The third and final installment
On the eve of the 2012 season opener against the New York Jets, the city of Buffalo and the Western New York area in general were in an uproar of anticipation. What looked like an unimposing schedule and a vastly improved defense were at the forefront of a team that looked destined to enter the postseason for the first time since the Clinton Administration. The game kicked off a little after 1:00PM and the end result would usher in the beginning of the end.
Circle back a little more than four months prior to the opener to April 27th at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. One day before the Buffalo Bills nabbed the best player on the board and filled a major need at corner with South Carolina product Stephon Gilmore. With their second pick Nix again hit a home run with Georgia offensive tackle/guard Cordy Glenn (who was projected by many to be a top 20 pick). What looked to have the promise of being one of the best team drafts in recent history fell apart at the seams with their third round pick. The Bills traded up two spots to the number 6th pick in the third and it looked like they were set to finally pick a developmental quarterback in either Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson, Arizona’s Nick Foles or Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins. The Bills front office and Gailey were rumored to be very interested in Wilson and Cousins, interviewing both during the combine and attending each pro day. Instead of investing a third rounder on a QB they could groom for at least a season or two, Nix and Gailey pulled the trigger on NC State wide receiver/kick returner T.J. Graham.
Graham was considered by many to be a 5th round talent at best and both Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay had him tabbed as a 7th rounder. Wilson on the other hand had thoroughly impressed scouts with his combine and pro day workouts and along with Cousins, was one of the stars of the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL. Alas, Nix felt Wilson was a reach in the third. He was drafted by the Seahawks six picks later and led them to the playoffs as the full time starter this season.
For the third year in a row the Nix and Gailey neglected to take a “chance” on a quarterback (do not bring up Levi Brown, he doesn’t count) and would once again enter a season with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm.
Fast forward back to the opener in the Meadowlands. The Bills were out of the game in the first quarter, after Fitzpatrick squandered an early turnover and gift wrapped a pick to Darrelle Revis on the ensuing drive. The Jets put up 21 unanswered on their way to a 48-28 romp of the “upstart” Bills. With that, the Bills once promising 2012 season was over before it even began.
For those looking for an easy answer to what went wrong with the 2012 season, and for most of Gailey’s tenure for that matter, there is one, but it’s probably not the one that comes to mind first. You can blame the majority of it on Gailey’s inability to adjust his game plan to feature one of the most explosive players in the league in C.J. Spiller. His game management in crucial situations was atrocious and his overwhelming preference to put games in the hand of his quarterback instead of his superstar running back was incomprehensible. He punted the ball from opponents’ 34 yard lines instead of giving Rian Lindell a chance to try 50 yard field goals. He called draw plays and screen plays inside of a minute at the end of halves and games when he should’ve had his quarterback looking downfield towards the end zone for a big play. He didn’t put his trust in his playmakers like Spiller and Stevie Johnson.
In the end Gailey’s career with the Bills can be summed up in that one word: trust. Instead of putting his trust in the likes of Spiller, Johnson and even Bob D’Alessandris, he put it in Ryan Fitzpatrick, Dave Wannstedt and Buddy Nix. Is one more responsible for Gailey’s ultimate demise than the other? Sure, but which one? The easiest answer would be Fitzpatrick. His questionable accuracy, subpar arm strength and mind-numbing decision making drove the majority of the Bills’ struggles. Gailey’s undying faith in a quarterback who showed flashes of brilliance during a seven game stretch in 2011 and very little prior or since, was a major reason for his ultimate fate but was it the key factor?
Why not put the blame on Gailey’s trust in his former colleague Wannstedt? The stash hadn’t seen significant defensive success since his days as the Cowboys defensive coordinator in the early 90′s. Heading coaching stints in Chicago, Miami and Pittsburgh (at the college level) produced little to nothing in terms of significance since. Still, Gailey hired him as his assistant head coach in 2011 and gave him the reigns of a defense that was supposed to climb to the top of the league in 2012. His outdated schemes and inability to motivate a defensive corps loaded with talent was evident from the outset of the season however. His $100 million defensive end was owned by an undrafted right tackle, his secondary was burned by one of the worst receiving corps in the league and his defense was shredded by (arguably) the worst quarterback in the league. His unit showed glimpses of being competent for stretches but never came close to becoming the dominant force they were expected to be.
In the end the real blame for Gailey’s inevitable fate, lies with his trust for the man that gave him another shot in the NFL. It’s the quintessential paradox, the entity that gives you life, has the power to take it away. It was widely understood when Nix took over he had the final say in personnel decisions. As much as you’d love to believe a head coach has a meaningful say in the players that end up on his team, in this case Nix was the deciding factor. If you really want to understand what went wrong over the last three years, simply look at Nix. His first draft with the team could’ve redefined the look and perception of this organization. Instead he passed on the likes of Gronkowski, Washington, Bowman and Graham to take an enormous chance on relative unknowns in Troup and Carrington. From that draft class they found only one significant contributor in Spiller. The next two classes would seal Gailey’s fate. Sure they found some talent with Dareus, Gilmore and Glenn but missed out on drafting the most important piece of the puzzle. Dalton, Kaepernick, Wilson and Cousins were hardly household names when they were drafted but all four more than warranted a second or third round pick respectively when the Bills had a chance to call their names in New York City. All four are heading to the postseason this year with Cousins being the only non-starter.
Nix’s inability to draft more than a few difference makers and his stubbornness on “not reaching” for a quarterback ultimately doomed Gailey. Sure, the now former head coach can’t come out of this without his share of the blame but the decisions made by Nix in his three drafts with the team thus far have left the future of this organization still very much in doubt. With Gailey out of the picture and names like Ken Wisenhunt, Lovie Smith and Chip Kelly being thrown around as his successor there should be plenty of optimism amongst the fan base. Nix’s presence and new President and CEO Russ Brandon’s trust in his GM shouldn’t be overlooked however. Let’s just hope that another man’s trust doesn’t cost the Western New York community for another three years.