The Buffalo Bills have six more chances to get this Toronto thing right.
After more than nine months of heavy fanfare, the Bills completed the first of five regular season games (in addition to three exhibitions) to be played at the Rogers Centre over a five-year span. The game was the first real shot at making Toronto a “Bills town”, but the hypothesis did not pan out as intended.
The final result of the day was a 16-3 Miami Dolphins win in a snoozer of a game that featured an overly neutral crowd that did not appear to fill the stadium. Though many expected the Bills’ pre-season game in Toronto against Pittsburgh to be short of a sellout, having a full house for the regular season game at Rogers Centre was to be a foregone conclusion.
The Bills’ Toronto Series is now in dire straits. With four years left in the deal between the Bills and the Toronto consortium, the disappointing attendance numbers have to be turned around fast. Common sense would indicate that the high ticket prices, considered to be the biggest deterrent to fans who otherwise would have attended the Bills-Dolphins game, will not be lowered for next year’s match. Hence, series organizers, along with Bills management and the NFL, should quickly figure out which team would be the best opponent to hike up attendance for the next Toronto game.
As per the NFL’s scheduling rotation, seven of the Bills’ home opponents for the 2009 season have been pre-determined, with the eighth opponent a mortal lock by this point. The options for teams to come to Toronto, from worst to best fit, are as follows:
When there are only five regular season games to be played at the Rogers Centre, certainly no repeat visits are necessary. Toronto took Buffalo’s main rivalry game once already, so, even with the promise that Miami’s showing to potentially be a legitimate contender next season, the Canadian fans certainly deserve some variety.
Though the Bengals are not officially on the 2009 slate for the Bills quite yet, the NFL schedule dictates that the 2008 fourth place finisher from the AFC North visit the fourth place team from the AFC East. Barring any major standings shakeups, Cincinnati at Buffalo is a given. Even if the Bengals bounce back next year, they would be, in the best case scenario, similar to this year’s Dolphins: A good story, but not good enough to fill up the building. Unless nearly 55,000 people want to see the name “Ocho Cinco” on the back of a jersey, Cincinnati won’t reverse Toronto’s fortunes.
The best reason for bringing the Texans into Toronto would be to hopefully get more fans behind the Bills. Houston’s lack of any type of reasonable proximity to Toronto, in addition to the fact that I’m fairly certain that the Texans do not actually have fans, would certainly give the Bills more of a home-field advantage in Toronto than they had against Miami, whose successful history brought quite the broad fan base under Mr. Rogers’ roof. In terms of filling the seats, however, the Texans are not the remedy.
5. Tampa Bay
Sure, the Buccaneers are only five years removed from a Super Bowl win. They do possess some prestige and are presently headed to their second straight playoff berth. They are also presently quarterbacked by CFL alumnus Jeff Garcia, which would likely draw in fans of the Canadian game, just like former Toronto Argonauts running back Ricky Williams did for the Dolphins. However, Tampa Bay still fails to carry the prestige that would draw the throngs out to the Rogers Centre. A Super Bowl win this season would certainly change things, but the lack of a big name on the Tampa Bay roster would likely hurt Toronto ticket sales.
4. New Orleans
Every year, the Saints seem destined to be their conference’s seventh or eighth best team, barely missing the playoffs. While that factor would certainly hurt their gate in Toronto, New Orleans certainly has a fun team to watch. Quarterback Drew Brees, an enigma early in his career, is now one of the NFL’s most consistent passers, while running back Reggie Bush, receiver Marques Colston, and tight end Jeremy Shockey would bring name value into the Rogers Centre. They certainly aren’t the most attractive opponent, but they would definitely be an acceptable one.
The Colts, though still a successful team, are certainly aging. Their decline as a team is coming, but likely won’t fully settle in for at least another couple of years. Until then, they’re still a perfectly viable opponent. Keeping in mind that quarterback Peyton Manning holds a clean-cut image and is one of the league’s most recognizable faces, Indy’s a legitimate possibility. They also hold the edge of being an in-conference, non-divisional opponent. This means that they’re not one of Buffalo’s chief rivals, but still make frequent enough visits to Western New York that local Bills fans would not be especially distraught with the loss of this home game.
2. New York Jets
The most likely asset that a visiting team could have that would bring fans into the doors, regardless of price? A star player. Brett Favre fits the bill. It doesn’t seem to matter to his devoted legions that he waffles over retirement every off-season, and even switched teams this past year. His fans are still there, and they’d enter the Rogers Centre in droves. Unless he actually retires, at which point plenty of good seats will be available. Just make sure you’ve got a crisp Wilfrid Laurier on hand.
1. New England
If there’s one thing Toronto’s starving for, it’s a team that actually knows how to win consistently. If the Patriots were to set foot in the Rogers Centre, the whole city would likely step onto the bandwagon with navy blue #12 jerseys in hand. If the NFL truly wanted to jump start their Toronto fan base, Tom Brady, Randy Moss, and the rest of Bill Belichick’s Patriots are the team to do it.
Realistically, who gets the call? It won’t be Miami again, and nobody would truly care if Cincinnati, Houston, or Tampa Bay came in. The outrage in Buffalo over losing one of their rivalry games this season likely means that all of the AFC East teams will indeed be playing in Orchard Park next year, eliminating the best two options. That means it will either be the Saints or Colts coming in. My money’s on Manning, as Buffalo-based New Orleans fans would likely start some sort of non-violent riot were they to wait nearly a decade for their Saints to come in, only to lose the game to Canada.
So, Toronto, I think you’ll be seeing a future Hall of Fame quarterback next year. Just hope Peyton lights up the scoreboard and gives the NFL a real shot north of the border.