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Is Chan the Man or Just another Tragic-Comic Character in the Buffalo Bills’ Lack of a Plan?

Posted on December 11, 2010 by John Wingspread Howell

Is it still too early to decide if Chan Gailey is the right man to turn around the Bills?

One thing about Chan Gailey in Buffalo is certain. Paradox. Irony. He’s definitely playing against type. Think of the three great former Bills coaches: Saban, Knox, and Levy. They were articulate, sophisticated, all business.

Enter Chan Gailey, strong Texan-Southern accent, informal, grandfatherly, stumbles over his words not infrequently. When he sits down at a post-game press conference and tells you how badly he feels for his players because they tried so hard, you definitely get the grandfatherly feeling.

We Yankees (as in anyone who isn’t from the South or Texas/Oklahoma) tend to discount people with a southern accent. We write off the folksy informality as not smart or at least not serious.

And of course we Bills fans had our hopes of getting a high profile coach fed by Bills owner Ralph Wilson offering $10 million to Mike Shanahan, and were completely let down in the anti-climax of Gailey’s hiring.

But now that we’ve had sufficient exposure to Chan Gailey, what’s the verdict? Is he our coach because the price was right for Wilson, still perceived as a cheapskate despite the lip service paid to winning? Or is Gailey truly the right man for the terrible job of coaching the Buffalo Bills back to respectability?

I reserve the right to adjust or reverse my position at the end of the season, but for now, I’m arguing the latter.

There are several things about Gailey that have won my admiration, and that suggest he and Buffalo were meant for each other.

• The Mad Scientist: Gailey is a chemist. He is able to get unexpected reactions from the combination of unlikely elements. He has one of the league’s least talented teams from a standpoint of raw talent, but he has coached them up to competitiveness far above the value of the sum of the parts. If Gailey worked for Al Quieda, the underwear bomb would have blown up the plane, not just burned crotch. I’m guessing Gailey’s also a pretty good cook. Probably makes a gumbo to die for.

• The Brilliant General: Gailey shows signs of strategic talent that border on the Parsellsesque. Give him two quarters and he can decode your game plan and pick it apart. It reminds me of the way Parsells broke down the K-Gun in the wide-right fiasco. Opponents have to keep watching their backs because a normally insurmountable lead is not safe once Gailey figures things out. If Gailey had been the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 60’s the U.S. would have won the Viet Nam War. You probably don’t want to play poker with him either.

• The plain speaker: Bottom line, you have to win the games. Gailey knows it. He doesn’t try to put any spin on it. He tells the players, tells the fans, that he gets it. “In the end, you have to win the game.” He’d probably be a decent priest or therapist, also. Confess your sins. Take responsibility for your shortcomings. Understand there is a relationship between cause and effect. Accept it. Learn from it. Now go do better next time.

• The comforter: There is a place for empathy, even in coaching, even at the highest levels. There is a sense in which Chan Gailey’s “Aw shucks, I feel so bad for these players. They played so hard and almost won,” is just what his overachieving players need. Certainly not as a steady diet, and not as the only response they get from him, but he has an uncanny ability to keep his players motivated, to keep them from quitting, by recognizing the value of their effort, even when it isn’t consistent with the quality of their execution.  If Gailey has grand-kids, I’m sure they love him.

• The winner: Before coming to Buffalo, every program Gailey has been a part of has been a winner. In his only previous experience as a head coach in the NFL his Cowboys went to the playoffs. Gailey has proven himself in the past as a winner. If Bills fans are patient, I think he’ll prove it again.

Some hoped that Bill Cowher would coach the Bills, but it doesn't seem like he would have been a good fit in Buffalo.

Unlike Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden, Mike Shanahan and the rest of the putative franchise savers who paraded across the dreams and best hopes of Bills fans as long as the coaching job was open, Chan Gailey is perhaps the one person you want to have coaching your underdog team, in your underdog town. He comes without pretense. He comes without any Super Bowl rings. If he’s the genius I think he is, somewhere underneath that folksy personality, there is a deep hunger that only winning the ultimate prize will satiate.

Gailey has shown he can break down his opponents game plan and ambush them just when they are far enough ahead and the game is far enough along for them to start getting just a little bit confident, a little less vigilant than they should be. He has shown he can take a seventh round Ivy leaguer like Ryan Fitzpatrick and make a leader and a quarterback out of him. He can use his apparent telepathy with Fitzpatrick to make them both more effective than they might be apart. But he can do the same thing with other players, such as Roscoe Parish, who despite his ill-fated injury, has shown he can be a weapon in Gailey’s arsenal.

Gailey expects to win, and would ask, what else is there but winning. He doesn’t expect any pity or any slack if in due time his team doesn’t win. He also doesn’t expect to get to that point. You can see it in him. He knows this team will win. When it doesn’t he’s surprised and angry, but unbowed in his faith in his ability to get the team to a win. He expects to win no matter who is playing for him. All of that earns him brownie points in most Buffalo neighborhoods and with underdog fans the world over.

His ultimate success depends on getting some better players. He may not need as many as some of us would suspect, and they may not need to be as good as some of us would hope, but he does need a few more pieces to complete a puzzle that when fully constituted is the Lombardi Trophy.

Can Chan Gailey get a Super Bowl win for Buffalo when Levy couldn’t? Can he get it with players like Fitz and Jackson when players like Kelly and Thomas couldn’t? I don’t know, but here’s the thing about Buffalo. When things go well, it is usually not according to someone’s grand plan. It’s usually the fortunate execution of a plan B or plan C by someone we all underestimated.

It may be that a team as good as Levy’s teams were, is not the kind of team the stars would ever align with in a place like Buffalo. It may be too much of a paradox in a bootstrap kind of town for a team stacked with talent and glitz to live up to its potential. It may be that a team of misfits and no-names cobbled together by an NFL version of Andy Griffith is the kind of team it will take to win it all in Buffalo. I don’t know if Gailey’s the man, but I’m pretty sure it will be someone like him, and not Bill Cowher.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I did write a column during the search calling for Cowher to coach the Bills, but I’ve changed my mind about that).

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