A Discussion Of Chan Gailey's Buffalo Bills Offense

May 11, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey watches players during rookie mini camp at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-US PRESSWIRE

In the latest of a series of posts in which I address questions submitted by readers, a young man named Ben asked the following question (or, more accurately, simply made an observation) earlier this week: "Mr. G, I think a post describing the offense that Chan Gailey runs would be very interesting."

I would tend to agree, of course; hence this post. But describing any NFL offense is not a particularly easy feat, let alone the Buffalo Bills offense that Gailey has installed over the last two-plus years. But hey, it's June, and we're positively made of time right now. It can't hurt to try to cram the essence of an entire pro football offense into one blog post, right?

After the jump, I've tried to break down my observations and opinions of Gailey's offense into three main components: space, disguise and niches. (Warning: this is a very long post, and the prototype for why things like Instapaper exist.)

SPACE

Whenever Gailey's offense is discussed in more general terms, the word "spread" is often referenced. Yes, Gailey's passing offense uses a lot of spread concepts with multiple receivers, but that's only part of the bigger truth: his entire offense begins with the need for space.

Gailey himself has mentioned that the design of his offense is meant to stretch the field horizontally, i.e. from sideline to sideline. The team also made an effort to improve their personnel to help them stretch the field vertically, as well, in the form of speedy wide receivers T.J. Graham and David Clowney.

This concept is not remotely unique to Gailey, because, well, any football player in any offense at any level is going to need space to operate. The more space, the better - and Gailey's offense, along with many other much higher-octane offenses in the NFL and in college, utilize spread concepts to maximize the amount of space that skill players have to operate in.

The base theory of Gailey's Bills offense is simple: get players into space, get them the ball, and let them do what they do best. As such, his running offense is zone-based and prominently features shotgun formations, traps and weak-side runs, while his passing offense is highly reliant on shorter throws, screen passes, and the ability for receivers to pick up yardage after the catch. Power runs? Play-action? Seven-step drops, deep throws and brute physicality? You're far less likely to find them here than in more traditional offensive systems.

DISGUISE

The word is a bit of a misnomer, but only because it applies to a specific portion of Gailey's offense - everything that happens in the minute or so between snaps.

It's helped me tremendously to think of Gailey's offense as a sort of inverted pyramid, which journalism students use to prioritize the importance of facts in writing a news story (in a nutshell: important facts first, filler later). The concept is applicable to anything, really; in this case, I think of the top level (the level with the most breadth) as personnel packages, the middle level as formations and motions, and the bottom level (the "smallest" group, for lack of a better term) as actual play calls.

Maybe this will be simpler for some: Gailey's offense is complex only in the sense that it uses a variety of different personnel groupings, formations and motions to execute the same play calls. Without having direct access to the playbook, I'm willing to bet that more so than any other playbook you're likely to find, there's a higher ratio of "how many different ways can we run this one play" than in other systems. In short: lots of formations and motions, lots of personnel groupings, not as many actual plays.

It all starts with personnel groupings, and it's there where the most demanding aspect of Gailey's offense lies: players need to know the responsibilities of multiple roles on a given play call, and be able to execute those assignments on game day. That's especially true at receiver, where - as an example - the rookie Graham is currently learning four different positions.

The versatility borne of this demand of Gailey's allows the team flexibility in running several different formations with the same personnel group. This helps them better disguise their intentions, as Gailey's offense is largely a "bread and butter" offense - they run what they're good at, try a few new things once in a while, and eliminate what they're not good at. His offense is simple in its execution, but is also constantly evolving.

As a quick aside before we get into the third category: this is a good spot to talk about the offensive line, as well. Their role in the passing offense is fairly straight-forward (don't let Ryan Fitzpatrick get sacked), so we'll ignore that; in the run game, you'll often see guards and centers pulling - along with trapping tight ends and receivers - to generate creases in the running game. It's a zone-blocking scheme, and the Bills feature two running backs that are either not very big (C.J. Spiller), or are able to "get skinny" in the hole (Fred Jackson). The sheer size of the line - especially the tackles - helps disguise some play execution, to an extent, in the running game. (As an example: if Spiller is running to the right, sometimes it's just flat-out difficult for defenders to see him until he's run by Erik Pears.)

This may explain the team's preference for mass rather than athleticism in the players it's acquired. For the record, however, three of the Bills' projected starting linemen (Cordy Glenn, Andy Levitre and Eric Wood) are all very mobile players, and Gailey has taken good advantage of said mobility with Levitre and Wood in the run game.

NICHES

We'll get into why I believe Gailey's offense has evolved to the point where niches are crucial in a bit. For now, the bigger point is this: in terms of personnel, Gailey is highly reliant on niches, which can be broken down into roles first and specialists second.

When Buffalo's offense has been at its best under Gailey, it's been operating out of a three-receiver, one-tight end and one-back set. This coming season, that five-man personnel package could feature, for example: Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, David Nelson, Scott Chandler and Fred Jackson.

Gailey has leaned heavily on two types of receiving roles: "outside" guys (i.e. split ends and flankers) and "inside" guys (i.e. slot receivers and tight ends). This personnel grouping has worked out well largely because the two "inside" guys - Nelson and Chandler - are highly interchangeable, and thus help disguise some play calls. (They're also decent blockers, which helps Gailey design blocking schemes to aid the line.) The team appears to be heading toward a similar situation with outside receivers, where Johnson, Jones and Derek Hagan can all be moved around (i.e. play both outside, but also sneak inside on occasion). Assuming that Jones and Hagan can contribute consistently, this will allow the team to put Johnson in more positions to make plays out of the slot, where he is explosive.

A big question mark that I've harped on all off-season can be applied to "roles," as well: so far, we haven't seen a Gailey offense that features two prominent running back roles. Will he be able to mold two roles to accommodate two starting-level backs in Jackson or Spiller, or will the two backs have to, essentially, split one role?

Roles leave cracks, however, and Gailey fills them in with specialists. On occasion, the team will need a blocking specialist, so he'll call on either fullback Corey McIntyre or tight end Lee Smith. The team signed free agent Brad Smith with the idea of building an entirely new Wildcat package around him - and when they were actually able to use it in 2011, it provided a useful additional wrinkle to the offense. As we speak, the team is trying out street free agent Dorin Dickerson in an H-Back role that the team has apparently been looking to experiment with.

The idea of niches would seem to contradict the idea of disguise: if a player is asked to know multiple roles in the playbook, how can a player like Nelson, for example, be shoe-horned into one specific role? The answer is fairly simple: as much as he can, Gailey gets the ball to his skill players in positions where he knows they'll excel. Everything else is window dressing, disguised to increase the efficiency of the offense by a) having everyone on the same page, and b) disguising intent.

Why has Gailey's offense evolved with such a high reliance on niches? I believe it comes down to the organization's philosophy that a competitive offense can be fielded without sacrificing large resources (whereas, on defense, they clearly believe that to keep up with the modern offense, you need to spend high-quality resources on exceptional athletes). Take a look at the skill players that are expected to be prominently featured this year, and how they were acquired:

  • QB Ryan Fitzpatrick: inherited from previous regime (former Round 7 pick)
  • RB Fred Jackson: inherited (former undrafted free agent)
  • RB C.J. Spiller: Round 1 pick
  • WR Stevie Johnson: inherited (former Round 7 pick)
  • WR David Nelson: undrafted free agent
  • WR Donald Jones: undrafted free agent
  • WR Derek Hagan: street free agent
  • TE Scott Chandler: street free agent

That's not to say that the Bills are averse to putting resources into the offense, of course. Fitzpatrick, Johnson and Jackson have all gotten lucrative contract extensions from the team, and Spiller was a Top 10 pick. Right now, however, the team's top-level personnel dictates that Gailey work his offense in this fashion. If he were still fortunate enough to coach Calvin Johnson - a guy that can't be stopped no matter how ill-disguised a play is - I'm certain the offense would look different.

Whew. If you made it down here, you're a trooper. While I go contemplate my future with carpal tunnel, leave your comments below, and I'll return at some point to answer anyone's questions. One last reminder: keep in mind that this is just my interpretation of Gailey's offense. I'd be interested in hearing anyone else's, as well!

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