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Ralph Wilson's passing has Buffalo Bills facing uncertain future

It was difficult not to feel the passage of time at the NFL Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla., which concluded Wednesday. The newest wave of general managers looks younger than ever. And for the second time in a little more than two weeks, owners mourned one of their own.

The Buffalo Bills' Ralph Wilson Jr. had made it to Detroit Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr.'s funeral earlier this month, 10 days before his own death Tuesday at age 95. Wilson's legacy was shining. He served in World War II. He was one of the founding members of the AFL. He was called "the conscience of the NFL" by his own peers. On Saturday, at the same time and in the same Detroit-area reception venue, Wilson's life will be celebrated, by Commissioner Roger Goodell among others, as Ford's had been.

Wilson's passing, coupled with Ford's, vividly underscored an ongoing transition to the next generation of league ownership. The New Orleans Saints' Tom Benson and Pittsburgh Steelers' Dan Rooney now head the elder statesmen of the NFL. But of course, there is one thing very different about Wilson, something that set him apart from Ford, and even from Benson and Rooney.

Wilson had known for years that nobody in his family would take over the Bills. The smooth generational transitions that the Fords, Bensons and Rooneys already have taken pains to put in place are absent for Buffalo. And so, not long after Goodell -- at the request of Wilson's widow -- announced Wilson's death to the other owners on Tuesday afternoon, the whispering began about what would happen next to the Bills. In their official comments, owners and team executives were careful to be respectful of the moment, not wanting to speculate too soon about the business machinations to come. But in the hallways and at the hotel bar later, those who have such friends eventually began noting that they knew a guy who wanted a team, who might have enough money to buy one, who might want to make a run at the Bills.

That is what Bills fans have been dreading for decades, and in particular as Wilson has receded from public view in recent years. The Bills always have felt very much a part of their town, where the stadium parking lots abut the backyards of an Orchard Park, N.Y., neighborhood. Wilson had kept his word that the Bills would remain in Buffalo in his lifetime. Quietly, savvy fans had crossed their fingers that Wilson would outlive the NFL's vacancy in Los Angeles, an obvious potential landing spot for a new owner who might not share Wilson's loyalty to Western New York. It was not lost on anyone that there was a certain futility when the Bills announced on Thursday new members of an advisory group dedicated to exploring the possibility of building a new stadium in the Buffalo area. It is an intriguing effort, with an impressive list of local leaders. But their work ultimately is limited by the uncertainty in ownership now.

Scott Sarama, a longtime Bills fan who founded the fan website, said that the dark cloud of potential relocation has hung over the region for so many years. While Wilson was alive, that storm on the horizon never got any closer, but it also never receded. Sarama, for one, is ready, after hearing so much speculation about the future, for the skies to finally gain some clarity.

"Am I fearful or hopeful?" Sarama wrote in an email. "I am both. Clearly, the countdown clock has started, but what are we counting down towards? The commissioner and the owners are talking a good game about keeping the franchise in Buffalo today, but let a couple of years pass and see if their tune changes. Today they offer hope, but when $1 billion is on the line, the conversation will get a lot more real. Personally, I have grown tired of that dark cloud. Either rain on us or go away. I look forward to a final resolution."

He and everyone else in Buffalo will have to be patient for that. The team will transition to a trust, which means current management will remain in place, and it is very unlikely that a sale will happen quickly -- in fact, this period could last a few years. While there are many people who would like to own an NFL franchise, there are fewer with the financial resources that the NFL demands of owners who want to buy one -- the values of franchises tend to hover around $1 billion -- and fewer still who can also pass through what is expected to be a vigorous vetting process. The league surely will hope to avoid anything like a repeat of the surprise of having the company of a new owner (the Cleveland Browns' Jimmy Haslam) raided by federal authorities. The NFL is essentially a very exclusive private club, and the new owner must get the approval of the other owners to join.

While members of Canada's Rogers family -- which owns Rogers Communications and Rogers Centre, the stadium that has hosted the Bills' Toronto series, something that was postponed for 2014 -- have long wanted to bring a team to Toronto, they might not be the only bidders with relatively local interests. Terry Pegula, the owner of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres, and Thomas Golisano, the former owner of the Sabres, are among potential local buyers for the team. Whoever emerges is unlikely to move the team until at least 2020, because of a relatively new stadium lease that requires a payout of $400 million by the team if the lease is broken. In 2020, there will be a one-time opportunity for the team to get out of the lease for about $28 million, a relatively paltry sum in the scheme of what a franchise would cost. One thing is certain, according to a business consultant who is familiar with stadium issues: Even if the new owners want to keep the team in the area, a new stadium would have to be built, and that stadium would probably have to be closer to Toronto, to further enhance the Bills' desperate efforts to make themselves more of a regional attraction.

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"We all know they have a lease," Goodell said Wednesday. "We know the terms of that lease and we also know we have to find a long-term solution to keep the Bills there, and that's what we will work to do. But that's not the priority right now in the next few days."

It is not. First comes the mourning, and then a return, at least publicly, to some semblance of a normal offseason. The Bills will continue to prepare for the draft -- just a few days before his death, Wilson was on the phone with the team's CEO, Russ Brandon, talking about safeties he liked -- and for the 2014 season. But beyond that, Buffalo will be thrust into a murkiness it can do little to clarify.

Buffalonians were lucky to have an owner who, for so long, kept his word and spoke up for the small-market teams. Can they really expect to find another?

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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