By JOHN WAWROW, AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) In taking over as the Buffalo Bills new head coach, Chan Gailey’s first challenge is addressing a lingering problem: Identifying a starting quarterback.
Vowing to conduct a thorough evaluation, Gailey provided a noncommittal response by saying it’s too early to make a decision. But he made clear that it’s a discussion he’s already begun with general manager Buddy Nix.
“It’s unfair for me to sit here and say what’s going to happen,” Gailey said, shortly after being hired on Tuesday. “I would be talking off the cuff, and that’s the quickest way to get in trouble.”
Trouble and quarterback have gone hand in hand in Buffalo, where Gailey is presented with the same quandary his predecessors faced since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired following the 1996 season.
Ever since, the Bills’ failure to land a franchise quarterback is partly the reason why the team’s gone 10 straight years without a playoff berth, and had only one winning season during that span.
The question is whether the Bills even have a capable starter currently on their roster after Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm failed to provide a spark to a sputtering offense during this season’s 6-10 finish.
“I know both guys have had some success playing in the NFL,” Gailey said, referring to Edwards and Fitzpatrick. “But they have not done it for a length of time with consistency. So can they? We’re going to decide that.”
One option for the Bills might come in April, when they open the draft with the No. 9 selection.
Edwards lost the starting job midway through the season after going 1-5 in games he had a majority of playing time. Fitzpatrick had a better record, going 5-4, but didn’t do much to improve an offense that ranked 30th in the NFL.
Brohm struggled in his only start, and is considered a project. He’s a 2008 second-round draft pick the Bills signed off Green Bay’s practice squad in November.
Enter Gailey, who was hired because of his offensive expertise and reputation for getting the most out of an offense no matter who’s starting. He’s succeeded with John Elway in Denver, and Troy Aikman in Dallas, as well as Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh, where Gailey came up with “The Slash” offensive.
And Gailey even got production out of Jay Fiedler in Miami in 2000 and 01, when the Dolphins went 11-5 both seasons.
“He’s run everything from the wishbone when he was in college, he’s run the wildcat,” former Broncos coach Dan Reeves said. “He’s coached all different kinds of quarterbacks. I think he takes the skills that those players have and gives them an opportunity to be the best they can.”
Fixing the Bills offense, however, won’t be easy.
And everyone from Kelly to Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian agrees that Buffalo’s quarterback problem has held the team back.
“The one thing you have to do in this league is have a quarterback,” said Polian, the Bills former general manager, who spoke prior to the Colts season finale at Buffalo. “And they (the Bills) haven’t had one you could hang your hat on.”
From Todd Collins in 1997 to Fitzpatrick, who closed this past season as the starter, the Bills have had 10 quarterbacks start at least one game since Kelly’s retirement. It’s a list that includes a first-round draft pick (J.P. Losman), journeymen (such as Kelly Holcomb) and a longtime backup (Alex Van Pelt).
Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie were the last two starters to lead the team to the playoffs in 2000. An aging Drew Bledsoe, who was acquired in trade with New England in 2002, had the most success and the longest tenure, going three years as starter.
“You’re not going to make it far if you don’t have a good quarterback.” Kelly said recently.
The key, Kelly said, is for Gailey and Nix to find not just the best quarterback, but one capable of playing in Buffalo’s harsh climate.
“You don’t need a big-name quarterback, you need a quarterback who could play, period,” Kelly said. “It’s doing your homework, sitting down with whomever it might be, and having it in your mind: `Will this guy fit in Buffalo, New York,’ not somewhere in the NFL, but Buffalo.”