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Chan Gailey, Quarterback Whisperer?

The Jets coaching staff underwent a significant overhaul this offseason, headlined by the hiring of head coach Todd Bowles. For any defensive-minded head coach, the most important hire is his offensive coordinator. Here, Bowles tapped veteran coach Chan Gailey as the man responsible for reviving the Jets offense and, perhaps, the career of Geno Smith.

Gailey has been lauded as a quarterback whisperer based on… well, let’s just take a look and see exactly what that is based on. Because when it comes to new Jets offensive coordinators, it’s best to actually study the numbers and not just listen to hype.

The table below shows Gailey’s coaching career in the NFL as either a quarterbacks coach, offensive coordinator, or head coach. I have listed his main quarterback during each applicable season of his coaching career, along with that player’s Relative Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. For new readers, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt is simply a modification of yards per attempt, with a 45-yard penalty for interceptions, a 20-yard bonus for passing touchdowns; in addition, this metric includes sack data. Relative ANY/A compares a quarterback’s Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt average to league average. As it turns out, Gailey’s quarterbacks have produced, on average, at about a league average clip:

YearTeamCoaching TitleMain QBRANY/A
1988Denver BroncosQuarterbacksJohn Elway-0.16
1989Denver BroncosOffensive Coordinator/ReceiversJohn Elway-0.14
1990Denver BroncosOffensive Coordinator/ReceiversJohn Elway0.00
1996Pittsburgh SteelersOffensive CoordinatorMike Tomczak0.13
1997Pittsburgh SteelersOffensive CoordinatorKordell Stewart0.32
1998Dallas CowboysHead CoachTroy Aikman1.75
1999Dallas CowboysHead CoachTroy Aikman0.53
2000Miami DolphinsOffensive CoordinatorJay Fiedler-0.15
2001Miami DolphinsOffensive CoordinatorJay Fiedler0.38
2008Kansas City ChiefsOffensive CoordinatorTyler Thigpen-0.62
2010Buffalo BillsHead CoachRyan Fitzpatrick-0.06
2011Buffalo BillsHead CoachRyan Fitzpatrick-0.61
2012Buffalo BillsHead CoachRyan Fitzpatrick-0.33

When your quarterback tree has John Elway and Tyler Thigpen branches, looking at just averages won’t tell us much. So let’s look at how each quarterback fared during his career, both with, and without, Gailey. Let’s begin with Elway. For all of the following graphs, the Gailey years are in red, and the non-Gailey years are in blue. The size of each circle corresponds to that quarterback’s number of attempts that season. The X-axis always displays the year, and the Y-Axis always displays Relative ANY/A.

John Elway

Elway Gailey

We know Elway had a funky career curve, peaking in his late thirties as his supporting cast and coaching improved. The Elway years certainly don’t cast Gailey in a positive light — he had a HOF quarterback in the prime of his career and got average numbers out of him — but then again, this was 25 years ago, and probably says little about Gailey the coach now.

Mike Tomczak

Gailey was next in charge of an NFL offense six years later in Pittsburgh. Tomczak had a funky career, and some lower-attempt seasons caused his RANY/A numbers to bounce up and down. During his one year with Gailey, he played about how you would expect Tomczak to play, regardless of his offensive coordinator.

Tomczak Gailey

Kordell Stewart

Kordell is the first name you hear when stories of Gailey’s coaching prowess are told. Gailey coached Stewart for just one season — but it was a magical one in many ways. Stewart was a first-year starter in 1997, and led the NFL with four 4th quarter comebacks and five game-winning drives. He threw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns, while also rushing for 476 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was the first player to throw for 20 TDs and run for 10 TDs in the same season, and it’s only been done once since (by Cam Newton in 2011). Pittsburgh went 11-5 and made it to the AFC Championship Game, and Stewart looked like a special player who had been emerged under Gailey’s guidance.

That said, in retrospect and based purely on RANY/A — which, of course, ignores Stewart’s rushing contributions — it was not a standout season, even by Stewart’s standards.

Kordell Gailey

Kordell did struggle the next three years without Gailey — although the talent also eroded around him — but had a career revival in 2001. His offensive coordinator then? Mike Mularkey.

Troy Aikman

Gailey was the head coach of the Cowboys as the team’s dynasty was falling apart. But his quarterback, who had declined the past couple of years, saw his numbers spike back up under Gailey. Aikman was never his old self, but he does seem to be a positive data point for the Gailey whisperer crowd.

Aikman Gailey

Jay Fiedler

After being fired in Dallas, Gailey took over as the offensive coordinator in Miami. His work with Fielder has been praised, but… well, I’ll let you decide.
Fiedler Gailey

Fiedler was an unknown before Gailey, and the pro-Gailey argument would be that the coach coaxed solid play out of an undrafted free agent from Dartmouth. The anti-Gailey argument would be that Fiedler with Gailey looked a whole lot like Fiedler without him, and the quarterback was a seasoned and well-coached 28-year-old when he arrived in Miami. It’s also worth noting that Fiedler’s non-Gailey years came under Norv Turner, another respected offensive mind, so perhaps Fiedler’s baseline isn’t the right standard here.

Fiedler was not particularly efficienct, and his record was better than his metrics. That’s because he was aided by an excellent defense, allowing Gailey to limit what was asked of his quarterback. That’s probably his formula for 2015, too.

Tyler Thigpen

No Chan Gailey, Quarterback Whisperer article is complete without talking about what Gailey did in 2008. Frankly, this part of Gailey’s history has always mystified me. No, Tyler Thigpen was not any good, but what exactly are we praising? Thigpen went 1-10 as a starter, and put up below-league average numbers. He did produce close to league-average numbers, and that’s noteworthy given that he was probably a replacement-level talent, but the praise for what Gailey did with Thigpen has always seemed disproportionate to me.

Thigpen Gailey

The other reason “What Gailey did with Thigpen was amazing” is a thing is because Thigpen did have one very hot month. From October 26th to November 23rd, Thigpen threw for 1,185 yards, 11 TDs, and 3 INTs (and the Chiefs went 0-5). Those are pretty outstanding numbers, and Gailey actually was tied for the league lead in passing touchdowns during that stretch. But he “only” ranked 11th in AY/A during those same five games, and it can’t be ignored that he also ranked 25th in AY/A during his next five games that season. And lest anyone forget that five-game splits can be deceiving, see who topped the list in AY/A over the final five weeks of ’08. Gailey was innovative with Thigpen, putting him in the pistol and running a pass-heavy offense, and he probably got more out of Thigpen than anyone else could have. But I think it makes sense to err on the side of not overly praising the offensive coordinator during the year his team went 2-14 and ranked 26th in points.

Ryan Fitzpatrick

Cut from the Fiedler/Thigpen mold, Fitzpatrick is another example of a player with a limited pedigree that Gailey inherited (and, ironically, Fitzpatrick is being reunited with Gailey on the 2015 Jets). Here, was can see that Gailey really did improve Fitzpatrick’s level of play — well, at least it looked like he did. Fitzpatrick’s sneakily-efficient 2014 season throws some cold water on what Gailey was able to get out of the Harvard quarterback.

Fitzpatrick Gailey

So what does it mean?

Is Gailey a quarterback whisperer? He’s been stuck with some bad or unconventional quarterbacks, and gotten limited (but perhaps more than expected) success out of most of them. Whether that is more impressive than getting excellent results out of a better passer is outside the scope of this article. But it does seem like Gailey may be the right man for the job, if that job is coaching Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

  • Adam

    What are your thoughts on Brian Schottenheimer in retrospect? He took a ton of criticism, but his QB was Mark Sanchez.

    • McGeorge

      Sanchez was dreadful with Rex and the Jets, but serviceable with the Eagles.
      On the one hand, the Jets receivers weren’t that good, and got worse over time, (That’s Tannenbaum and Rex), at the same time they didn’t design an offense to take advantage of what he could do. I put the blame on Rex and Shottenheimer.

      Shottenheimer didn’t do well in St. Louis either.

  • Richie

    Chan Gailey can coach any QB to be about league average, whether it’s Jay Fiedler or John Elway.

    For what it’s worth, all of the non-HOF QB’s in that list achieved their career high in AV with Gailey. So maybe part of his QB Whisperer reputation comes from the volume stats these guys put up under Gailey.

    (Is this comment section showing up on the right side of the screen for anybody else?)

    • Topher Doll

      Comments are broken for me too

  • Jason Greenberg

    Chase, great article. Like many Jet fans I have the following questions:

    1) What caused Fitzpatrick to make the jump in 2014? Could it be a combination of having learned from Gailey and having some talent surrounding him in Houston? I hope so!

    2) Gailey already favors Geno Smith even though Fitz is coming off his best year, and Geno his worst. Why?

    3) I understand that Geno has a higher ceiling and a lower floor than Fitz, but with such a good D, shouldn’t the Jets be taking a conservative approach to their offense?

    Personally I am tired of seeing the Jets play conservatively on offense, and therefore I like this plan of catering to Geno’s comfort level and supplying him with surrounding talent. Still I wonder how much of Geno’s past failures can attributed to the offensive dysfunction of the former Jets coaching staff as opposed to Geno’s own tendencies of holding on to the ball too long, not knowing when to run, not seeing open receivers, and getting fooled by defenders who jump out in front. Are those weaknesses fixable within a new system?

    • George

      1) Likely a combination of what you said, with the major additional factor that he only played 12 games and one was an absolute outlier against the Titans.

      2) Gailey will be looking at film not stats. Any NFL coach would and should have the confidence to believe they can get more out of the taller, younger, faster, stronger armed quarterback with the more polished motion and at least as good pocket awareness. Also when you’re projecting the future it’s hard to call a season that ended with a broken leg someone’s “best.”

      3) They probably will. One of the stats to watch this season is the race to the bottom of the passing volume list. Wilson has occupied that spot the last two seasons, with Tony Romo closing in on him last year and having a great season. Browns and Jets coaches realise that their QBs should be throwing less than those guys and have aimed to build their rosters in a mould that allows that. It also explains why the Chargers invested a first round pick in a running back, the Raiders strengthened their depth behind Murray and the Eagles paid big money to have an all star backfield.

      “Are those weaknesses fixable within a new system?”

      Obviously nobody knows, but there are a couple of reasons to be optimistic: Smith is a young man, and a young man’s brain continues grow up until his mid-20s which, combined with another year’s experience should cut down on his mental errors. He has had awful weapons both of his seasons in the NFL, and now he doesn’t. He won’t be a hall of famer, but he can do pretty well.

      • Jason Greenberg

        Thanks George. It has been a while since I have been this optimistic about the Jets. They have made some sound decisions this off-season, and I especially like how they approached pressing the reset button from the top down with Maccagnan. From there I really like how the Jets added the best available depth so that their starters can play to their strengths.

        At QB there really weren’t any options better than Geno Smith, so they went with Gailey to bring out his best, and added Marshall and Devin Smith to open things up. I am excited to see if it will work. Unlike some, I agree with you that Geno Smith has the potential to succeed.

  • jtr

    I wonder how effective it is to hire a pure QB guy for your OC or HC position. If you really think that Chan Gailey or Bill O’Brien brings most of his value to the team by coaching up your quarterbacks, aren’t you somewhat undermining that when you give him a job with a lot more responsibilities than that? It doesn’t make sense to bring in Chan Gailey because you think he’s going to be great for Geno Smith and then have him spend most of his time putting together playbooks, scouting opposing defenses, breaking down practice tape of all 11 offensive players, etc.
    I would imagine that these guys often get higher positions than they necessarily excel at through a combination of the Peter Principle and the fact that coaches are more likely to choose your team if you offer a higher position. I wonder if these teams wouldn’t be best served by giving a QB guy a prestigious-sounding title like Assistant Head Coach and then putting them to work on just the QBs if that’s what they’re great at. For a guy really hung up on titles you might even make the guy Offensive Coordinator and then have the Special Offensive Assistant or whatever do all the real non-QB OC work.

  • Anthony

    Everybody keeps focusing on the QBs, and not much else. Yancy Thigpen went for 1300 yards twice in Pittsburgh. Jerome Bettis is going the the HOF based largely on 4 good years (93,96,97,01) two of which coincide with Chan Gailey. Fred Jackson, Stevie Johnson were basically no name players who reached their peaks with Gailey. CJ Spiller saw a brief period when he was the most elusive back in football largely because of the scheme work Gailey did, to make him successful.

    The degree to which QB’s get credit for succeeding is clearly an overstatement. What is clear however is Gaileys ability to get the most from underwhelming talent and weave it into a functional NFL offense.