Chan Gailey and Doug Marrone: A Comparison of Buffalo Bills Head Coaches

To be honest, it’s been far too long since I sat down to truly write about the Buffalo Bills. So long that I wasn’t even sure what to write about. So I turned to the man who offered me this opportunity for guidance, Del Reid. We talked about a comparison piece between the last Bills head coach, Chan Gailey, and the newest man to patrol the sidelines, Doug Marrone.

The similarities between Chan Gailey and Doug Marrone end quickly.
The similarities between Chan Gailey and Doug Marrone end quickly.

The similarities between Coach Gailey and Coach Marrone are mostly on the surface level. Both men come with a background as offensive-minded men. Both men spent time in the NFL as assistants on the offensive side of the ball and as offensive coordinators. They both also have experience running up-tempo offenses.

However, that’s where the similarities end. Under Coach Gailey, the Bills threw the ball more often than they ran the ball (much to the chagrin of Bills fans, especially last season). At Syracuse, Coach Marrone and his offensive coordinator Nate Hackett ran the ball more than fifty percent of the time, even with an up-tempo offense. This should fix one serious issue from last season, the mismanagement of the Bills’ best player on offense, running back CJ Spiller. No more getting pulled because of being “winded.”

The inclusion of offensive coordinator in that paragraph is not a throw-away, either. Under Coach Gailey, the Bills had an offensive coordinator (Curtis Modkins, in case you forgot) but Gailey handled all the play-calling duties. Not surprisingly, when Coach Marrone was hired, the question on everyone’s mind was if he would be doing the same. He made quite sure to distance himself from that possibility, so Bills fans should not fear about their head coach being distracted from the game as a whole by just the offensive side of the ball.

Both coaches differ in how they handle the wide receiver position on two key points. Coach Gailey wanted all the receivers to learn every position they could line up before they saw extended action. That philosophy was crystallized in how TJ Graham was handled as a rookie last season. The problem with trying to have every receiver learn every position they could line up at is two-fold. That means the time it takes for a player to see the field is longer, usually unnecessarily. Obviously you want players to be able to step in when injuries occur.

But that possibility shouldn’t hold a player back from seeing the field if he can play one position well. It’s one thing if he simply isn’t ready to play against NFL defenses. It’s another thing entirely if that player hasn’t learned how to effectively play from the slot if he is a great fit for the flanker position.

(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Gailey’s insistence on receivers learning every position didn’t always work out as well as intended. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The other problem with forcing players to learn multiple positions at wide receiver is that occasionally players will get overwhelmed and make mistakes. That was the most apparent at the end of the first New England Patriots game. The Bills were poised to take the lead with under thirty seconds to go in the game when the aforementioned TJ Graham ran the wrong route and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a game-ending interception. Graham wasn’t the only one at fault on the play. Fitzpatrick should have seen the defender in position and looked for another receiver.

But Coach Gailey should never have put a green rookie in that position in the first place. Too many positions, too many routes, and too many plays being thrown at Graham led to him being in the wrong place.

Coach Marrone and his offensive coordinator simply want the five best skill position players on the field at all times. So if a wide receiver can play really well when lining up from one position on the field, then he will be on the field. Which leads us to the second difference between the two coaches on wide receivers.

Coach Gailey relied on one really good receiver in Stevie Johnson and a collection of other receivers who had been in his system long enough to be able to line up at multiple spots on the field. Don’t get me wrong, I loved David Nelson while he was here. He had the potential to be a matchup nightmare out of the slot. However, he was not the most athletically gifted player to grace the field.

Under Coach Gailey, it seemed that the complexity of his scheme and his desire for the receivers to learn all those positions prevented an influx of talent. The Bills drafted two wide receivers during his tenure, Marcus Easley in the fourth round and Graham in the third round.

The Bills have only had one draft with Coach Marrone in the fold, but they have already drafted as many receivers as they did during the entirety of Gailey’s time. The Bills selected Robert Woods in the second round and Marquise Goodwin in the third. The evidence suggests that Marrone wants to add talent everywhere he can and that the talent level at the receiver position was found lacking.

The last difference is perhaps the most important. Coach Gailey spoke about winning the Super Bowl in terms of that’s what everyone is trying to do. He never came across as passionate about that pursuit when he spoke. Perhaps that’s why the team seemed to struggle at times staying focused.

"It feels like Coach Marrone has a better grasp of the importance in vision to achieving his goals."
“It feels like Coach Marrone has a better grasp of the importance in vision to achieving his goals.”

One of the first things Coach Marrone did when he took over was change the interior of the fieldhouse at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the main practice facility for the team. He had the AFL championship banners, AFC championship banners and images of the Vince Lombardi Trophy put up. Visual reminders of a vision are effective ways of communicating that vision.

I have been reading a book called Put Your Dream To The Test by John Maxwell. He speaks about the importance of vision in achieving your dreams. He quotes Mike Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson Inc, who says “If you have a clear vision, you will eventually attract the right strategy. If you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you.” Too often under Coach Gailey, it felt like the Bills were looking for the perfect strategy to get them to the playoffs and the Super Bowl.

It feels like Coach Marrone has a better grasp of the importance in vision to achieving his goals. He has spoken multiple times before the start of training camp practices about making the playoffs. He has posted images of his goals for everyone to see. And the players are responding. On the offensive side of the ball, both CJ Spiller and Stevie Johnson spoke at camp check-in about making the playoffs this season.

No one in the media has given the Bills any chance of making the playoffs. Thankfully they have no say in the matter. If Coach Marrone can get every player on the roster to buy into his vision of making the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl, that belief can aid in the team getting through tough points and emerging victorious. The running joke for so many years has been “The Bills- snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” Perhaps it’s because the head coach hasn’t inspired his team that they can make the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.

It’s understandable that players would have a hard time buying in. The playoff drought is well-documented. No Lombardi Trophies in team history. But sometimes all it takes is for one person to have a clear vision of where he wants the team to be and to convince everyone to buy in. Based off of player comments so far, Coach Doug Marrone is getting players to buy in. It’s still way too early to tell though. Once the win/loss column has meaning is when we Bills fans can tell if Marrone is all talk. But there is no doubt that the man has a lot of passion for the job, which the Bills have been sorely lacking for years.

Maybe that’s what this team has been missing. Belief and passion. Coach Chan Gailey spoke of those things during his three years. Marrone seems to speak with them. What appears on paper to be a small difference may just be the driving force of change for the Buffalo Bills.

About Jeremy Pike

Jeremy is a life-long Bills fan thanks to his dad, whom he continues to love talking about football with to this day. He graduated from SUNY College at Brockport and currently resides in Sodus, NY with his wife and two children. He is an independent consultant with Arbonne and dreams of owning his own radio station.