TORONTO - It sounded like football.
It may have taken four years and six games and a whole lot of debate and advertising to get to this point in this Bills in Toronto series, but finally this city had its first NFL Sunday.
A real NFL Sunday. One that felt like football, looked like football, had something that so many Toronto sporting events lack: Atmosphere.
“I have a whole new respect for Toronto,” said George Wilson, the Bills defensive back who has been so critical of his team giving up a home game for what has previously been a lukewarm response. “That’s the loudest it’s been in the games we’ve played here. It was night and day different from the other games.
“I know I was very critical of the environment. But from the very beginning, they were making noise, then they started doing the wave in the fourth quarter (I know, I’m as embarrassed about it as you are). Any noise is good noise. I think we gave them something to cheer about and that’s also something we haven’t done in the past.
NIGHT AND DAY
This Buffalo Bills season and the previous three in which they visited Toronto. Last year, the Bills were 0-7 when they arrived in town. The only thing people had to cheer for was cold beer. The Bills, after the dominant 23-0 win over the rather inept Washington Redskins, are tied for first place in their division, with the second best record in the American Football Conference, and the highest scoring team in the AFC.
They’re winning. The Maple Leafs are winning. And as far as I know, global warming aside, hell has yet to freeze over but it is getting close.
“I loved it,” said David Nelson, the free agent wide receiver who was sitting around the Bills locker room in Buffalo the other day, chatting about how much he hated to give up a home game at this time in the season. He understands the financial nature of this somewhat one-sided transaction with Rogers, the company. He understands the Bills need for additional revenue. He sees the pragmatism of all that.
What he doesn’t care for — or didn’t care for before Sunday — was the neutral site nature of the Toronto games of the previous three football seasons, and all he has been told about it from his veteran teammates.
“They cheered,” said Nelson. “Sometimes at the wrong time, but they cheered. They were doing the wave at the wrong time. Our guys couldn’t hear the snap count and we got a false start (penalty).” But Nelson agreed, noise at the wrong time was better than no noise at all
If you do that math, and leave a little room for interpretation, the Rogers Centre crowd of 51,579 was the largest of the four regular season Bills game in this
Year 4 of the five-year deal with Rogers. Attendance at the first game against the Dolphins was announced at 52,134 but just about everybody in the city was offered a free ticket for the event and that led to the padded figures announced from the 16-3 loss to Miami. That felt more like a Dolphins home game than anything Buffalo.
In the second year, the Bills lost 19-13 to the Jets. Frankly, that crowd was devoid of any atmosphere at all.
Last year, the Bills lost 22-19 to the Chicago Bears and there were at least as many Bears fans making noise as those who cheered for the winless Bills.
Then Sunday, a near full house, with tickets available outside for less than expensive cost price, and the surprising discovering that this is a Bills team worth following and admiring.
This is an NFL team of merit, with so many lovable qualities. You can’t watch the Bills and not appreciate the new gazillionaire Ryan Fitzpatrick, throwing two touchdown passes to Scott Chandler, who was cut by Dallas, San Diego, the Giants and Dallas again, before being claimed by the Bills on waivers last December. This is Toronto: We devour feel good stories.
Free agent running back Fred Jackson, the backup on his high school team, accumulated 194 yards running and catching the ball. This isn’t just a good, young, and slightly flawed football team. This is a team easy to fall in love with in a league where there is too little of that.
Even if there was a moment of doubt for Fitzpatrick, who was knocked silly in the second quarter.
As he lay on the turf, he thought: “Boy, Toronto doesn’t like me. I thought that’s a lot of excitement for a QB getting hurt.” What Fitzpatrick didn’t know at the time: He’d completed the pass to Jackson.
The crowd cheered loudly. A year ago, the pass would have gone incomplete, the crowd in indifferent silence.