Chan Gailey, 68, was living a good retirement life — playing a bunch of golf, watching his grandsons play sports and attending school events. He was finally taking advantage of the free time that had eluded him for 40-plus years of his life because he was coaching football. Then Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores called.
“I was kind of taken aback a little bit,” Gailey said. “But then we talked about it as a family and we just — I had no idea. … We just felt like we were being led to do this, and so it was something we felt very strong and very excited and very comfortable with.”
Now Gailey, three years removed from the last time he was a coach in the NFL with the 2016 New York Jets, is tasked with developing much-hyped rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and kick-starting a Dolphins offense that was among the NFL’s worst in 2019. Oh, by the way, the Dolphins’ new offensive coordinator, who held the same position with the team in 2000 and 2001, has to do it all during the coronavirus pandemic. What a post-retirement gift.
Despite the obvious hurdles, Gailey is excited, and views this job as his next mission — one he says God called him to take on.
All eyes will be on Tagovailoa and Gailey when Dolphins practice opens for reporters on Monday. It will be the first time Tagovailoa has had a padded practice with the team, and the closest the Dolphins’ future quarterback has gotten to real football since he suffered a right hip dislocation and posterior wall fracture last November in his last college game at Alabama.
Gailey and quarterbacks coach Robby Brown will tag-team on much of the ground-level work in getting Tagovailoa ready for NFL action. Gailey’s experience, willingness to adjust his teachings to his players and his own use of a spread scheme will hopefully help Tagovailoa’s transition to the pros go smoothly.
“I hope I have a big impact on it, but you don’t ever know about that,” Gailey said. “You have to see how fast and how well a player comes on and then you see what he does. We’ll treat [Tagovailoa] just like we treat everybody else. We’ll try to put him in a position to be successful when the time comes.”
Tagovailoa enters training camp expecting to compete with incumbent Ryan Fitzpatrick for the Dolphins’ starting job. It might be a considerable ask for Tagovailoa to win the job by Week 1 with only four weeks of on-field action before Miami’s season opener on Sept. 13 at New England, but both quarterbacks know the time will come when Tagovailoa is handed the keys to the team.
“He’s going to develop quickly or slowly depending upon how much he grasps the offense and how quickly he comes and how he develops as a football player, and a lot of that’s based on health,” Gailey said. “You look at the success he’s had; obviously, he’s a very good leader and you take all those great players that they had at Alabama, it’s got to come together on the field. You can do all the coaching you want, but when they walk out there on the field, the players play. Obviously, his leadership and his ability to throw the football, his touch, game management.”
Tagovailoa is the Dolphins’ star attraction, but it was Fitzpatrick who played a bigger role in coaxing Gailey out of retirement. Fitzpatrick spent a combined five years with Gailey in Buffalo (2010-12) and with the Jets (2015-16). There’s mutual love, respect and comfort between the coach and QB. Gailey admitted he is not sure if he would have left the golf links and little league games to return if not for Fitzpatrick being in Miami.
Fitzpatrick said of Gailey: “First off, as a man, amazing guy. Very humble. Loves football, loves family, and so there’s a lot of characteristics in that regard that we share. Guys love playing for him because one of the biggest things with him is he wants you to be yourself.
“I’ll never forget, Stevie Johnson in Buffalo was a guy that didn’t really play a whole lot, and as soon as he got with Chan, and Chan gave him the freedom to be creative on some of his routes and do some things that were a little unorthodox, it really catapulted his career; so players love playing for him because he gives them freedom — a certain amount of freedom, not a whole lot — and he’s a guy that does care about the details, but he really cares about the end result, not necessarily how you got there.”
So as the Dolphins enter the meat of training camp, Gailey and Fitzpatrick will be working in lockstep to teach Tagovailoa.
“I’m still in the process of getting to understand Chan’s offense. Now from a perspective of personality with who Chan is and whatnot — I mean Chan is phenomenal. Really great guy, down to earth,” Tagovailoa said. “When it’s time to work, he’s out there, we go to work. It’s a very friendly environment with him and the other quarterbacks as well.”
Former Dolphins offensive coordinator Chad O’Shea (2019) had an offensive scheme that some thought was too complex and younger players had difficulty adjusting to. The hope is Gailey’s scheme could solve those issues and, at the very least, improve a group that finished 27th in total offense (310 yards per game) and 32nd in rushing offense (72.3 yards per game) last season.
“I want to be a balanced offense. I want us to be able to run the football and throw the football effectively. That’s really big in the way I see offensive football,” Gailey said. “Then the next thing is, to me, you adapt to the players that you have. You have to adjust your schemes and see who you have and that sometimes is even on a week-by-week basis, and this year that may be more important than ever.”
There has to be a joke in there somewhere about how two close friends — a 68-year-old ex-retiree and a 37-year-old quarterback — continue to chase the dream in South Florida, and the punchline is that Tagovailoa might end up being the biggest winner of the group.