No one except Chan Gailey knows why he set off at the end of practice to lecture a handful of teenage hecklers, but whatever it was, good for him.
Gailey was on the 19th and last day of his first training camp as head coach of the still-woeful Bills. Not much was going his way. His quarterback problem hasn't sorted itself out and two of the three running backs he's counting on to overhaul an anemic offense are nursing injuries. And for all the emphasis Gailey put on fundamentals, his players couldn't even break the huddle Tuesday to his satisfaction.
Worse still, it's not like the first-year coach has a lot of capital to burn. Most of the people in town wanted Mike Shanahan, but he chose Washington instead. As one more reminder of that, another star from Buffalo's salad day used the occasion of a charity golf tournament hosted by former quarterbacking great Jim Kelly to question why Gailey was hired in the first place.
"They bring in a coach no one really knows," defensive tackle Fred Smerlas said. "When you're playing against (New England coach) Bill Belichick, who makes $10 million a year, I'm not putting Chan Gailey in there. I'm not putting a cat against a lion."
But for one day, at least, Gailey did a little bit of roaring.
After wrapping up a brief talk to his team, he wandered over to the railing in the St. John Fisher College stadium where some kids were mocking incumbent quarterback Trent Edwards for everything from failing to lock up the starting job to his haircut and California roots.
Everything Gailey said to the handful of hecklers can't be repeated here, but since he's a temperate sort, a summary is more than sufficient. He told them not to expect any autographs from the players.
"If you say something derogatory to one of us, you're saying it to all of us. So I told them," Gailey explained afterward, "don't go sign it for that crew."
Who knows what an autograph from Trent Edwards — or any of the Bills for that matter — is worth these days, but that's beside the point. While it's true that fans foot the bill, we're not talking about a game, as Allen Iverson once said memorably, we're talking about practice. And other than $1 to cover the cost of the bus ride from the parking lot to the field, practice is free.
You'd think Gailey was used to getting yelled at, and you'd be right. He's been an NFL assistant on and off for 25 years and his only previous experience as a pro head coach was in Dallas, working for bombastic owner Jerry Jones. Bad as they've been — Buffalo is tied with Detroit for the league's longest playoff drought — the Bills have heard their share of howling, too — all of it deserved.
Fans, on the other hand, haven't heard much beyond promises from the Bills for most of the past decade. They've gone through eight quarterbacks, six coaches and five general managers over that stretch; so if nothing else, Gailey deserves credit for showing more signs of life before the season even began than his last full-time predecessor, Dick Jauron, did in three years.
"Obviously, I hope there's more people praising me," Edwards said. "But that's nice that you have a coach that will fight for you. We obviously have fans that want to win. I definitely want to win. And they're more than willing to say what they need."
Even the short list would include a defense that's better against the run and an offense that scores on occasion. The Bills scored a touchdown or less in 10 games, which explains in part how they lost five times after entering the final quarter with the lead or tied.
Whether Gailey can do anything about either of those problems remains to be seen. Buffalo opens the regular season against Miami — possibly its best chance to win among the half-dozen tough opponents lining up for the early part of the schedule.
If the Bills haven't cashed in any of their chances by then, at least the heckling they got at practice will turn out to be good preparation. Buffalo's fans are notoriously loyal, though, and as Gailey walked away from the group of hecklers Tuesday, a voice was heard in the background calling out, "You tell 'em coach! Yeah. You tell 'em!"
Somehow, though, it's hard to imagine that will be the last word.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org