Is it talent, or is it coaching?
It's the age-old question that faces every team that struggles in any sport in any season, and the answer is different in each scenario.
Decisions made by Bills head coach Chan Gailey have been at the root of many of the Buffalo Bills' most crushing defeats this season, and that was the case once again on Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.
Among those decisions was the crazy string of events surrounding a confusing fourth-down scenario where the Bills were going to try a field goal and eventually ended up punting, as well as the decision to give running back C.J. Spiller just one carry for one yard in the final 15 minutes of regulation.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Here is a breakdown of some of Gailey's most puzzling decisions this year.
Lack of Faith in Rian Lindell
Ever since Bills kicker Rian Lindell went 2-of-5 from 50 yards or deeper in 2010, Gailey has shown almost no confidence in his kicker to hit anything from that range.
The 14-year veteran and 35-year-old kicker has tried just one kick from 50 or more yards in the past two seasons.
Gailey completely mismanaged a fourth-quarter situation where he had an opportunity to take an eight-point lead with a 52-yard field goal. On 4th-and-7 from the Rams' 34-yard line, Gailey sent the field goal unit onto the field, but that's when Gailey remembered a little line he heard in The Dark Knight:
Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. ...Introduce a little anarchy; upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos.
Here's Gailey's explanation of what happened, in his own words:
Yeah, we were not going to go for it there. The defense was playing good. We were going to try to pin them back. That was the reason. When they first told me when I first turned, they told me it was a 50-yard field goal instead of a 52-, 53-yard field goal. We had just dropped the snap on the extra point, so that is why I pulled them back out of there and said ‘Hey let’s let the defense try to keep them pinned back.'
Gailey's ultimate reasoning is that he didn't know the spot of the ball. As the head coach, that's frightening.
Perhaps not as frightening as the fact that the two-yard difference was enough to completely unravel Gailey's confidence in his kicker (or the holder, it's unclear because Gailey's good like that). But of course, nobody panics when things go according to plan, right? If the Buffalo defense holds, everything changes, right?
The same could be said of a similar late-game scenario against the Cardinals. First, the Bills' ultra-risky play-call of a Wildcat deep bomb from Brad Smith (more on that later) gave the Cardinals new life and allowed them to tie the game. Then, some ultra-conservative play-calling followed by a botched punt gave the Cardinals a chance to win on a late field goal, which Cardinals kicker Jay Feely missed.
Then, in overtime, Gailey opted to forgo a 53-yard field goal on 4th-and-10 from the Cardinals' 35-yard line (a false-start penalty on the punt pushed it back five yards). Bills safety Jairus Byrd made Gailey look like a genius that time, intercepting a John Skelton pass at Arizona's 35-yard line and giving Buffalo the ball at the 6-yard line.
The Bills ended up beating the Cardinals in overtime, even though Gailey's coaching decisions gave the Cardinals three chances to win the game.
I have a hard enough time understanding why the Bills were airing it out with their starting quarterback with 3:18 left in the game and nursing a three-point lead (we'll get to that later), but when they put Brad Smith back to throw, my reaction was similar to this reaction, from Billy Madison:
Replace the "said" with "did," "heard" with "seen," "rambling incoherent response" with "illogical play-call."
The play-call was bad, but the execution was even worse.
When the defense doesn't put a safety deep, taking a shot downfield is an understandable move in the middle of the game. With a three-point lead, though, all the Bills should have been worried about was maintaining possession of the football.
In that regard, Smith himself had an opportunity to save Gailey from the scrutiny.
He didn't have to pull the trigger on the throw to Donald Jones—Spiller was wide open in the flat.
Jones had no chance of winning his matchup with Cardinals cornerback William Gay, whose coverage was air-tight all the way through.
Even though it's one-on-one coverage, there are two men in the area of the pass, which essentially makes Jones double-covered the moment Smith releases the ball, with Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson peeling off the coverage on Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson and put his ball-hawk skills on display to make the interception.
Throwing the ball on 2nd-and-9 with a three-point lead and less than 4:00 left in the game would be easier to justify with the starting quarterback throwing the ball (he was 5-of-6 for 54 yards in the fourth quarter to that point), but with Smith throwing the ball, all logic goes out the window.
The Bills have gone to the Wildcat in some other dubious areas.
Another example came on 3rd-and-1 against the Dolphins, this time with Bills running back Tashard Choice acting as the quarterback. C.J. Spiller had just run the ball on first and second downs for four and five yards apiece. Thus, it's easy to see the logic behind switching to Tashard Choice in this situation.
Oh, it's not?
Well, the Dolphins didn't think so, either. In fact, they started out with eight men in the box, and once they saw it was Choice taking the snap, safety Reshad Jones crept up in the box as well. Nine defenders in the box. I wonder if the Dolphins knew it was coming.
With that, there are simply too many defenders in the area, and the Bills can't block them all. In fact, Jones creeping into the box was the straw that broke the offensive line's back in that regard, as he was the one who made the play by shooting the gap where Choice took the ball.
A change of pace is fine, but why send Choice in to take the snap? Isn't that what Brad Smith is for? Has Choice ever even taken a direct snap in a regular season game? If that's the case, why not send in Spiller, the better back and the hot hand?
All those questions are inconsequential. The Bills won the game, and this decision had nothing to do with the outcome, but the use of the Wildcat this year has been so inconsistent, misguided and ineffective that the Bills might be better off to do away with it entirely in their offense.
We finished the Wildcat section with a decision that had no effect on the outcome, but Gailey's decision to put the ball in Fitzpatrick's hands week in and week out has had an effect on the outcome of many of Buffalo's most bitter defeats this year.
Take, for instance, the game against the Indianapolis Colts. The Bills were trailing by seven points and had just forced a three-and-out on the Colts offense.
The Bills then proceeded to throw the ball nine times on their next 11 plays, one of which was a Fitzpatrick interception where Stevie Johnson knocked the ball loose and recovered.
I feel like this is a good time to mention that Ryan Fitzpatrick is 5-23 in fourth-quarter comeback situations.
They had run the ball for 135 yards on 23 carries to that point, but forgot all about their running game in the fourth quarter. C.J. Spiller didn't have a carry for the final 13:33 of the game. Because Fitzpatrick is not a deep passer, the Bills offense moved down the field slower than molasses and eventually had to punt from their 49-yard line with 3:32 remaining.
On the Bills' final offensive possession, which elapsed 5:59, they moved the ball 24 total yards.
It's not just limited to when they're trying to come back, though.
Take their game against the Tennessee Titans, for example. The Bills were nursing a six-point lead following a Fitzpatrick touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson in the third quarter. From there, the Bills called six pass plays and three runs before the Titans took the lead.
The last of those six passes was an interception on a pass that Fitzpatrick had no business throwing.
Fitzpatrick was trying to hit Donald Jones on a curl route at the sticks to convert a first down.
In the above frame, we can see why that was an awful decision from the start. The safety help over the top allowed for Titans cornerback Jason McCourty to read Fitzpatrick's eyes the whole way. The pressure was the icing on the cake, as Fitzpatrick threw the errant pass while he took a hit.
Try to wrap your head around this: Gailey has enough confidence in his 27th-ranked defense to forgo a 52-yard field goal and punt, but he doesn't have enough confidence in his seventh-ranked running game to milk the clock with less than four minutes to play.
Why so much confidence in a quarterback who is well below his own mediocre standards in late-game scenarios? Despite continued evidence that his confidence in Fitzpatrick is misplaced, Gailey has no problem putting the ball in the hands of his shaky quarterback instead of in the hands of his best offensive playmaker.
Which brings me to...
Continued misuse of C.J. Spiller has been a prime topic on the AFC East blog all season long.
One last movie reference: I find Gailey's lack of faith in Spiller disturbing.
Spiller is by far the Bills' best back in the fourth quarter, yet he has less than 27 percent of the team's fourth-quarter rushing attempts.
That ignorance has been costly for the Bills this year.
It has been especially costly in their closest games, where the Bills have had a chance to win but have stuck with the passing game in lieu of the league's top-ranked running back in YPA (6.6).
But it goes well beyond just the fourth quarter.
Spiller's misuse could be directly attributed to many of their late-game collapses, but it's hard to ignore the impact his under-use has had on their ability to win games.
When Spiller has 15 or more touches, the Bills are 4-3—not stellar, but not as awful as their 1-5 record when he has 14 or fewer touches.
The bottom line: Spiller is unquestionably the Bills' best offensive player and perhaps one of the five or 10 best running backs in the league right now, yet Gailey wouldn't let him carry his share of the load if his name were Atlas.
If the Bills ever want to maximize their roster, they need a head coach who isn't afraid to put the ball in the hands of his best players, even if that player is a running back.
No one of Gailey's coaching decisions this year has sealed his fate, but the evidence in Exhibit A (Spiller) alone is fireable. It's decisions like those, and the questions they have spawned, which have piled up over the course of the season, resulting in a stacked case against Gailey as the head coach.
Regardless, Bills fans may have to learn to live with Gailey for the foreseeable future, especially since general manager Buddy Nix doesn't appear to be backing off his vote of confidence for Gailey.
If they're unwilling to make the change, it looks like these coaching decisions are just something Bills fans will have to grow accustomed to.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand or via team press releases.