“The Bills are at a crossroads, whether Wilson admits it or not. He has a bad team, an inferior front office, an increasingly disaffected fan base, and no franchise quarterback. And now, at last, a vacant head-coaching position.”
At around noon Monday, I was tempted to simply recycle the old material, plug in new names and get an early start on New Year’s. I wrote the above paragraph in November of 2009, after the Bills fired Dick Jauron.
Not a lot has changed in three years, has it? Wilson promised big changes at the time. He waved his checkbook and said none of the big NFL names were off-limits. He would spare no expense in his effort to build a winning program and set a dysfunctional franchise back on the path to respectability.
Then they gave us Buddy Nix as general manager and Chan Gailey as coach. Three years later, after winning one-third of his games and stretching the streak of nonplayoff seasons to 13, Gailey is gone. As expected, he and his entire staff were relieved of their duties Monday morning.
Nix’s fate is up in the air. He should be shown the door, too. Nix hired Gailey and his weak defensive coordinators. He made Ryan Fitzpatrick a franchise quarterback without identifying a successor. But Wilson, who put great trust in Nix, might not want to fill both jobs again.
Gailey was a weary, defeated man in a brief address to the media after his dismissal. He betrayed no bitterness or anger. He didn’t lay blame. He understands it’s a business and he simply didn’t win enough. He was a gentleman to the end.
His voice breaking, Gailey thanked the “loyal, loyal” fans of Buffalo. I’m sure he felt that he had let them down. No doubt, he also felt he let down his friend, Nix, who gave him one last chance as a NFL head coach.
“This will probably be – and I say probably, but I think it will be – the first place that’s ever fired me that I’ll pull for,” Gailey said.
He can start by rooting for the Bills to find their franchise quarterback in the next draft. There are countless reasons for a 13-year playoff drought, but the failure to draft and develop a star at the game’s most important position is by far the biggest one.
Without a franchise quarterback, your chances of contention are slim in today’s NFL. Get one, and you can win right away. Half of this year’s playoff teams have rookie or second-year quarterbacks. Three rookies (Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson) led their teams to the playoffs.
The Bills, as usual, are behind the curve. Two of the second-year quarterbacks, Andy Dalton and Colin Kaepernick, were still on the board when the Bills made their second-round pick in the 2011 draft.
Fitzpatrick had his moments as the starter. He was a good guy and teammate, a tough leader. But he had glaring limitations as a passer. Fitz was one of those guys who are just good enough to get you beat.
The Bills are expected to cut Fitz, which will save them a $3 million roster bonus in March. His time is short and he must know that. Fitz brought his family onto the field an hour after Sunday’s game, as if he wanted to take one last look at the stadium where he had his finest hours as a pro.
Like Gailey, Fitz had a deep sense of gratitude to the Bills for giving him an opportunity he might not have gotten anywhere else. But his shortcomings helped bring down the coach who empowered him. There’s a reason they were 1-19 under Gailey against teams that finished with a winning record.
The Bills settled for a lower standard at the two most vital positions in the sport: coach and quarterback. Now they have to start all over again.
This is where I urge Ralph Wilson to stop hiring coaches on the cheap and shoot for the sky, as I did in ’09. But it won’t be easy to attract one of the big coaching names without a viable quarterback on the roster. There are enough drawbacks as it is – the town, the weather, the failing health of the owner, the fact they farm out one home game a year to Toronto.
Seven NFL head coaches, including Gailey, had been fired as of mid-afternoon Monday. Andy Reid and Lovie Smith have won consistently and made the Super Bowl. There’s the usual list of rising assistant coaches, which includes Denver’s Mike McCoy, Atlanta’s Dirk Koetter and Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer.
Let’s not forget our old pal, Perry Fewell, the Giants’ defensive boss.
The Bills’ job is a tad more attractive than it was three years ago. A new lease provides seven years of certainty. They have a solid offensive line, a dynamic running back in C.J. Spiller, an emerging star in cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and a physically gifted, if underachieving, defensive line.
Jon Gruden is going to get back into coaching before long. It would be great to have him in Buffalo. But Gruden would have his pick of head jobs. Why would he consider the Bills, unless he were trying to play them off against other teams the way Mike Shanahan did a few years back?
The same goes for Oregon’s Chip Kelly if you want to go into the college ranks. Kelly is an offensive innovator with fresh, exciting ideas. He’d be on the cutting edge in a rapidly evolving sport. Kelly could change the Bills’ dreary, repetitive culture. But he probably has no interest in coming here.
The Bills will probably be picking through the leftovers again. Remember, Nix and Gailey weren’t even on anyone’s radar when Wilson hired them three years ago. The owner grabbed Nix out of the back room because he “didn’t know” any of the young personnel men around the NFL.
Nix said Gailey was the perfect man to turn around the Bills – a proven offensive mind who had developed quarterbacks and had success as an NFL head coach, someone who wouldn’t have to learn on the job.
But in time, it was apparent that Gailey was over his head. He coached like a lost soul who was learning as he went along. The Bills have tried it both ways. They’ve hired unproven assistants and former head coaches. Old, young, defensive mind, offensive guru, it hasn’t made a difference.
They haven’t had a strong head coach since Marv Levy. It has been one unending maze of dysfunction, with the Hall of Fame owner in the middle. So here we are again, back at square one, wondering if they’ll ever get it right.
Little has changed since Jauron left. Actually, the record got worse. At this stage, why would a sensible person expect anything different? Three years later, it’s the same old thing. Only the year is new.