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Late, Late Shift
September 14, 2009
Buffalo became the third team to fire its offensive coordinator on the brink of the season. Can it work?
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September 14, 2009

Late, Late Shift

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

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

The design was methodical, floor by floor, player by player. Little could anyone have imagined that after all that meticulous work, coach Dick Jauron would take a wrecking ball to the structure before the season even began. Last Friday, just 10 days before the Bills' Monday Night Football opener at New England, Jauron fired the architect of the attack, Turk Schonert.

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

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

The dismissal of Schonert was surprising not only for the timing but also because Jauron replaced him with quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, a fourth-year assistant whose professional play-calling experience is limited to one year in NFL Europe, with Frankfurt in 2005. In both Kansas City and Tampa the men taking over the offenses have called plays before in the NFL. Haley, who has assumed Gailey's responsibilities, masterminded Arizona's 2008 high-scoring offense last year; Greg Olson, whom the Bucs promoted (he will retain his role as quarterbacks coach), called the shots for the Rams in parts of the 2006 and '07 seasons.

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

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

The 39-year-old Van Pelt is considered smart and cool under pressure. He started 11 games during 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, 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and had a passer rating of 76.4. His NFL statistics are oddly similar to those of the man directing his offense, Bills quarterback Trent Edwards, who in two seasons as the Buffalo starter has averaged 2,165 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions. Edwards, like his new coordinator, is analytical and efficient. Whether that kindred nature will translate into success on the field remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, however: If the Bills' offense doesn't click under Van Pelt, Jauron won't have to worry about changing coordinators again. He'll be joining Schonert in looking for a new job.

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