Three years. That is a considerable amount of time to accomplish goals, or perhaps fail them. As lengthy as it appears on paper, in reality, it can elapse in the blink of an eye.
Well, it is already two years into the Chan Gailey regime in Buffalo, and it is still unclear whether he is leading his team toward success or driving them further into the mediocrity storm that got brewing following the “Music City Miracle”. It is gut-check time for the Bills coach and his ostensibly-improved squad.
Three years has been the recent standard for Bills head coach evaluation. Buffalo has not seen a coach tenured for at least four years since Marv Levy and has not fired one after less than three seasons of service since before Levy.
Wade Phillips enjoyed two winning seasons (29 wins overall) and led the team to its last playoff appearance in 2000, but was jettisoned following his third season after clashing with team management.
Gregg Williams was then a botched successor before being shown the door after the 2003 season, his third with the team, totaling a modest 17 wins. Mike Mularkey resigned after his second year, but it was evident a firing was in the works if he stayed for a third year. He showed slight promise his first year going 9-7, but took humbling steps backward the next, finishing 5-11. Have fun with his wacky and outdated “gadget” plays, Jacksonville. The strangest one I remember, and somehow it did work, was on a fourth-and-one in 2004 against Seattle. Drew Bledsoe faked a qb sneak — yes, BLEDSOE faked a sneak up the middle, and it did not look graceful — before overhanding it straight back to the querulous Willis McGahee, who scampered the 40 yards or so untouched for the touchdown. Try that with Blaine Gabbert in 2012 and I bet it results in a loss of 40 yards.
Then there is the greatest mystery in Buffalo coaching history, Dick Jauron. This was the most mind-boggling three-and-a-half years of Bills football I ever witnessed. Admittedly, the teams Jauron had were bad. The quarterback play was nowhere near competent, the defense was vastly undersized and got bullied around like they were Shane McMahon stuck in the ring against a jacked-up Rattlesnake and the offensive line became finely acquainted with the back of player’s jerseys.
But as bad as those teams were, the permanently blank and emotionless Jauron was seemingly worse as a coach, thus creating the paradox of Jauron. He had nor the skill or team to win as many games as he did. He should have won maybe 12 games during his first three years. He won 21, going 7-9 each of those years. He was a model for coaching mediocrity, but somehow obtained a somewhat respectable record with the Bills. Win or lose, almost every game was frustrating. It seemed that the total yards were always around 450-225 in the opponents favor. Yet, the Bills were almost always in the game. It made no sense. Maybe it was dumb luck, Buffalo winning games they had no business winning, but between it all was the Jauron that was the source of many key losses, namely Monday night games against Cleveland and Dallas. The Dallas game play-calling still makes me cringe, thinking when the ultra-conservative Jauron decided to get aggressive for once in his life (and at the absolute wrong time), which led to the game-altering third-down interception thrown by innocent rookie (at least at that moment), Trent Edwards. Any ten-year old veteran of Madden has better clock-management skills than Jauron.
Needless to say, he inexplicably passed the Bills three year assessment and was awarded an extension. It took half a season more, but management finally saw Jauron for what he was worth and fired him. Not that these coaches are all to blame for recent failures, but certainly, no teams have fought over the head coaching services of these men after getting the boot.
The point is, for more than a decade now, Buffalo management’s modus operandi has been to hire and fire their coaches within, or close to, three years. That is the window to prove long-term stability and worth. Their philosophy is not a phenomenon unknown to the rest of the league. It is very common, especially for middling franchises like the Bills, to work this process to eventually land the right guy in hopes for a sustained period of achievement on the field.
That begs this question — is that guy Chan Gailey?
I remember the day Chan was named the head coach and management received a lot of criticism from the fan base for hiring such an unknown. But what was the organization supposed to do when they attempted to woo big names like Bill Cowher, before getting denied. I was okay with the move though, considering he took the Cowboys to the playoffs both years he coached in Big D and was the only coach to put hall of famer Troy Aikman into the shotgun for an extended period.
I liked Gailey even more when in one of the first interviews I heard with him, he preached toughness, saying, “It’s (football) a tough game for tough people.” That is why Aaron Maybin is no longer on the team. Sorry, I enjoy throwing a jab, warranted or not, at a draft bust from time to time.
The tough ethos Chan has brought to the team is something that was largely missing with Jauron. Remember when good ole’ Dick thought he was coaching tennis and was skeptical to practice too much in pads? The physical toughness has not translated too much on the field yet. He has though, changed the mental make-up of the team, which has them collectively aspiring to create a winning culture at One Bills Drive.
The thing with Gailey, however, is that he is a case of a coach being so underrated; he has now become overrated — at least in Bills’ circles. Since his inaugural day on the job, fan’s perception of him has done a comprehensive 180. He is the most beloved coach since Levy, but does he deserve all of the love he is receiving? Strictly speaking in terms of coaching football and getting results, no, he does not — He has the least amount of wins (10) among the five coaches since Levy in their respective first two years with the team, and each had similar marginal talent on the roster.
I have nothing against Chan — in fact I believe he has been a huge relief to the fans of Buffalo with his ingenuity and football intelligence, which are unfamiliar traits when speaking of recent coaches. But, there is not much to indicate that Gailey is the brilliant coach many Buffalonians believe him to be. Maybe they see him so highly because of all the duds that wore the headset prior to him (excluding Phillips, and no, that headset pun was not intended, honestly).
It is hard to fathom all the support a coach who has gone 10-22 the last two years receives in a city full of harsh sports critics. It is borderline preposterous. To briefly contradict the notion that Gailey is not the great coach many think he is, I will say the last two years have been plagued by a lack of roster talent and depth as well as a laundry list of injuries. Those excuses can only give a man so much slack, however. Chan has been akin to his team in terms of performance — he is outstanding for stretches, but during others, is a rather pedestrian coach. There are no more free passes. It is time to perform. No more excuses.
If the Bills fail to win eight games this year, then I think the clock will have run out on Chan. He is overseeing as much talent he has ever had. This all adds up to the season going one of two ways for him.
One sees him getting badly outcoached and outmaneuvered in key games, much the way he was by Rex Ryan in the first Jets game a year ago. Gailey was not ready for Ryan’s defensive game plan and it showed. Fitz looked lost as nothing the Bills’ pass offense tried worked against one of the best pass defenses in the league. Ryan’s defense was a step ahead of Chan’s aerial spread all day.
Chan can also not fall in love with the pass this year, something he did far too often a year ago. He needs to realize Aaron Rodgers is not on the 53-man roster. Freddy and C.J. are hungry and they NEED the ball. If he is the offensive wiz many regard him to be, then he needs to fulfill the hunger of his two biggest playmakers, which means something close to a 55/45 pass to run ration.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Chan being at his very best this year — the form we saw for the final 11 games of the 2010 season and against the Patriots in week 3 last year. After a 0-5 start in 2010, he guided the team to a 4-12 record and a 4-4 finish. Once Gailey got comfortable with his squad, things started to click. They lost three overtime games to three playoff teams (Ravens, Chiefs, Steelers) and suffered another three-point defeat at the hands of the NFC finalist Bears.
No matter which way it is sliced, though, the coaching has still been unexceptional the last two years. Gailey has gotten a lot out of what he has, but so did Phillips, Mularkey for a short time and in a strange way, Jauron. Why weren’t those guys liked as much as Chan? I know I ripped them for their shortcomings earlier, but there were clearly stretches of time where the opportunity for the fans to praise these coaches was there.
I am not saying Gailey cannot be a great long-term solution for the franchise; I am just keeping things in perspective. Though I do not completely agree with the way fans are ready to dub Chan as sliced bread 2.0, I have seen a large enough sample to know he has the potential to be someone to remember in Buffalo sports. He just needs to eliminate the occasional headache he causes fans by trying to outsmart his own self. Thankfully, he does not cause a headache in the clock-management department. He has a leg-up on Jauron in that department. I grew so accustomed to Jauron’s game management inadequacies that I fully expected Gailey to botch the final two minutes of last year’s New England game and give the ball back to Brady with a chance to tie it. He passes the ten-year old Madden test at least.
I’ll sign off with this anecdote.
Sports can make anyone a prisoner of the moment, and undoubtedly so in Buffalo. This was no more evident than the 2004 season under Mularkey. The Bills ripped off six straight wins and were owners of a 9-6 record going into the final game of the season. Get a win, coupled with a Jets loss, and the playoff drought was over. That was the scenario. And even better, Pittsburgh had the conference wrapped up at 14-1 and played their reserves. Okay, beat Tommy Maddox and it’s the playoffs!
I still ponder, from time to time, how they lost that game. To make things even worse, immediately after the crushing defeat, CBS cut to overtime between the Jets and Rams. I rooted my heart out for a New York victory to salvage the pain I was about to endure. You see, if the Jets won, then it would not have mattered if that the Bills lost, they would have been eliminated from contention. The Rams won and I was never more distraught over a Jets loss. And to make things the worst, I watched the Jets win their wild-card game against San Diego the following Saturday.
After the two games, I was so sick to my stomach. I did not want to go to school the next morning. I did not want to eat dinner with my family. I did not want to talk with anybody. I wanted to go to my high school’s football field and attempt chip-shot field goals to prove I could have done better than Rian Lindell, who missed a short field goal that would have gave the Bills a fourth-quarter lead. I am sorry, Rian. That was the immature, 13 year-old me. It was the most demoralizing sporting event I have ever watched as a sports fan.
Mularkey was given so much credit for guiding a team that started 0-4 into position to make the postseason. He lost a considerable amount of support after the loss in the finale. Mularkey could not coach his guys to beat a bunch of third-stringers in the franchise’s biggest game since 2000. A mutiny against Mularkey seemed to form after that. Within a week of being dubbed as the architect of one of the greatest six-game runs in Bills history, he was being ridiculed for not having his team prepared for an inferior opponent. How could a man be trusted in the future, when he and his team came up so small when it mattered most?
That is why I can’t bring myself to become a full-blown optimist of Chan yet. All the good he has done thus far, can be washed away with one instantaneous blunder. It is not as much pessimism as it is Bills’ fandom. So many events of the past point against Gailey leading the Bills to a winning record this year and being awarded with a contract extension.