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Shan or Chan: In Sports as in War, We’re Always Fighting the Last Battle

Posted on December 18, 2010 by John Wingspread Howell

Neither Chan Gailey or Ryan Fitzpatrick was the first choice of Buffalo fans, but they could end up being the right fits.

Here in Buffalo, Monday morning quarterbacking has become the dominant sport, since what happens on the gridiron and on the ice isn’t close to what it used to be in this town. The big fear, especially where the Bills are concerned, is that it won’t be like that again.

I define “Monday morning quarterbacking” broadly for purposes of this discussion, to include prescribing and second guessing personnel decisions as well as game day decisions. Once the woebegone era of Dick Jauron finally ended, there was a flurry of wishful speculation about somehow acquiring a marquis coach and a marquis quarterback. When the dust all settled and we had Chan Gailey as our coach and nobody new as our quarterback, the “nabobs of negativism,” to quote Spiro Agnew, were burning up the airwaves and the blogosphere.

How quickly things change. Today I saw a tweet that said, “Remember when we wanted Mike Shanahan as a coach and Donovan McNabb as our quarterback?”

And there you have it. When a crisis comes, we humans are always inclined to fight the last war, whether it is literal war, or the symbolic kind waged in arenas. Truth is, if we were to analyze the success rate of big name coaches or players reborn or recycled in new venues, especially when the new assignment is a losing franchise, it is more bust than boom. Even the big Tuna, Bill Parcells couldn’t match his New England success in Dallas and couldn’t match his lesser Dallas success in Miami.

The problem—or opportunity, depending on how you see it—is, that most of the best coaches in the NFL come up through the coordinator ranks. More often than not they have been the understudy to a great coach, but not always.

And not all of the best coordinators, regardless of how good their mentors have been, have been great coaches. Buffalo has certainly had their share of good coordinators bomb out only to succeed again as coordinators after leaving their Buffalo disaster. Case in point Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey.

The prospect is no better for quarterbacks. Jeff Garcia couldn’t reprise his San Francisco role and is now playing in the UFL. Even Brett Favre has been a bust for two of his three post-Packer years.

It’s hard to say why this tends to be the case. Perhaps there is less hunger once the mountain has been scaled, despite the challenge of doing it again somewhere else, against greater odds. Or perhaps it’s just that the success of a certain coach or player can’t be replicated when detached from the chemistry of the successful organization.

Thus, the most important hire any sports franchise can make is the General Manager and the scouting staff. The key to building and maintaining a competitive team is the ability to judge caterpillars on their inner butterfly. There must be certain qualities of a coordinator that lend themselves to head coaching success, and others that foretell the fulfillment of the Peter Principle.

We all know of scouting organizations that continuously find the pearl among the undrafted. The same talents need to be applied to coaches as well.

As I said in my previous column about Chan Gailey, it appears that Gailey may be a good find from obscurity. It is possible he is the best person for the Bills right now. And it certainly appears that his ability to bring the most out of his players is a fortunate coincidence for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. (I saw another tweet today comparing Fitzpatrick’s performance this season versus his run in Cincinnati filling in for Carson Palmer, showing dramatic improvement over his previous personal best).

Bills fans were grousing about not getting a Shanahan or Cowher, and not getting a quarterback at all, but now we can see that Shanahan and McNabb are less successful than the Bills have been during Fitz’s run.

On the other hand, when a few called for the Bills to acquire Michael Vick were shouted down by those decrying his ability as a quarterback, putting him in the Tim Tebow can’t-throw category. We all know how Vick’s career has taken off.

Whether in our choices or our rejections, it seems that we are doomed to fight the last war unless we pinch ourselves any time the temptation creeps in.

Gailey may or may not be the answer to Buffalo’s coaching needs and Fitz may or may not be the quarterback of the near future at least, but one thing is almost certain and that is if it isn’t Chan and Fitz, we don’t have a clue who it will be, because the caterpillar is yet to fly. We can only hope that someone in the Bills front office, either by luck or by skill, is able to find them before we’re all too old to enjoy it.


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