Back on January 19, the Buffalo Bills, led by new GM Buddy Nix, hired Chan Gailey as the team's new head coach. The move was met with reactions ranging anywhere from yawns to outrage, as only 24% of the Buffalo Rumblings community approved of the hire when it was announced.
In the months since that hire, Gailey has scored a few brownie points with Buffalo's fan base, though he still has, and will likely always have, his naysayers. He's taken a hard-line approach with a certain disgruntled Bills running back, has had excellent participation at his off-season workouts, has drawn praise from current and former Bills, and has helped to orchestrate an overhaul of the team's much-maligned strength and conditioning program.
Still, these are minor gains, and Bills fans are not fools. What Gailey has accomplished to date has brought about, at absolute best, cautious, highly muted optimism regarding the future of this organization under his watch. Real progress won't be made until the games are played, and given what has transpired over the past several years, Gailey has a lot of work to do.
Gailey replaces Dick Jauron, perhaps the most universally despised head coach in the history of this organization. In order to engender progress for this franchise, Gailey must overcome many of the ills that plagued the Jauron Era in Buffalo. He's got "offensive improvement" in the bag already; the rest of those demons might prove more difficult to conquer.
Performance in big games
Jauron coached Buffalo for three-and-a-half seasons, making it through 57 games at the helm of the team en route to a 24-33 overall record from 2006 through November of 2009. There are some interesting facts to keep in mind when (briefly, for the sake of your sanity) recalling the Jauron era.
First and foremost, his teams were dreadful in games against eventual playoff teams. Buffalo played 20 such games while Jauron was head coach, and won just four of those matchups. That 4-16 record over four seasons against the league's best teams prevented the Bills - 7-9 in each of Jauron's first three seasons - from ascending to playoff contender status out of the mediocre middle of the league.
The Bills also weren't good enough in divisional games under Jauron. In those 57 games, Jauron's Bills played 21 intra-division matchups, going 8-13 in the process. That 8-13 mark includes a lovely 0-7 against the bane of Buffalo's existence for the past decade, the New England Patriots.
Simply saying that Gailey must win these types of games is easy to do, yet it's tough to expect it, given the state of Buffalo's latest re-build. It won't happen immediately, but there will come a point within the next two or perhaps three years where the Bills stockpile talent, answer a lot of their bigger roster questions, and seem primed for playoff contention. It happened under Jauron; it'll happen for Gailey, too. When it does, it's absolutely critical that Gailey get his team to perform in these games; Jauron couldn't do it.
Avoiding the leap from the plateau
Buffalo has a ton of progress to make under Gailey. For now, expectations should be that the Bills get their individual players better, gel as a team, and make progress - if only incremental - on the field of play. Call it a slightly-upward-trending plateau, if you will.
Jauron knows that plateau well. He started off at the high end of the plateau, as his '06 Bills, expected to be one of the worst teams in the league, surprised some folks with a 7-9 finish that included a 5-2 stretch that briefly put the Bills in the playoff hunt. The team overachieved again in '07 as they transitioned quarterbacks, and appeared to have reached the end of the plateau, ready to climb the proverbial mountain, at the start of the '08 season.
Gailey will reach that point with this team. When he does, he can't replicate the massive failures that Jauron's Bills endured.
When Jauron's Bills reached that point - exactly two-thirds of the way through Jauron's ill-fated Bills coaching career - the team was 19-19 under Jauron's watch. They still hadn't beaten New England, obviously, but had still managed a respectable 7-5 record in divisional matchups. Sitting at 5-1 on the young '08 season, the Bills were definitely on the upswing. It's hard to believe, in retrospect, that the Bills were sitting at an even .500 that deep into Jauron's career.
Then the tough games started to crop up, and Jauron's team folded like a tent. After that 5-1 start in '08, the Bills went 5-14 through the rest of Jauron's Bills coaching days, which included an abysmal 1-8 stretch in divisional matchups. When the team was on the verge of finally emerging from the doldrums of the NFL, at the first sign of adversity, Jauron lost his team. The final stretch of his Bills career can speak to nothing else.
Gailey will reach that point, even if he doesn't get there in precisely the same fashion, where his team has the look of putting it all together. He'll have to keep his troops rallied and confident once adversity hits at that point; Jauron couldn't, and it cost him, and this organization, dearly.
Avoiding the injury bug
Injuries are simply part of the game of football, but Jauron's most fervent critics will point out that the Bills incurred inordinate amounts of season-ending injuries under Jauron's watch. It's tough to expect Gailey to control something that is, for the most part, uncontrollable, but the new head coach is certainly giving it a shot.
Buffalo had high volumes of players land on Injured Reserve with Jauron at the helm, but in many cases, the team was placing bit or role players onto their season-ending list. The volume of injuries are something that Gailey and his new strength and conditioning program are working to curb; all it'll take is a little luck to succeed.
But it was the loss of key contributors that really hurt Jauron's cause. In 2006, it was starting guard Chris Villarrial and starting safety Troy Vincent. In 2007, the catastrophic spine injury Kevin Everett suffered overshadowed the key losses of Paul Posluszny, Ko Simpson, Jason Webster and Kiwaukee Thomas. The following season - arguably his best and worst season, simultaneously, with the team - it was Aaron Schobel and James Hardy that went down to injury. A year ago, the injuries hit a fever pitch, with Jairus Byrd, Eric Wood, Demetrius Bell, Brad Butler, Derek Schouman and Kawika Mitchell all landing on IR, among others.
In this particular area, as mentioned, Gailey just needs better luck than Jauron got. That's not excusing Jauron's performance; it's excusing the injuries that unquestionably hindered his opportunity to "make it" as Buffalo's head coach. The injury arena is where luck ends. Getting his team over the plateau and reaching that first big climb out of the league's cellar, uniting the team at that point in time, and performing well in big games, divisional or otherwise - these are areas where coaching skill will win out. If Gailey's teams can't perform in those inevitable circumstances, nothing will have changed for this franchise long-term.