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Buffalo Bills head toward 2014 season with fate still up in the air

Up until a few days before he died, Ralph Wilson, the late Buffalo Bills owner, talked about the draft -- he was intrigued by some of the safeties -- with the team's CEO, Russ Brandon. It seems ironic, then, that it was the Bills' draft that cast a light on the uncertain future created by Wilson's death in March and how it is intersecting with -- and perhaps influencing -- preparations for a season to be played in ownership limbo.

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The Bills are in a unique and awkward spot. Recent sales of franchises -- like those in Jacksonvilleand Cleveland -- were completed out of the public eye, catching off guard, when the sales were announced, even those charged with guiding the teams. Former Browns president Mike Holmgren was so taken aback when Randy Lerner -- for whom he usually acted as a stand-in at owners' events -- sold his organization to Jimmy Haslam in 2012 that when the move was revealed, Holmgren said: "In this business, I gave up being surprised a long time ago." A few months later, Haslam showed Holmgren the door.

But the transfer of the Bills in the wake of Wilson's death is different, even if the end result might be the same under the team's future owner. Wilson had made clear that the franchise would be sold upon his death. Because that happened several weeks before the 2014 NFL Draft, the most critical decisions of the offseason were made with an uncomfortable knowledge: The people calling those shots might have only one chance left to make a positive impression on the new owners.

It was hard not to think of that when the Billspulled off the stunner of the draft: their blockbuster trade up to get receiver Sammy Watkins at No. 4 overall. The sacrifice of next year's first-round pick to get a receiver -- albeit the best one of this class -- was a "swing for the fences" decision, one that raised eyebrows among observers who wondered if Brandon, general manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone were so concerned about being swept out of there -- in the case of Whaley, after running just one full offseason -- that they skewed their draft planning to snare the biggest instant-impact player they could.

The teams says no -- kind of.

"It has nothing to do with the future," Brandon said. "It is everything about the future is now. Doug Whaley and our player personnel department are empowered and have full autonomy to make football decisions. That was a football decision, and it wasn't tied to the future of the organization. It is business as usual. We're making football decisions, no matter what. We're making business decisions as we would, in a very prepared and methodical way. Doug Whaley did a great job preparing for the draft -- they stayed true to doing what they wanted to do, and that was to move up to take Sammy Watkins. Everything is about winning. I know it's a cliché. It has not one iota of an impact on who the future owner may be."

At a pre-draft luncheon, Whaley himself said the ownership situation does not factor into decision-making. But he also noted that "this is a results-based business. Every year, we're out to win as many games as possible, and to make the playoffs."

The Bills conceivably could have a new owner approved in the middle of the 2014 season, although a more likely time frame would seem to be for it to happen by the end of the year, according to people familiar with the process. The trust that owns the team announced last week that it had retained bankers and lawyers to begin the sale process. According to one person with knowledge of that process, as many as eight serious bidders -- those with both the necessary passion and financial wherewithal -- could pursue the purchase. That person said the new owner "has to be prepared to stay there," and it is clear that the NFL -- along with the powerful political figures who represent New York -- not only want the team to remain in the western New York area, but want the Bills in a new stadium, as well.

According to one business consultant who has dealings with the NFL, the new stadium would have to be closer to the Canadian border -- Niagara County in New York is the most talked-about location -- with easier highway access and possibly rail service to the broader region that includes central New York, southern Ontario and Toronto.

But even if the Bills' future in New York seems more secure than fans had long feared, what a new owner would do with the team's brain trust is much less certain. The question that will hang over Buffalo until the owner is in place and begins to make moves is how the recent organizational decisions -- and the results they generate -- will be received.

Last year, with Whaley waiting in the wings to be named GM, the Bills drafted EJ Manuel to be their franchise quarterback. This year, they brought in a receiver in Watkins who should help Manuel elevate his play, and that was aftertrading for veteran receiver Mike Williams. They also drafted three monstrous offensive linemen in Cyrus Kouandjio (6-foot-7, 322 pounds), Cyril Richardson (6-5, 329) and Seantrel Henderson (6-7, 331).

The Bills were 6-10 last season and finished in last place in the AFC East. They're also in the midst of a 14-season playoff drought, during which they've had a winning record just once (in 2004). Will a new owner consider one full offseason of free agency and the draft under Whaley's care -- and two full seasons on the sideline by Marrone -- enough to make a judgment on the direction in which they're taking the team, particularly if Manuel does not improve and the Bills do not have a first-round draft pick in 2015? As for Brandon, almost all owners install their own business people, so he's vulnerable, too.

The new owner, whoever that turns out to be, will not miss something obvious: A gleaming new stadium, better situated than the current venue, will help the bottom line and ensure the Bills' future for several generations, but nothing will bolster interest and support more than winning records and regular playoff appearances.

"I think they are in very good hands," Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, who is from the area, told The Buffalo News recently. "All of the moves they've made are the right ones with regionalization. The only thing that has been lacking for them has been consistent success on the field."

The desperate sense of urgency that underscored the trade to get Watkins -- even if it was driven by an unspoken desire to impress new owners -- is not entirely unwelcome among a fan base that has watched the team tread water for more than a decade.

"I do think the ownership situation played heavily on their decision," said Scott Sarama, a longtime and well-informed Bills supporter who founded the fan website "Doug Whaley's philosophy is to build through the draft and retain your own players, so giving up a first-round pick to move up five spots is not something a man with his philosophy would take lightly. He clearly sees that a few big plays could swing any football game, and perhaps if he can get two to three of those to fall his way, the Bills could have a winning record this year. The fan base recognizes that the only way to reconcile this is if Whaley feels the need to establish a strong, bold track record sooner rather than later."

The sales process for the Bills will pick up steam in the next few weeks. If all goes smoothly, the winning bidder could be selected as soon as the end of the summer, around the time that the team is kicking off the 2014 season. The new owner surely will be a good judge of business talent, having made enough money to purchase the team; it is impossible to predict whether that person will be as good a judge of football acumen in the Bills' employees. That is why the pressure is on those already in charge to produce a record that removes any doubt.

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Brandon said he has not addressed that strange burden in Buffalo, one that -- because a change in management could beget a wholesale roster change, too -- could shape the future look of the Bills almost as dramatically as a new stadium could alter the team's financial fortunes.

"It's business as usual," Brandon said. "How Mr. Wilson would have wanted it."

But, the current Bills have to hope, with better results than Wilson enjoyed in his final years.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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