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Watkins comes to town, Stevie exits

Well, that didn't take long. Less than 24 hours after moving up to take wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the first round of the draft, the Bills unloaded diva receiver Stevie Johnson to San Francisco for an undisclosed draft pick in 2015.

The instant the Bills made a huge investment in Watkins and made him their new No. 1 receiver, I wondered how he could possibly fit in the same locker room with Johnson, a polarizing presence and dubious leader. My concerns were magnified today when I heard Watkins address the media in person at One Bills Drive and I got a chance to talk with his parents, James and Nicole McMiller.

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Marv on Ralph: "He wanted to show you he knew the game"

Marv Levy spoke with me this afternoon from Chicago about the passing of Bills owner Ralph Wilson. Here are the high points:

"I'm deeply saddened. I was out for a run-walk and got a call from another person with the sad news. It's upsetting ...

"First of all, he was a great guy to work for. That doesn't mean he wasn't demanding. He expected you to involve yourself heavily in your job. He would express his opinions, but he would listen back. Even if you disagreed with what you were saying, he would weigh it.

Continue reading "Marv on Ralph: "He wanted to show you he knew the game"" »

Ralph Wilson, a fan at heart

By Jerry Sullivan

Like a lot of Bills fans, I had mixed feelings about Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who died on Tuesday at age 95. It was difficult to reconcile the Hall of Fame owner, the visionary who gave Buffalo so many sporting thrills and was a driving force in the NFL merger, with the man whose small-minded decisions often contributed to management dysfunction and a losing product on the field.

More than anything, I wished I had covered Wilson in the early days of the franchise, when he was young and vibrant and full of ideas. I envied the late Larry Felser, who covered the Bills from the start. Larry knew Wilson more than half a century ago, when the AFL was in its infancy and pro football was just beginning to take a hold on the American public.

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Kevin Grevey loves the Bills

One of the biggest Bills fan in First Niagara Center this week has been doing the color commentary for the Westwood One radio network. Kevin Grevey, who played in the NBA for the Washington Bullets, has a good reason to root for the Bills: It's good for business.

You see, Grevey owns the top Bills bar in the Washington, D.C. area. "Grevey's Restaurant and Sports Bar," which is located in the northern Virginia suburb of Fairfax, has been a meeting spot for transplanted Bills fans on NFL Sundays for about a quarter of a century.

Grevey said he got the idea to feature the Bills from his restaurant manager, Roger Clark, a native of Dunkirk.

"I opened my restaurant in '87 and was trying to become a sports bar," Grevey said Saturday before the start of the Syracuse-Dayton game. "There weren't a lot of sports bars back then. We had a big dish satellite. Our first go was the Cincinnati Bengals and it flopped. Then Roger said, 'All right, it's my turn. I'm going to do the Bills.'

"He said 'I can get 50 peeople here from upstate New York, no problem. We'll do beef on wecks, bring in Buffalo lager and the Sunday morning newspaper'. And we did. We made people feel like they were in Buffalo those four hours watching the game. And it caught fire.

"The Bills went to four Super Bowls in a row and we became known as a Bills bar in our area," Grevey said. "That was the first recognition I got in the restaurant business."

Grevey, who was in the legendary Adolph Rupp's last freshman class at Kentucky, played 10 years in the NBA for the Bullets and Bucks. He was a starting guard on the Bullets' 1978 NBA championship team. Veteran Buffalo hoop fans will remember him playing against the Braves back in the old Aud. He does, too.

"It was a wonderful rivalry," he said. "I remember Elvin Hayes and Bob McAdoo fighting it out for the scoring championship. I remember Cotton Fitzsimmons when I was a rookie, he took us out
to dinner in town. We had good times here in Buffalo.  It was a lot of fun, it really was."

Brandon sticks up for his coach

Ever since the Bills made the ill-advised decision to play one home game a season in Toronto, I felt it was a deterrent to attracting top head coaching candidates to Buffalo. What self-respecting coach would take a head NFL job, knowing he would be playing only seven games in his home stadium? The answer, of course, was a coach who was desperate to get one of the 32 NFL jobs and had no other options.

Doug Marrone would never admit it. He had to toe the company line on the Toronto venture, even if it meant giving away the home advantage in one of his eight home games. Chan Gailey never complained, either. The only player who ever had the guts to rip the series was Eric Wood, though he backed off last year after signing a long-term extension.

But there was never a doubt in my mind that Marrone hated playing a game in Toronto. The Bills remained competitive through all sorts of adversity in his first season as head coach. They were still on the fringes of contention in the AFC when they played the Falcons in Toronto. When they lost to a staggering Atlanta team, the folly of playing a home game in Canada was more evident than ever.

Russ Brandon was beside himself after that game. It was clear that he felt the players had been put in a compromising position by playing a game away from the Ralph. Soon after the loss, Brandon went public with his determination to re-evaulate the Toronto series and do what was in the competitive interests of the team.

I suspect that Marrone gave Brandon an earful after that loss to the Falcons. The players said it was a highly emotional scene in the locker room afterward. Part of the emotion had to be the knowledge that the organization had put profit over the team's fortunes on the field. Brandon must have told himself he would never do that to his team again.

The Bills have left open the possibility of playing games in Toronto in the future. Brandon has found a politically comfortable way to move away from the series. But it's a good sign that Brandon is exercising the full power of his position -- as he promised to do when he assumed "total" control of the organization on New Year's Day of 2013.

It's interesting that this news would come so soon after Tim Graham's story about a power struggle in the Bills organization between the entrenched money men and the new football people. Brandon needed to make it clear that he stands with the young, progressive football men who are now responsible for the product on the field, and not the money counters.

This was a great way to do it, whether Brandon intended it that way or not. You can't claim to be on the side of your football guys while selling off their precious home-field advantage. Brandon has clearly sided with Marrone, who had to believe the Toronto series made the franchise look small-time.

I don't see how they could take a regular-season game back to Toronto now, especially if the Bills became a more legitimate contender and needed every edge to get back in the playoffs. Marrone's star will rise if the team continues to improve. Going back to Toronto at this point would be a slap to his face.

 

 

Russell Wilson: The NFL's Biggest Bargain

The next time you hear some old guy rant about how "a contract is a contract" and athletes have no right to renegotiate, try to remember Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who led Seattle to a Super Bowl championship Sunday night in his second season in the NFL.

Wilson is the best bargain in the NFL, and maybe all of sports. Because he was drafted in the third round in 2012, he is finishing the second year of a four-year, $3 million deal. That's tip money for the average starting NFL quarterback. But Wilson is making peanuts because he was a late draft pick and rookies get their contracts slotted by when they're selected.

 Next year, Wilson is due to get a hike to $817.302, or less than long snapper Garrison Sanborn made for the Bills last season. Is it his fault that the entire league passed him by twice, because he was supposedly too small to be a starting QB in the league?

Wilson's deal gives Seattle great flexibility to bolster other positions on its team. That's a big deal in a salary cap league. Many teams (Denver, for one) pay huge bucks to the quarterback, which compromises their depth at other positions. That showed in the Bowl when the Broncos were thin on defense and paid for it against an opportunistic Seahawks offense.

If I'm Wilson's agent, I'm asking for a raise. It's only fair. He had no control over his original contract (same as Jairus Byrd). That's the case in pro leagues that have drafts and restrict the ability of players to choose  where they play. And that's why it's perfectly reasonable for players to want more money when they've outperformed contracts that were the result of the NFL's inability to judge their real talent.

Go ahead and make the tired argument that a contract is sacred. This isn't the real world. It's sports. If you make that argument, you should also be pushing for the abolition of drafts, too.

 

Bucky vs. Sully on Brady vs. Manning

It seems the entire country is debating Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning as they gear up for Sunday's AFC championship game in Denver. So why not have the two main sports columnists at the News weigh in on the subject? In Sunday's paper, Bucky Gleason and I will take sides in the matter.

As you might imagine, I will take Brady's side. I've been saying for years (since he won his third Super Bowl in 2005) that Brady is the best quarterback of all time. For me, the debate is Brady vs. Joe Montana, not Brady vs. Manning.

Of course, it would have been an easier case to make if Brady had won another Super Bowl. He has yet to win a fourth -- though he has made it two more times and has the highest regular-season winning percentage of any QB in the Super Bowl era. Sunday will be an amazing eighth AFC title game in 13 years for Brady -- 8 of 12 if you discount 2008, when he missed virtually an entire season.

Manning's supporters have a bushel of statistics to make their case -- topped off by a record-setting 55 TDs this year for the Broncos. There are plenty of raw facts to back up Brady, starting with his 18-7 record in the postseason.

But you don't hear much about the fact that Manning has played in more favorable conditions over his career. He doesn't like it when people say he can't play in the cold. It's true that he has struggled at times in freezing weather. But the greater point is that he hasn't played that much in tough conditions. He played in a dome in Indianapolis and played a lot of road games in the South after the Colts moved from the AFC East to the AFC South.

I guess it's a somewhat exotic argument, but if people are going to use stats, anything goes. I find it interesting that Manning has such poor overall numbers on the road against the three northeastern teams in his old division, the AFC East:

In six career games in Buffalo, Manning has averaged 173 yards passing and 6.0 yards a pass. He has thrown 4 TDs and 4 interceptions. In 11 career games in Foxborough, counting playoffs, Manning has thrown 19 TD passes and 22 interceptions. In five games at the Jets, he has completed 53.8 percent of his passes for 223 yards a game, with 5 TDs and 9 picks. 

So in 22 road games at Buffalo, New England and the Jets, Manning has 28 TD passes and 35 interceptions. I'm guessing he was happy to leave the division in 2002. Playing a game a year in Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville has been a lot kinder to his numbers.



 

 

 

Right in the league!

Steven Means, who played high school football at Grover Cleveland before moving on to UB, was drafted in the fifth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers today. Means joins another former Harvard Cup star, Mike Williams, who played at Riverside. Williams was the first city high school graduate in many years to make it to the NFL. 

Here's a column I wrote on Means before his sophomore season at UB in the summer of 2010.-

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Means aims to prove point for city kids
Jerry Sullivan
18 August 2010

Oh, yes. Steven Means has been paying attention. He watches the daily reports from the NFL training camps, and he is keenly aware that a kid from a Buffalo city high school is making a splash as a rookie receiver in Tampa Bay.

"Mike Williams!" Means said Tuesday on Media Day at UB Stadium. "Right in the league. Right now! I played against him."

Means laughed at the memory, marveling at the raw athletic ability Williams displayed in his days at Riverside. Means, who played for Grover Cleveland, was exultant that a fellow city star had overcome the doubts and obstacles and actually made the big- time.

City football players are expected to fail, right? Williams had well-publicized issues at Syracuse and was drafted late as a result. Buffalo kids rarely even make it at the Division I level, which is why it's so important for Means to succeed as a player and student at UB.

"It's more important to me now than it ever was," said Means, a sophomore defensive end for the Bulls. "It's more important than anything. I'm not out here just representing myself. I'm out here representing my family, the whole city, Grover Cleveland, everybody. Even the young players in the Harvard Cup who get all the negative feedback saying they don't have a chance.

"I'm here to let everybody know that it can be done," said Means, who said he has a 2.7 GPA. "You've got to put in the work, including academics. But it can be done."

He got his chance and is making the most of it. Two years ago, when Means sat out as a true freshman, you heard tales of his exploits in practice. A year ago, Means had five sacks as a redshirt freshman. This year, he is one of the anchors on a UB defense that is looking to make waves in the Mid-American Conference.

Means is seen as an emerging force, one of the MAC's breakout players. He was a raw pass rusher when he arrived at UB. He's still learning the nuances of defensive line play. Means has a chance to become an all-MAC player. Who knows? Maybe he'll follow in the footsteps of Trevor Scott, a late-blooming defensive end who went from UB to the Raiders.

"It's all up to Steve," said Jappy Oliver, the Bulls' defensive line coach. "He doesn't really know how good he can be."

Oliver said Means relied on his sheer pass rushing ability in the past. It's no wonder. Head coach Jeff Quinn said Means can't be blocked by a single offensive lineman. It's other aspects of his game, like shedding blocks and defending the run, that needed polishing.

Means is listed at 6-4, 235 pounds (he was an interior force as a basketball player at Grover). But Oliver said Means has trouble maintaining his weight.

"He has the height to get much bigger and stronger," Oliver said, "and once he's able to do that, I think he'll be a big-time Division I football player."

Oliver coached at Notre Dame before coming to Buffalo, so he knows what a major college end looks like. Quinn said Means plays hard from the start of practice to the end. A few days ago, Means got into a scuffle at practice. Afterwards, he apologized to the team and was applauded by his teammates.

So the makings are there for a breakout. There's no telling how good the UB defense could be if he has double-digit sacks and creates matchup nightmares for MAC offenses.

"Oh, I hope so," Means said. "I see it as a year for our team to break out. I don't see it as an individual thing.

"I thought I was at my peak in high school. Then I got here and they taught me a lot more technique. I'm learning a lot more this year. So I have no clue where my peak is, and I'm going to keep striving to reach it."

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Bruce Smith, the Godfather

EJ Manuel, the Bills' newly minted first-round draft choice, has an intimate family connection to the Super Bowl teams. Manuel is the godson of Bruce Smith, the Bills' Hall of Fame defensive end.

Smith is a childhood friend of Erik Manuel, EJ's father. They grew up together in Norfolk, Va., and have remained close through the years. In fact, Bruce Smith is EJ's godfather. So it was a happy coincidence when the Bills selected Manuel with the 16th pick of the first round on Thursday night.

"We grew up together," Erik Manuel said of Bruce. "We're lifetime friends, good friends. I can't describe it. It's a blessing, that's all I can say. I'm just glad he's at this level. I'm just happy. The Buffalo Bills, man! I've always been a Bills fan since Bruce was here and Jim (Kelly) was playing. So it's a good thing."

Erik, who was in town Friday for EJ's live introduction to the Buffalo media, said it would be helpful to have his son play in the same city where his godfather terrorized opposing quarterbacks for 15 seasons. "Right. Of course," he said. "But I think EJ's foundation is enough. You always have that to lean on. So I think he'll do well. EJ is solid, a solid guy."

Erik Manuel is a military man. He said it wasn't as if his children grew up in a overbearing, strict environment. "No, no," he said. "You can have boundaries with liberty. So you have fun, but there's always boundaries."

The Manuels have an extremely close relationship, more like best friends. Erik Manuel was a fixture at his son's games at Florida State. He would often be seen in the back of the interview room after games, the ubiquitous proud father. He said it was an emotional scene at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday, when EJ went 16th to the Bills. It was especially so because his wife, Jackie, was there. Jackie is recovering from breast cancer surgery.

"I cried," Erik said without hesitation when asked to describe his emotions at the draft. "Yeah. I'm probably going to cry some more later."

FitzpatricKolb

There more I think about the Bills' signing of free agent Kevin Kolb, the more it seems they've essentially re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Really, there are some striking similarities between the two guys, starting with the fact that they were both released after collecting less than half of a big contract they signed in 2011. The numbers were remarkably similar. Kolb signed a six-year, $62.1 million deal with the Cardinals after Arizona acquired him from the Eagles in the summer of '11. Kolb collected $21 million and had a $2 million roster bonus due when the Cardinals released him.

Fitzpatrick signed a six-year, $62 million extension with the Bills midway through the 2011 campaign. He, too, collected $21 million of that deal. He had a $3 million bonus due when the Bills released him two weeks ago.

Their statistics are very comparable, too: Fitzpatrick completed 59.8 percent of his passes as a Bill. Kolb has completed 59.5 percent in his career. Fitzpatrick averaged 6.7 per pass in Buffalo; Kolb's career average per pass is 6.9 yards. Fitz is 6-2, 221 pounds; Kolb stands 6-3, 218. Fitzpatrick was 19-31 as a starter in Buffalo. Kolb is 9-12 as a starter. Fitz had 80 TD passes and 64 interceptions with the Bills; Kolb has 28 TD passes and 25 picks. His arm strength is roughly equal to Fitzpatrick's.

So the way I see it, the Bills are bringing in a younger (by two years) version of Fitz who hasn't failed in the eyes of Bills fans. It wasn't so much about money, but the fact that Fitz had worn out his welcome with Buffalo fans. Management couldn't sell him to a dubious public. The problem was, if Fitz came back and competed for the starting job with Tarvaris Jackson and a rookie QB, he might win the job.

I still think the Bills want their rookie to be the starter. But if Kolb (or Jackson) wins the job in camp, at least he's a fresh face, someone who hasn't failed here yet. The Bills could sell him as a bridge to the future. Fitz could have served the same role. I think he's better than Kolb. But at least this comes off as some semblance of change and progress.

Kolb has a lot to prove. He's had trouble staying healthy. Oakland's Tommy Kelly called him "scared and skittish" last year. He lost the job in Arizona to John Skelton at one point. Cardinals management was criticized for failing to develop a successor to Kurt Warner (sound familiar, Bills fans?).

After Kolb's final game in Philadelphia, a columnist characterized Kolb as "much more ordinary than was hoped."

Again, very reminiscent of the guy who quarterbacked Buffalo the last three years. The way I see it, Kolb is Fitz without the Ivy League degree and the bad beard.  

 

 

 

 

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