Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Bills, who finished fourth in the AFC East (6-10).
Biggest problem in 2009: The Invisible Quarterback Syndrome
When the Buffalo Bills selected Clemson running back C.J. Spiller(notes) with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, fan reaction was decidedly mixed. On one hand, Spiller's playmaking ability projected to help a desperately underachieving Bills offense. But the primary reason for that underachievement, the lack of a franchise quarterback, was not addressed until the seventh round of the draft (Levi Brown). Not only did the Bills pass on potential pro signal-callers like Jimmy Clausen(notes), Colt McCoy(notes), and Tim Tebow(notes), they also eschewed the opportunities for veterans Donovan McNabb(notes) and Jason Campbell(notes). Curious decisions, given the plug-in nature of those free-agent patch jobs to a passing game that scared nobody in 2009.
Last season, the Bills were "led" statistically by Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes), a Harvard grad who has never thrown more touchdowns than interceptions in any one season in his four-year career. Trent Edwards(notes), king of the check downs, had just two of his 183 pass attempts travel more than 40 yards in the air last season. Brian Brohm(notes), the former Louisville star signed from Green Bay's practice squad, has as good a chance to grab the starting job as anyone, a fact that new head coach Chan Gailey recently confirmed.
"There's not a first or a third right now," Gailey told the Buffalo News in early May. "That's the situation. We're going to go to camp with it being an open deal. If you say that, then it's got to be. You can't just say it and then get to camp and you already got your mind made up or you stack it up a different way. To me, anybody has a chance to win the job right now. That's really the way it is. It's not just lip service."
To those unfamiliar with Gailey's history, it's worth wondering what the new regime is thinking. But Gailey's got a history of taking forgettable quarterbacks and putting them in very favorable situations.
The 2010 solution: Use the Pistol formation for immediate success
In 2008, Gailey was serving as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator, and he had a major problem. Injuries had taken quarterbacks Brodie Croyle(notes) and Damon Huard(notes) off the roster, and by the season's halfway point, he was faced with going through the rest of the season with third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen(notes) as his starter. Drafted in the seventh round by the Vikings in the 2007 draft, Thigpen didn't make the cut in Minnesota and drifted onto the bottom of Kansas City's depth chart. Gailey, who had enjoyed success in Pittsburgh by using Kordell Stewart's athletic gifts in option situations to mitigate his drawbacks as a pure passer, went back to the well and came up with a different option: The Pistol formation.
Conceived by Chris Ault of the Nevada Wolfpack, the Pistol is a great hybrid of the spread offense sets that have taken the college game by storm, and the more power-based, blocking-friendly formations that are required with some consistency in the NFL. It's a modified, shorter shotgun formation (hence the name), with the quarterback lined up about three yards behind center and the halfback a couple more yards behind the quarterback. Gailey gave Thigpen the advantages he was used to with Coastal Carolina's spread offense, but used the Pistol to add play action and extra-blocking options. Over his last 10 games in 2008, Thigpen completed 192 passes in 330 attempts for 2,216 yards, 16 touchdowns and only eight interceptions.
When Todd Haley was hired as the Chiefs' new head coach in 2009, Gailey was asked to move on, and Thigpen was eventually traded to the Dolphins. The timing of that trade was no coincidence – Miami had drafted Pat White(notes) to add passing flexibility to its Wildcat package, but White was struggling. Soon after Thigpen came aboard, White was running the Pistol and making progress. With Gailey now the head man in Buffalo, Thigpen's been rumored to land in Bills country.
If the Bills do run the Pistol, here's an interesting example (illustration) of what it might look like. On the first play of the Chiefs' Week 13 win over the Raiders in 2008, Thigpen took the ball out of the Pistol with a couple of interesting wrinkles – an H-back motioning to an offset-I, and tight end Tony Gonzalez(notes) (88) lined up wide. At the snap, the fullback stayed in to block the blitzing linebacker, the weak-side receivers ran combo routes out of Twins Tight, the halfback headed straight upfield for a quick read, and Gonzalez got open past the press-cover cornerback and the deep safety. Thigpen hit Gonzalez for a gain of 16 yards.
Thigpen shares one thing with all of Buffalo's current quarterbacks: He's not exactly a Pro Bowler on the surface. He's an undersized guy with an underwhelming arm who nonetheless benefitted greatly from Gailey's offensive concepts. He was then able to take what he learned and help the Dolphins. It's a risky bet for Gailey to assume once again that his playbook will trump overall lack of talent at the game's most important position. However, if any coach can pull it off, he'd be the one.
- Chan Gailey