Late, Late Shift

Buffalo became the third team to fire its offensive coordinator on the brink of the season. Can it work?
September 13, 2009

The Bills put ontheir hard hats last spring and set out to reconstruct an offense that in eachof the past four seasons ranked 25th or worse in total yards and 23rd or worsein scoring. After locking up Pro Bowl--caliber wide receiver Lee Evans with afour-year, $37.3 million extension the previous October, the Bills signedattention magnet Terrell Owens to put fans in the stands and keep NFLsecondaries on their heels. Then they expanded the role of all-terrain runningback Fred Jackson and installed a no-huddle attack aimed at dictating the paceof the game and limiting the opposing defense's ability to switchpersonnel.

The design wasmethodical, floor by floor, player by player. Little could anyone have imaginedthat after all that meticulous work, coach Dick Jauron would take a wreckingball to the structure before the season even began. Last Friday, just 10 daysbefore the Bills' Monday Night Football opener at New England, Jauron fired thearchitect of the attack, Turk Schonert.

Stunningly,Schonert was the third NFL offensive coordinator axed in five days: On Aug. 31the Chiefs relieved Chan Gailey of his duties, and last Thursday the Buccaneerslet Jeff Jagodzinski go. It's all but unprecedented for even one high-levelassistant to be fired so late in the preseason, never mind three.

Explanationsvaried. Kansas City coach Todd Haley cited philosophical and schematicdifferences with Gailey (who was retained in part because Haley, the Cardinals'offensive coordinator last season, had been hired after the Super Bowl, whenmany top assistants were already off the market). Sources say Jagodzinski wasin over his head in Tampa, struggling with details of the job such as givingthe right formation for the play he'd called. In Buffalo, Jauron said he madethe move because of the feeble performance of the no-huddle offense during thepreseason. In 15 possessions the starters scored only one field goal, turnedthe ball over five times and allowed five sacks.

The dismissal ofSchonert was surprising not only for the timing but also because Jauronreplaced him with quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, a fourth-year assistantwhose professional play-calling experience is limited to one year in NFLEurope, with Frankfurt in 2005. In both Kansas City and Tampa the men takingover the offenses have called plays before in the NFL. Haley, who has assumedGailey's responsibilities, masterminded Arizona's 2008 high-scoring offenselast year; Greg Olson, whom the Bucs promoted (he will retain his role asquarterbacks coach), called the shots for the Rams in parts of the 2006 and '07seasons.

Van Pelt, incontrast, spent the past two seasons as an offensive quality-control assistant,breaking down tape of opponents, working on that week's game plan and updatingthe playbook. "You don't take a guy and try to train him on the job, not ifyou want to keep your job," one longtime personnel man said. "Peoplethink calling plays is easy, but when you've got that responsibility and youhave about 10 seconds to make the decision, you better know what you'redoing."

Van Pelt's successor failure could come down to how he operates during those first 10 seconds ofthe play clock. That's the period in which coaches are permitted to radio theplay in to the quarterback. Van Pelt must quickly take into consideration downand distance, field position, personnel packages, defensive tendencies andmyriad other factors that go into a single play call, then relay it to theQB.

The 39-year-oldVan Pelt is considered smart and cool under pressure. He started 11 gamesduring a 10-year NFL career, the final nine of which were spent with Buffalo.In his only significant playing time, in 2001, he threw for 2,056 yards, 12touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and had a passer rating of 76.4. His NFLstatistics are oddly similar to those of the man directing his offense, Billsquarterback Trent Edwards, who in two seasons as the Buffalo starter hasaveraged 2,165 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. Edwards, like hisnew coordinator, is analytical and efficient. Whether that kindred nature willtranslate into success on the field remains to be seen.

One thing iscertain, however: If the Bills' offense doesn't click under Van Pelt, Jauronwon't have to worry about changing coordinators again. He'll be joiningSchonert in looking for a new job.

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PHOTOKEVIN HOFFMAN/US PRESSWIRE (EDWARDS)COLLARED BILL Edwards, who couldn't get going in Schonert's system, must gel quickly with Van Pelt (below). PHOTODAVID DUPREY/AP (VAN PELT)[See caption above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)