The more league observers study the state of the Bills and the Raiders, the more they realize how similar are the shortcomings that have consistently brought down these two proud-but-flawed AFC franchises in recent years.
Start with the coaching carousels that have at times spun out of control in both Buffalo and Oakland.
Last Wednesday, the Bills culminated a two-month search for a head coach to replace Dick Jauron, who had been fired in November, with the official unveiling of Chan Gailey as the 15th head coach in the franchise's history and fifth head coach in the last 10 years.
The 58-year-old Gailey, who had been out of football since being removed as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator two weeks before the season opener by new Kansas City head coach Todd Haley, signed a contract estimated to be worth $3 million a year (the same as Jauron was making) for at least four years, with the prospect of a lockout in 2011 said to have influenced the length of the deal.
In the meantime, across the country Al Davis was sending out mixed signals — again.
While ESPN reported that the Raiders had spoken with both Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh and former Raiders offensive coordinator and current CFL head coach Marc Trestman about possibly becoming the Raiders' sixth head coach in the last eight years, Raiders senior executive and primary Davis mouthpiece John Herrera emphatically denied the reports, calling them "totally untrue." Herrera said that Davis was instead focused on in-depth meetings, mostly via phone, with current Raiders head coach Tom Cable, who has been rumored to be on thin ice since the season ended three weeks ago.
Most league insiders believe Cable, whose record is 9-19 since replacing the fired Lane Kiffin four games into the 2008 season, has probably salvaged his job for another season. ESPN reported Sunday morning that Cable was headed to Mobile, Ala., for Senior Bowl week — a good sign that he would remain the head coach — but until there is official word out of Oakland, Cable will continue to officially twist in the wind.
Should Cable indeed be retained, however, long-term security will be in short supply, as he will have only one year left on his contract (there is reason to believe the league's uncertain labor situation could be keeping Davis from pulling the plug at present) — as well as a well-documented difference of opinion with Davis on former first round QB JaMarcus Russell, who was benched halfway through his third season after continuing to struggle more often than not.
Struggles in the standings have haunted both the Bills and Raiders for some time now. The Bills are coming off their fifth straight losing season and have failed to make the playoffs in the last 10 years, which ties them with the Lions for the longest active postseason drought. Oakland finished 5-11 in Cable's first full season as head coach, the Raiders' NFL-worst seventh straight season with at least 11 losses.
The consensus among a number of people PFW talked to about both teams is that the Bills and Raiders have inherent problems that will continue to bring them down, with perhaps the biggest problems being their well-meaning but out-of-touch Hall of Fame owners, Davis and Ralph Wilson Jr.
To Wilson's credit, he did appear to make a concerted effort to hire a heavy hitter to replace Jauron, making pitches to both Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan. But after all was said and done, with new GM Buddy Nix clumsily pulling the strings, the team opted for the nondescript Gailey, who has a decent résumé (he went 18-14 with two straight playoff appearances as the Cowboys head coach in 1998-99) but comes up way short on the buzz meter compared to most of the other so-called candidates for the Bills' job.
"Chan Gailey is a good coordinator, but what has he ever done as a head coach?" said one NFL personnel director. "He couldn't win big games at Georgia Tech. He could not get them over the hump. What led them to believe he will be able to do it in the pros? To me, it really just looks like two good ol' Southern boys (Nix and Gailey) riding out into retirement together."
Making even less of a positive impression than Gailey is Nix, who was promoted to the Bills' GM post on Dec. 31.
"How could the Bills turn the (GM) job over to a buffoon like Buddy Nix?" one league personnel evaluator said incredulously. "I couldn't believe how he handled himself (in the press conference announcing the hiring of Gailey as head coach). I took a look at the transcript after seeing highlights, and my mouth dropped. I don't care what he likes or doesn't like — you can't stand in front of the world and talk like that when you are a GM. Some of the words that were rolling off his tongue were really amazing to me."
(In trying to assure a questioner at the Gailey press conference that the Bills had an abundance of candidates who were interested in their head-coaching job, Nix said, "Don't ever think you can't fill coaching jobs, even if they're bad. Oakland gets a lot of calls. Don't say I said that.")
Added another personnel evaluator: "The way the Bills are doing things is just beyond me. At some point they have to acknowledge it's not working. They have not been to the playoffs in 10 years. It was the owner's call to put Nix in place. I think (recently promoted Bills CEO) Russ Brandon is happy to get out of the way of the mess that is coming.
"They put Buddy Nix in place so Russ Brandon can control him. Brandon gained more power through this move - and he is technically out of the football side."
It should be noted that the Bills made another move shortly after hiring Gailey that was applauded around the league — parting ways with VP of player personnel John Guy, whose contract was up this spring.
Despite his very spotty record, Guy was retained when Marv Levy took over as general manager in 2006 and managed to stay employed, even adding a VP title in 2008 when Levy stepped down and Brandon was elevated to chief operating officer. Though it's unclear how much influence Guy had in making final personnel decisions under Jim Overdorf, the team's VP of football administration, the Bills' 2007 free-agent class was a particular bust, with three offensive linemen who had signed for more than $75 million combined (OG Derrick Dockery, OT Langston Walker and backup Jason Whittle) turning out to be big-time failures.
In Oakland, meanwhile, Davis continues to rule the roost in rouge-like fashion, sticking to his guns in terms of personnel, despite the fact the Raiders have shot as many, if not more, blanks as the Bills.
"Al's biggest problem is that he has not realized how much money has changed the game," said one league executive. "And he keeps throwing boatloads of money at players who cannot handle the trappings of success — Russell, Javon Walker, Terdell Sands, Tommy Kelly, DeAngelo Hall. It's a who's who of turds.
"In sharp contrast, the highest-paid players in New England and Indianapolis are strong leaders — Tom Brady, Dan Koppen, Ty Warren, Wes Welker — even Randy Moss (a leader in his own way, and Davis' coaches ironically could not get it out of him). In Indy, it's (Peyton) Manning, (Dwight) Freeney, (Dallas) Clark, Bob Sanders, Reggie Wayne, Ryan Diem."
However, league observers believe a much bigger problem in Oakland is Davis' unyielding but ill-founded faith in Russell under center.
"He does not get it — never has, never will," said one league personnel exec of Russell, who was drafted with the first overall pick in the 2007 draft out of LSU. "His work ethic and preparation for the game are awful. He's not a leader. He does not inspire confidence. He was talking about retiring in the locker room as soon as he signed his contract. He's in it for the money, not to win a championship.
"Al Davis fired his player programs director during the season and has tried to bring in people who can give Russell the guidance he so desperately needs. But he really is a lost cause. It was a very expensive mistake to make. Al's problem is that he will not relinquish control of personnel. It was a big problem with (former Raiders head coach) Jon Gruden, and it was a problem with Lane Kiffin, who fought hard against drafting JaMarcus Russell. But Al is stuck in his ways."
The Raiders' QB concerns are no less daunting than those of the Bills, who have had 10 different starting quarterbacks play at least one game since 1997, including three this past year (Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm).
"To me, Trent Edwards, going back to when he was coming out of college, always had difficulty staying healthy a full season," said one personnel executive. "That was the biggest criticism, and nothing has changed in the pros. But you have to look at the revolving door on the offensive line last year before blaming it all on Edwards. The last two years, with Jason Peters holding out two years ago and coming into the season grossly out of shape, the protection has not been what it should be."
In Gailey's defense, his track record in terms of shoring up NFL offenses is decent. Gailey, who plans on calling Buffalo's plays next season, has coached offenses that made the playoffs in 11 of his 14 NFL seasons (he was a special-teams and defensive assistant in one other NFL season). He has had success with the likes of John Elway in Denver, Troy Aikman in Dallas, Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh (where he came up with the "Slash" concept) and even Jay Fiedler in Miami.
But just like Cable, whose job is made more difficult by having to deal with Davis, Gailey must overcome a meddling owner in Wilson.
"The one commonality in both places is an aging owner who keeps interfering too much," said one league personnel evaluator. "Ralph Wilson continually butts his nose in the football operation and tells the team who to draft. He did it with (RB) Marshawn Lynch and many others when he knows the team has a need.
"The inability of Wilson or Davis to entrust good football people to research, evaluate and make the right decisions on their own is what has kept both teams mired in mediocrity."
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