HOUSTON – Buddy Nix came out last week and gave a vote of confidence to Chan Gailey. The Bills’ general manager said Gailey has at least one more year on his contract. He said Chan isn’t going anywhere, regardless of his record, and called him one of the best offensive coaches in the NFL.
It was telling to hear Nix describe Gailey as if he were running the offense rather than the entire team. More and more, that’s how Gailey appears to me, like a glorified play-caller and offensive coordinator occupying the head coach’s chair.
Lately, I’m wondering about the offensive genius part. It has been a full year since Gailey’s offense was humming on all cylinders. On Sunday, he got his clock cleaned by the Texans’ Wade Phillips, a failed head coach who actually deserves his reputation as a brilliant coordinator.
Gailey wanted to run the ball against Houston. In C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, he had two very good running backs. Spiller was averaging 7.3 yards a carry – the highest by an NFL running back with at least 70 rushing attempts since 1960.
So what happened? Phillips put seven men up on the line of scrimmage – in the old “box.” He dared Gailey to run the ball behind an eager offensive line. He left his defensive backs in man-to-man coverage, luring Buffalo’s mastermind to rely on the pass.
It worked. Gailey backed down. The Bills called 44 pass plays and 13 runs. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw 38 passes, most of them traveling fewer than 10 yards in the air. The Bills didn’t score a touchdown. On a day when the defense played well enough to win, Gailey’s offense failed miserably in a 21-9 loss.
Gailey played to his weakness, putting the game in the hands of an erratic quarterback who can’t make big throws down the field. He performed the rare trick of taking his own top weapon, Spiller, out of the game. Gailey conceded that he needs to get Spiller more touches.
“Yeah, and we would like to,” Gailey said. “And we’ve got to try to do that on a more consistent basis. Some weeks, it’s better than others. Some weeks, they take things away from you that you don’t think they’re going to do. But they did. They surprised us with a defense we hadn’t seen very much.”
This isn’t quantum physics. It shouldn’t come as a surprise when defenses stack the box and dare Fitzpatrick to beat them with his arm. It happened last season. It’s how you defend the Bills. Jackson said the Texans didn’t do anything unexpected on defense.
The problem is the notion that they “take things away from you.” Only if you allow it. Sometimes, when the bully comes for your lunch money, you go for his jaw. Last week, the Bills’ O-linemen talked about making a physical statement with the league’s fourth-ranked running attack.
Offensive linemen love running the ball when the other team knows it’s coming. It’s how a team asserts its physical identity. Do you think Vince Lombardi ever stood there after a loss and lamented how the opposing coach took away the Packer Sweep?
Here’s how it unfolded at Reliant Stadium: The Bills were losing, 7-6, at halftime. They had kicked a field goal just before the break. They had momentum. They had the football, and a chance to run some clock and let the Texans know they were in a street fight.
Houston stacked the box. Fitz threw three straight incompletions. Just 19 seconds into the third quarter, Shawn Powell was punting. Keshawn Martin returned it 26 yards. Five plays later, Arian Foster scored to give the Texans a 14-6 lead.
It was as if Gailey had said, “Here, take back the momentum. It’s too much for us.” In the space of two minutes, the Bills let down in all three phases of the game. You can lay it on the coach.
A strong head coach (or coordinator) gets his biggest weapons involved in the game. He doesn’t help neutralize them. The running backs were barely a factor. Spiller carried six times for 39 yards. He had five catches for 63 yards, but two of those came in the final, meaningless minute.
Running backs talk about getting into a rhythm. Jackson and Spiller have been good soldiers, but it’s hard when you’re splitting carries. Spiller carried on the first play of the second quarter, then not again until 22 seconds before halftime.
Spiller touched the ball once during a 22-minute stretch of the second half. He wasn’t on the field for a five-play stretch after the Bills got the ball with 4:31 to play, desperate for a big play.
“I’m not worried about that,” said Spiller. “I just try to go out there and execute. Coach Gailey, if he’s not the best, he’s one of the best play-callers. He’s great at finding mismatches we need to have our offense be successful.”
I’m tired of hearing about mismatches. Who says it’s a mismatch if Donald Jones or T.J. Graham is single-covered? If they’re going to throw the ball 2 yards over the line of scrimmage, why not simply hand it to Spiller if they need a big play? They’re not saving time with a 4-yard gain.
The odd thing is that Gailey puts his faith in Fitzpatrick, but doesn’t trust him to throw down the field. Despite four trips inside the Houston 25-yard line, they never threw a pass into the end zone.
“That’s something we’ve been good at over the last few years,” Fitzpatrick said, “converting those drives into seven points, not three. That was our issue today, not being able to get the seven points.”
The defense played well, by its current standards. OK, it didn’t take the ball away, and it allowed Matt Schaub to average 10 yards a throw. Foster had 111 yards rushing. But considering how bad it’s been, it was a step forward. It kept the Bills in the game.
To win, the defense would have needed to play at an elite level – the way people expected when the Bills signed Mario Williams. We figured there would be games like this, where the defense fought its heart out and tried to carry a pop-gun offense to victory.
But once again, when the game was on the line, the Bills weren’t up to the task. Houston dominated the fourth quarter, holding the ball for 11:29. The Bills threw short passes and hoped a big play might occur by some miraculous act.
Someone asked Gailey if he felt his team was hamstrung in its ability to throw the ball down the field and get yardage in big chunks.
Gailey stammered, then said, “No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t say that. I think we’re better underneath. I think that’s what our guys do better. So you try to let them do what they do best. But to keep them honest, you do have to go down the field.”
Keep them honest? Gailey sounds like a coach who has bought too deeply into his own myth, who is too wrapped up in schemes and matchups to see the obvious.
Nix was right about one thing. His head coach isn’t going anywhere. Right now, he’s running in place.