the threat seem more real.
And it is real, from what I can gather. Bon Jovi is reportedly worth $300 million. That makes him as legitimate as Jim Kelly, perhaps more so. A report that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has assigned one of its top men to look into designing a new football stadium is even more ominous.
The folks in Toronto didn’t get into this arrangement with the altruistic goal of helping Wilson regionalize his franchise. They wanted a foot in the door with the NFL. It was one small step on the way to having their own team some day, assuming they build a viable stadium.
I’ll admit, it’s hard to feel confident in a city that put a crack-smoking buffoon in the mayor’s office. But the threat is there, along with the money. And really, should we Americans be laughing at anyone for the characters they elect to high office?
But back to Sunday’s game against the Falcons. Opponents of the Toronto game, which has to include most reasonable Bills fans, can hardly imagine a more outrageous scenario:
The Falcons are 2-9 one year after nearly reaching the Super Bowl. They play their home games in a dome. They haven’t played a road game north of Charlotte this season. Last week, they lost to the Saints in one of their more inspired showings, becoming the first team eliminated from the playoffs.
There’s been talk of tanking the season, playing the younger guys down the stretch. The Falcons could be ready to cave. We’ve seen how these teams can pack it in when they show up in bad Buffalo weather. These guys might have taken one look at the snow and started planning a Bahamas vacation.
So what happens instead? Instead of the Ralph, the dome team gets a game in a dome. In a neutral site. No snow. No wind. No 12th man, making it impossible for Matt Ryan (Matty Ice!) to hear himself above the din. Given these sort of advantages, the Falcons might decide to play their little hearts out.
“They must have fixed the schedule out there in Atlanta or something,” said Stevie Johnson, “because it’s supposed to be out here at the Ralph. But it is what it is.”
That was as strong a protest as you heard Wednesday at One Bills Drive. Center Eric Wood, previously a trusted ally, backed off from last year’s comments, when he called the series a “joke” and said he hoped it wasn’t renewed. Here’s a flashback to Wood’s comments on Seattle’s romp in Toronto last year:
“You provide comfort that shouldn’t happen when you travel to Buffalo,” Wood said last December. “You should have a cold, uncomfortable feeling. That’s our advantage.”
Making a dome team comfortable after their long journey? Hmm, sounds a lot like this year’s game.
“I kind of said that in the heat of the moment after the game last year,” said Wood, who signed a lucrative contract extension in August. “I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully, my feelings will change this year.”
He’s taking the diplomatic route, which is understandable. Coach Doug Marrone, no doubt, has told his players not to dwell on giving away a real home game. It’s the right thing for a coach to do. This is no time for excuses. Marrone is calling it an “opportunity.”
It’s supposed to be an advantage, a home game in Buffalo’s elements. That was the talk after the Jets game, remember? Marrone said the Bills need to play in all kind of conditions. He talked about all domes not being the same, but conceded that it’s his vision to build a Bills team that can thrive and win in bad weather.
“I’m not going to backtrack,” Marrone said. “I want to build this team so when we get ready to make a run in these playoffs, wherever it may be, whatever year, we’re playing a home game in January and the weather is like outside and that advantage is to us.
“Yes, I’m trying to create an advantage by that weather.”
Sunday will be the sixth game in the Toronto series. The Bills are 1-4. They’re 0-3 in the three that were played in December. The head coach is trying to create an advantage and management is handing it away.
Some day, maybe Marrone will be successful and powerful enough to walk in Russ Brandon’s office and say, “End it.”