It was always easy to root for Alex Van Pelt. He grew up in Pittsburgh and broke Dan Marino's passing records at Pitt, but once he settled in as the Bills' backup quarterback, he began to seem like one of us, like a real Buffalo guy.
Van Pelt looked like a regular guy, which helped. You tend to root for athletes who could pass for sportswriters. He was short and pudgy, the "Pillsbury Doughboy", or "Pill" for short. But he was football smart and tough, with a good arm, and hung around the NFL for a decade.
If Van Pelt had been 6-foot-4, with a classic quarterback's physique, he could have been a star in the league. You never worried when the Bills put him on the field. He acted as if he belonged. Back in 2001, he caddied for Rob Johnson and served as a friend and mentor. But when he got his chance later that season, it was clear that Van Pelt was better.
He made quick decisions. The ball came out his hand quickly. Van Pelt didn't take sacks, and he wasn't afraid to throw the ball down the field. He expected to make the big throw. Despite his stature, he had the mentality of a gunslinger, a playmaker. He believed in himself, and got the most out of his ability.
Now, at 39, Van Pelt will be asked to do the same for Trent Edwards. Barely one week before the opener in New England, the Bills have made him the offensive coordinator. It's a lot to ask.
When Van Pelt joined Jauron's staff as a quality control coach in the spring of '06, I said he would make a fine offensive coordinator one day. I didn't expect the day to arrive so soon, that's all.
Jauron has tossed Van Pelt the keys to the offense, which is sitting up on blocks in the garage, and told him to get it fine-tuned in a week. No sweat. Get the no-huddle up to speed, prepare a game plan for Bill Belichick, and while you're at it, see what you can do to boost Edwards' sagging confidence.
Let's not be naive here. This move is as much about Edwards as it is about who calls the plays. Firing Schonert created a useful diversion, but the big problem with the Bills' offense is the guy throwing the football. Edwards is suffering a crisis of confidence, and if he doesn't snap out of it soon, we're in for a long, ugly season.
Edwards has no excuses now. Two weeks ago, when I asked him about the notion that he's afraid to throw downfield, Edwards said there had been no one open down the field in the Green Bay game. He said he was simply taking what the defense gave him, and said, "That's the way I'm coached."
It was a weak, uncharacteristic response from Edwards. In retrospect, it seems as if he was throwing Schonert under the bus (after checking down, naturally). If Edwards seems unwilling to take chances, then it must have been the coach's fault.
Sure enough, as soon as Schonert was fired, we began hearing whispers about Turk's arrogant, abrasive nature, his lack of flexibility, his unwillingness to take suggestions from others.
Word came out that Schonert didn't have a good relationship with Edwards, or with the offensive players in general.
Funny how things come out after the fact. OK, fine. Schonert is gone. Van Pelt is a younger, more engaging personality. Presumably, he is on great terms with Edwards and can bring out the dynamic, forceful quarterback just waiting to be unleashed. Van Pelt has been his position coach for more than a year, so he has to take some of the blame for Edwards' struggles.
What Van Pelt needs to do is bring out more of his own qualities in Edwards. Create a greater sense of belief. Give him a bolder, more aggressive sense of his own possibilities as a passer and leader. Don't give us empty talk about opening things up, the way the other coordinators did. Demand it, and make sure Edwards is on board.
Jauron says he's committed to the no-huddle offense. OK, Alex. When you have that sit-down with Jim Kelly, find out if he thinks Edwards should call his own plays. Be daring, for God's sake. What do you have to lose after nine years of persistent failure? At least let the devoted fans know you're going down with a fight, rather than another exasperating checkdown.
But there's only so much a coach can do. Edwards has to stand on his own two feet. There's no place to hide anymore. He helped get Schonert fired. He's no longer the fair-haired boy in town, getting the benefit of the doubt. People are losing faith in Edwards, and maybe it's because he seems to have lost faith in himself.
Van Pelt spent a decade in the league, his career hanging by a thread. But there was always a sense that he felt he belonged. Bills fans can only hope that some of it wears off.