Originally Published: March 25, 2014
John Clayton | ESPN.com
ORLANDO, Fla. — Tuesday was a sad day in the NFL.
In the middle of the afternoon session of the NFL meetings, a session that normally is quiet, it was announced to the owners and general managers that Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson had died at age 95. The meeting adjourned to give everyone a chance to gather his thoughts.
Wilson was one of the most beloved owners in the league. His failing health has kept him away from the team and games in recent years. Fans in Buffalo have worried about his potential passing because the team will be put up for sale. No one in Western New York wants to lose the Bills. Now fans worry about the team moving.
But Tuesday was a day to remember Wilson. He was one of the reasons the American Football League was such a big success and eventually merged with the NFL. When the Oakland Raiders had money problems as the AFL was starting, Wilson wrote a check and kept the Raiders going.
I always appreciated Wilson’s wit and loyalty. Buffalo was lucky to have Wilson as an owner. He did everything possible to keep the team in Buffalo, even though he could have made more money if he had moved the team to another city.
I always looked forward to seeing Wilson at owners meetings. He had a funny response and a great quote for any subject. The time I remember most was at a meeting in Dallas when the salary cap was going to elapse.
For a good portion of that meeting, Wilson stayed outside the room and waited with ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and me. “You’re one of the few guys I still recognize at these meetings,” Wilson said to the two of us. “There are so many faces in the room now I have no idea who they are.”
After that meeting, Wilson blasted the CBA that was agreed upon that day, saying it was a bad deal for owners. He was right. The owners wound up locking out the players in 2011 to fix the problem.
Wilson will be missed. So will William Clay Ford, who owned the Detroit Lions and died last week. Wilson attended Ford’s funeral. Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeff Lurie noted that the NFL is losing many of its iconic owners.
Here is what we learned Tuesday at the owners meetings:
1. Over the next several months, the settlement of the Wilson estate will be a big topic. What we learned is that the stadium lease is rock-solid and should keep the Bills in Buffalo for at least six years. After that, who knows? Wilson’s gift to the Buffalo market was doing a lease extension that gave the area time. That lease devalues the potential sale price of the franchise by hundreds of thousand dollars. Unfortunately, no one in the family wants to stay in the football business, which means the Bills will go up for sale.
Obviously, Los Angeles is looking for an NFL team, and it’s easier to move a team that’s being sold. The six-year wait might scare off potential Los Angeles investors. We’ll see. Wilson’s death probably will get some things moving on the Los Angeles front. Raiders owner Mark Davis is on a one-year lease in Oakland and might consider a move. The Chargers are year-to-year in San Diego, but owner Dean Spanos doesn’t want to move. The clock is ticking in St. Louis with the Rams’ lease situation.
2. Big brother is watching over replay. The idea of having a designated member of the NFL officiating staff helping referees and replay officials was a no-brainer, and it was one of two proposals that passed Tuesday. The other gives an unnecessary roughness penalty to an offensive blocker who rolls up the leg of a defender. The replay rule change shows that technology will be a vital part of the future of the NFL. Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said it best: “Our feeling is that technology has caught up to the game. Fans get a better view than the refs do.”
Harbaugh and Patriots coach Bill Belichick are among a growing number of coaches who are now pushing for every play to be eligible for replay challenges. Discussion on that topic will be a big one Wednesday, even though it is doubtful that such a move will pass. The NFL hopes replay will move more quickly with the help of vice president of officiating Dean Blandino’s office in New York. Once a ref gets to the replay screen, he will have 60 seconds to review the play and exchange thoughts with others reviewing the play.
3. The Ravens are one of the most interesting teams this offseason. John Harbaugh is a competitor. He says he does a complete review of his team, his coaching staff and his tactics after each season. The Ravens won the Super Bowl two seasons ago and then went to a younger roster. The result was an 8-8 season. This offseason he’s making more changes. He has completely revamped the running scheme with the hiring of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, bringing a distinct zone-blocking scheme to Baltimore.
Harbaugh plans to have a more physical training camp. He is going to let QB Joe Flacco throw more on the run instead of just having him in the pocket. Late in the season, Flacco started extending plays a bit, and Harbaugh liked it. Expect more. The signing of WR Steve Smith will bring toughness and leadership to the receiving corps. Harbaugh also explained the offseason of RB Ray Rice. Rice suffered a hip flexor injury early last season. He kept aggravating the hip and then added weight. Harbaugh said Rice got up to 217 pounds, which slowed him down. He’s now under 210, and Harbaugh hopes Rice can get to 207. You might guess that the Ravens are thinking they can bounce back to being a major factor in the playoffs. Senior NFL writer and commentator
Joined ESPN in 1995
Member of the writers’ wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio