FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- On a recent Thursday afternoon, Jets quarterback Geno Smith began a practice with a short, one-step drop before firing a tight spiral into a net about five yards to his left. The net had three different pockets, each a square foot in total space, to represent the different heights of potential wide receivers.
About 50 yards away, his wide receivers were beginning their drills with a series of tightly-placed orange cones laid out in front of them. Unlike training camp practices of old, their workouts would not begin with an over-the-shoulder drill or a one-handed catch jog though. There was Brandon Marshall rapidly shuffling between the cones. There was Eric Decker angling through what looked like a five-yard smash route.
All the drills yielded movements that would likely be repeated verbatim in a game.
This, for all intents and purposes, defines Gailey Ball: An immensely practical -- and versatile -- offense run by long-time coordinator and coach Chan Gailey that could resurrect Smith's career and negate the deficiencies in what many believe is a playoff-caliber team.
Coaches and players who have worked in the system describe it as potent, but simple to learn on the fly. Like any system, it comes with a theory: Work the ball on the ground, control the clock and be smart with the passes you throw; most of which will be intermediate.
But can it work for Smith, a quarterback many feel burnt out under former offensive coordinator and renowned quarterback guru Marty Mornhinweg?
A look back at Gailey's past in college and in the NFL shows a reasonable amount of success with a variety of different quarterbacks. In 12 years as a head coach or coordinator in the NFL, his teams have finished in the top half of the NFL in yardage six times. Those quarterbacks were Kordell Stewart (age 25 and 26), Troy Aikman (32) and Jason Garrett (32), John Elway (30) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (29). The rest have mostly been teams desperately deprived of pro-level talent.
"You're talking about quarterbacks that are, in no way, the same player," George Cortez, Gailey's quarterbacks coach in Buffalo (2010-11) and current offensive coordinator of the CFL's British Columbia Lions, told Around The NFL. "And I think that shows you the flexibility within the offense. You can work to a player's strengths and to the skillset that your skill players have.
"I hate to say it's simple, because nothing is simple, but it's always easier when the terminology is easier to deal with."
It was a system that earned Fitzpatrick, previously a career 8-14-1 quarterback with a lifetime completion percentage under 60 and more interceptions than touchdowns, a six-year extension worth almost $60 million ($24 million in guarantees). It was also a system that molded around Tyler Thigpen in Kansas City. Despite a dismal record, Gailey used a pistol-type concept to keep Thigpen on the move. He finished the 2008 season with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. The reason is a relatively straightforward passing game that starts with a play call.
Some systems are digit-based and involve a coded call that directs the receivers, much like the Jets had under Brian Schottenheimer. Other systems are concept-based, which force players to put together their piece of the puzzle in the huddle.
According to one of Gailey's long-time assistants, Buddy Geis, one of Gailey's favorite calls will literally be read in the huddle as: "Trips Right, All Slants."
Literally, everyone is running a slant.
"I mean, let's not make something hard that can be simple, right?" Geis, who coached with Gailey in Dallas and at Georgia Tech, told Around The NFL on Tuesday. "Like, Holy s---, I guess we're all running slants. I think coaches sometimes get too fancy, but when you're 3 years old you know what a slant is. And when you're 32, you still know what a slant is.
"I'll tell you what, NFL coaches today try and make it complicated. That's when it gets scary to me."
When it comes to the execution, the actual play is not much more complex. Picture a formation with three wide receivers to the right side and one wide receiver to the left. Geis takes it from here:
Wide receiver 1 (inside-most on the right): "He knows he's taking off hard inside. He's going to try to freeze linebackers."
Wide receiver 2 (middle-right): "There's going to be a guy head up on him, maybe three or four yards off. He's going to rip the defender's inside shoulder off. No matter where he is, the wide receiver is going for the inside shoulder of the defender. If I see him moving outside, backing off, I straighten my course and right there, as I straighten up, that ball should be hitting me right in the throat. This is the guy your quarterback is reading."
Wide receiver 3 (far-right): "Now, if the defender keeps following the second receiver inside -- he keeps jostling for the inside of me, I keep running toward the inside of him, now, he's created a much bigger cavity outside for the third wide receiver. That's all you teach your quarterback. The first guy, he's clearing. No. 2, he's your read, what are you gonna do? If he keeps going inside, that third guy, his butt better be wide open."
There are variables, of course. When the tandem coached at Georgia Tech, there was a fourth wide receiver all alone on the left side. At one time, it was Calvin Johnson. At another, it was Demaryius Thomas. If all else fails, or if that dominant wide receiver is left open in single coverage, you let that receiver make a play.
Gailey would often call this play three or four times per game. Geis brought it up alongside a collection of quick outs and 10- to 12-yard all-curl route concepts that resonated among the coach's favorites.
In 2011, half of Fitzpatrick's passes were thrown in the 0-20 yard range, and of those passes, he hit on more than 70 percent of them.
None of this is to say that Mornhinweg's offense was beyond Smith's understanding. Those close to the quarterback often described an eager understudy whose problems came once the ball was snapped. He wanted every play to be perfect, which resulted in the second-longest average time in the pocket (3.10 seconds) among regular starters in the NFL. The only quarterback who spent more time from snap to throw was Russell Wilson, a mobile quarterback who can create openings while scrambling. Peyton Manning, Andy Dalton, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler and a few other quarterbacks got the ball out nearly a second faster -- a lifetime in an NFL backfield.
Thriving on plays like "All Slants" will simply help Smith eliminate the clutter. There is a logical start and end to every throwing window.
"The quarterback has to do his job and make the read," Reggie Ball, a former Gailey quarterback at Georgia Tech, told Around The NFL. "Then, the quarterback has to do his job and get the ball out quick. Then, the quarterback has to put the ball where it's supposed to be. So, it's not difficult at all. It's pretty much -- it's a prototype pro-style offense. It's not going to be too creative, but at the same time, if everybody does their job, it's going to be very efficient."
Ball, who now operates a small and exclusive training academy for young quarterbacks, said Smith fits the prototype of Gailey's system well so long as the accuracy is there and the indecision withers away.
Then again, that is the baseline question for the entire experiment. Toward the end of that same Thursday training camp practice, Smith was still scrambling instead of whipping passes. He was still checking down or wandering toward the whistle. He's yet to throw an interception against his vaunted in-house defense, but his comfort level in the new system will obviously be a work in progress.
The hope, though, is that Gailey Ball, day after day, rep after rep, will eliminate the time it takes for Smith to realize he has all the tools. Sometimes, it's as simple as a one-step drop splashing into a net five yards away.