The Buffalo Bills and Rogers Media announced the team will not play a regular-season game in Toronto in 2014.
The Bills are 1-5 in regular-season games played at the Rogers Centre, and 2-0 in preseason games, but the series has struggled to fill seats despite both sides claiming strong NFL interest in Canada.
Attendance for the series, which began in 2008 and was extended in 2012, has been poor recently. In a 34-31 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons last season, the announced attendance was 38,969. Ralph Wilson Stadium has a 73,960-seat capacity.
The games in Toronto have also lacked a home environment for the Bills, with ticketholders not having the same strong allegiance that the Bills enjoy in Buffalo.
"Obviously we're trying to build a fan base north of the border and this year I would say it was a neutral crowd," Bills President/CEO Russ Brandon said. "Some of that had to do with how we played over the last six years has really not been conducive to building a lot of fans that were NFL fans, but we're trying to make them Bills fans.
"We're going to continue to try to do that through a variety of initiatives that we will be working with Rogers over the next year in a very robust sponsorship and partnership that we will have that will cater to fans above the border."
Brandon does believe there has been a reciprocal affect, estimating 18 percent of fans at games at Ralph Wilson Stadium travel from Southern Ontario. However, while deeming Wednesday's announcement as a "postponement" of the series, he did not commit to the Bills returning to Toronto for a regular-season game in 2015.
"We have not played well up there. We have to take responsibility for that," Brandon said. "We're 1-5 up there and as coach (Doug) Marrone says all the time, it doesn't matter where we play. I think I referenced Coyne Field earlier and that's a practice field in Syracuse. It doesn't matter if we play there, when you line up you play to win. We're not using this as an excuse."
The Bills and Rogers Media also announced a sponsorship agreement for the 2014 season targeted at bringing more exposure to the team to fans in Canada.
"The sponsorship includes ticketing, merchandising, media exposure, and a newly created Canada House, near Ralph Wilson Stadium, that will serve as the official pre-game Canadian tailgate zone for all Bills home games," Brandon and Keith Pelley, president of Rogers Media, said in a joint statement. "The NFL remains very popular in Canada and we are dedicated to enriching the experience for the fans."
The task for the Bills now becomes trying to sell out eight regular-season home games and two preseason games in 2014.
"Obviously last year we had to really work for our sellouts, understandably so," said Brandon. "That's something that we're willing to take on, that challenge. We have very passionate fans and tremendous fans, but we have to really work to sell tickets here as we've discussed in the past. We're not satisfied until every seat in this building is sold. That's always the No. 1 initiative and really the foundation of how we run our business."
--Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone had to react quickly when defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was named head coach of the Cleveland Browns on Jan. 23. Four days later, Marrone introduced Jim Schwartz at a press conference as the replacement for Pettine.
Schwartz had been fired as the Detroit Lions head coach the day after the 2013 season ended.
Speaking at the NFL Scouting Combine Thursday, Marrone called Schwartz "a good fit" and added, "We'll try to make this transition as easy as possible for our players. We don't want to trash one thing to go to another."
Marrone noted that both Schwartz and secondary coach Donnie Henderson have worked under current Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, and believes that will help the transition.
One important piece of that defense is safety Jairus Byrd, who played last season for the franchise tender. The Bills haven't ruled out franchising him again, although the price this year would be $8.29 million instead of the $6.9 million it was in 2013.
Marrone was adamant in stating he hopes Byrd is back.
"I told Jairus I have nothing but great things to say, nothing but great things to recommend. Now that goes to (general manager) Doug Whaley and it goes to management and they try to come up with something and see what's best for both parties.
"I love him, I really do. He did an outstanding job for us."
As for the offense, especially second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, Marrone said because of a knee injury, "He played last year and really didn't practice that much. If you think about all the players that played in the league, he probably practiced the least and played.
"For us, the priority, just like all the players, is to make sure that we keep him healthy. It's important for us, important for his development."
Marrone insists Manuel is trending up, and will benefit by additions to the coaching staff. Todd Downing, who worked with Manuel at the Senior Bowl in 2013, was hired as quarterbacks coach and Jim Hostler joined the staff as a senior offensive assistant. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett doubled as the quarterbacks coach last season. Downing was the quarterbacks coach previously in Detroit on Schwartz's staff.
Marrone coached previously on the same staff as Hostler with the New York Jets.
"We're excited about it," Marrone said, "because when he was in there, with the lack of time that we had, there were things that he did very well. Those additions should help us stay ahead and keep going."
In 10 starts last season, Manuel completed 58.8 percent of his passes for 1,972 with 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 77.7.
Marrone said it's also possible the Bills will look for a veteran quarterback in the offseason. The quarterbacks on the roster last season, Thaddeus Lewis and Jeff Tuel, had just one career start before 2013. That was for Lewis with the Browns in 2012.
The Bills' head coach also said he made sure to clear the air with wide receiver Stevie Johnson regarding a report last month that claimed Bills coaches have concerns about Johnson's belief in the team concept.
Marrone said, "I wound up texting Stevie and he got back to me, we had a great conversation. I told Stevie, 'Listen, I'm excited about getting started with you. I'm excited about you coming in and being healthy and getting this team going. Whatever else you're hearing is not coming from me. But if you hear anything else make sure you call me.'
"It was a good positive conversation we had in the last week. After that happened, I found something with CBS Sports that didn't really quote a source from the Bills. That kind of stuff concerns me. You don't want distractions like that for your players in the offseason."
However, the Buffalo News reported that buffalobills.com writer Chris Brown talked about the concerns about Johnson during an interview on WGR Radio.
Brown said, "I don't know that anybody on the staff thought that they could effectively get in his head, relate to him, know what he was feeling, thinking all the time. I think it's because Stevie's just a different breed of cat. I don't think it's any reflection on this coaching staff. I think this coaching staff did a really good job of kind of aligning themselves with the players, where they felt they were all in this thing together and they were all allies.
"But I think Stevie's a hard guy to reach, and when you're trying to build a thing where it's all for one and one for all, and it's hard to reel a guy into that, it makes you wonder just where they feel they're going with him."
--The Bills confirmed that contract negotiations with safety Jairus Byrd have yet to produce a deal, but the team did not use the franchise tag on him.
Byrd will be eligible to become an unrestricted free agent on March 11 if the two sides do not reach an agreement before then.
"We have negotiated with representation for Jairus Byrd for more than a year, but have yet to reach an agreement on a contract extension," general manager Doug Whaley said in a statement. "We remain open to getting a deal done with Jairus, but we have chosen not to use the franchise tag on any of our impending unrestricted free agents."
Byrd made his third Pro Bowl last season after tying for the team lead with four interceptions. He also had a sack and a forced fumble despite missing the entire offseason and the first five games of the regular season with plantar fasciitis in both feet.
Byrd said he still has interest in returning to the Bills. "The door is not closed on anything," he told espn.com. "I'm not closing the door on any opportunities at all. The lines of communication are still open. I've talked to (CEO) Russ (Brandon) and (general manager) Doug (Whaley) a couple days ago. We're talking. So it's not anything that's hard feelings or anything like that. The conversations that we've had, we know what's going on. We're all on the same page. We'll go from here."
As for reports that he turned down a three-year, $30 million offer, Byrd said, "I don't want to get into details, but I will say any time you have something where it's a source, an unnamed source, and the full details of the situation aren't revealed, you can't really believe everything you hear."
Following the initial announcement, Whaley had some strong words about how much the team wants Byrd back. Whaley hopes not franchising Byrd will help him get re-signed.
Said Whaley, "I think it just sets up a more amicable negotiation. Because last year; I wouldn't say it was contentious, but as a player you always want to go out and see your true value, and we restricted that.
"So this year we said, 'For the betterment of the Buffalo Bills, and to show you more or less good faith, we're not going to use that option to restrict you from hitting the market. Let's try to go full bore, with both of us focused on trying to get a deal done.' "
The conclusion is that Whaley hopes a deal can get done, perhaps by the Tuesday's start of free agency.
"Hopeful? Absolutely," Whaley said. "He has a value (to us), and they have a value of what his camp thinks he's worth, and we're trying to meet in the middle and make it comfortable for both sides. Do you hate to lose him for nothing? Yes."
--The Bills and New York Giants will kick off the 2014 preseason in the Hall of Fame Game on Sunday, Aug. 3, the league announced Thursday.
The game (8 p.m. ET on NBC ) will be played at Pro Football Hall of Fame Field at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio one day after the Hall of Fame's Class of 2014 is formally enshrined. Two of the seven members of the Class of 2014 have ties to the participating teams.
Wide receiver Andre Reed played 15 of his 16 seasons with the Bills from 1985-1999, and was named to the Pro Bowl seven times. Defensive end Michael Strahan spent his entire 15-season career with the Giants from 1993-2007 and also was selected to seven Pro Bowls.
Joining Reed and Strahan in the Class of 2014 are linebacker Derrick Brooks, punter Ray Guy, defensive end Claude Humphrey, tackle Walter Jones and cornerback/safety Aeneas Williams.
This is the first time the Bills and Giants will meet in the Hall of Fame Game. The Giants played in the very first Hall of Fame Game in 1962 and followed with three other trips to Canton to play in the preseason classic (1972, 1985, 2002). Buffalo returns to Fawcett Stadium for the fourth time. The Bills started their preseason in Canton in 1974, 1989 and 2009.
--Coach Doug Marrone said there's a vastly different feeling at the combine this year as opposed to last when he was a rookie coach. "You have a better feel for the players," Marrone told Buffalobills.com. "We have a lot of players that are coming back on this team. I got a chance to know quite a few of them at all different levels, not just what you see on the field. I think in turn they got a chance to know me. Everyone knows the direction we want to head and what the challenges are and where we have to go. We're excited we're now working for 2014."
That will make the search for draft prospects at the combine more focused.
"Having gone through it together (as coaches) you've seen the players, you know what we were telling them and what we were trying to get accomplished," said Marrone. "There were a lot of pluses out there. We are what we are and we were a 6-10 ballclub and it's disappointing for all of us, but at the same time there are a lot of things that we can build on. We have some talented players on this team and we have to find ways that we can keep showcasing that talent to give us an advantage to win the close games."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--The Bills issued tender offers to wide receiver Chris Hogan, offensive lineman Antoine McClain and fullback Frank Summers, and re-signed defensive back Brandon Smith, the team announced Thursday (March 6). Those players are in the category of exclusive-rights free agents.
Hogan played in each of the team's 16 games in 2013 and made 10 catches for 83 yards and added 10 special teams tackles. Hogan (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 and spent a portion of his rookie year on the practice squads of the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants before joining the Bills in 2012.
McClain joined the Bills' 53-man roster on Oct. 7, 2013 after being released by the Oakland Raiders. McClain (6-foot-5, 336) entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012 and spent his rookie season on the team's practice squad.
Summers appeared in 15 games (nine starts) for Buffalo in 2013 and tallied the first touchdown of his NFL career, while posting 12 carries for 46 yards. Summers (5-foot-9, 248) joined Buffalo as a free agent during training camp in 2013. He was a fifth-round draft selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2009.
Smith joined Buffalo's practice squad on Sept. 10 before being promoted to the team's 53-man roster on Oct. 8 and appeared in two games in 2013. Smith (6-1, 205) entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Carolina Panthers in 2011.
--Safety Aaron Williams signed a four-year, $26 million contract extension with the Buffalo Bills on Wednesday. He was entering what would have been the final season of a four-year contract.
The deal makes Williams the eighth highest-paid safety in the NFL and includes $14.625 million in guarantees and a $6.25 million signing bonus.
Williams started 14 games for the Bills last year and had a career-best 82 tackles and shared the team lead in interceptions with four.
"Aaron Williams is a versatile player who has grown into a key playmaker for our defense in recent years," Bills general manager Doug Whaley said. "He had an extremely productive season for our defense in 2013. Aaron is the type of young, core player we targeted early in the process to retain for years to come and this will be our philosophy moving forward.
"By building on his improved play in 2013, we expect Aaron to continue to grow into a key contributor for the Bills organization."
A second-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Williams had trouble at cornerback in his first two seasons but stepped up his production last year after switching to safety. He has 144 career tackles (111 solo), five interceptions, 23 passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
Scheduled to be unrestricted Tuesday
--FS Jairus Byrd
--K Dan Carpenter
--DL Alex Carrington
--TE Scott Chandler
--S Jim Leonhard
--LB Arthur Moats
WIDE RECEIVER: Stevie Johnson isn't a No. 1 and the Bills need to find a big, physical wideout who can make plays down the field and in the red zone.
LINEBACKER: Kiko Alonso had a great year, but is better suited to playing outside. That can happen if a true middle linebacker is brought in.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Left guard and right tackle were spots manned by under-performing players Doug Legursky and Erik Pears. There's a need to improve here.
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