Newly empowered as president of the Bills, Russ Brandon sat on the dais Tuesday and promised to take the franchise in a new direction. As it turned out, the direction was 140 miles due east, to his hometown of Syracuse.
Brandon is sure to take heat for hiring Doug Marrone as his new head coach. Some will dismiss it as a parochial, small-time move. They’ll say he reached for a .500 college coach because he couldn’t attract the top names in the market and wouldn’t surrender total control of the operation.
Some of that might be true. Still, this doesn’t feel the way it did when the Bills hired Dick Jauron, Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey. For once, I’m resisting the impulse to trot out my favorite Bills adjective and label it uninspired.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not doing handstands over Marrone, either. He wouldn’t have been my first choice. I would have preferred Jon Gruden or Chip Kelly, who is probably heading back to Oregon. But at least they’re not making the safe choice, the one least likely to get them buried by the critics later.
Above all, I was hoping they would surprise me this time, that they wouldn’t bring out some tired retread and tell me it was progress. They succeeded.
This is a bold pick, a risky pick. Brandon, a fine baseball player in his day, is swinging for the fences here. Give him credit for that. It would have been easier to settle for the stand-up double, a former NFL head coach with an established record for being average.
Yes, Ken Whisenhunt and Lovie Smith are proven head coaches who reached the Super Bowl. They’re old ideas to me. Whisenhunt is too conservative. Smith won more than he lost, but his teams were consistently bad on offense. He’s not the guy for a team desperate to find and develop a franchise quarterback.
I don’t know if Marrone will be a great NFL head man. Most coaches fail when they reach that level, whether they come from college or the assistant coaching ranks. Who knew that Sean Payton would be a success in his first NFL head job, or Mike Tomlin, or Mike McCarthy?
Jim Harbaugh was a risk when he took over the Niners two years ago. Harbaugh had engineered a remarkable turnaround at Stanford. Critics wondered if his methods could work in the pros. He has been a rousing success in the NFL.
So if you’re looking to put a positive spin on it, Marrone could be the Bills’ Jim Harbaugh. They’re roughly the same age. Both are hard-nosed disciplinarians who are open-minded enough to evolve with the times.
Marrone completely changed the culture of a staggering Syracuse program when he took over in 2009. The Orange had gone 10-37 under Greg Robinson and suffered through seven consecutive nonwinning seasons. They were the joke of the Big East, one of the worst major-college programs in the country, a team with inferior personnel and a disaffected fan base.
Sound familiar, Bills fans?
The program quickly returned to respectability. Syracuse won two bowls in his four seasons. His overall record was 25-25. That’s not quite earth-shaking, but seasoned observers of the Orange called it a miraculous turnaround. It’s not as if he had blue-chip recruits or great facilities.
Brandon is putting his reputation on the line here. It would be easy to dismiss him as a salesman who is out of his depth on football matters. But for an organization that is always trying to keep up in the NFL, this hire represents a fresh idea, a refusal to simply reach for the tried-and-true.
It’s not as if Chip Kelly and Nick Saban are the only college coaches worthy of being NFL head men. Marrone was seen as one of the top half dozen or so who might be ready for the jump. He has a lot of the qualities the Bills were looking for, including a dynamic personality and a tireless work ethic.
Marrone once told a Syracuse reporter he had worked every day but one during his first year as coach. He took Christmas off for his family. That’s a little scary, I must admit. But he sounds like a coach who will actually know what yard line he’s on when it’s time to kick a field goal.
Dave Rahme, who covered SU for the Post-Standard, said Marrone had charts and graphs for every eventuality. Rahme described Marrone as “very analytical,” a coach who would point out on a film when an opposing offensive lineman moved his foot 2 inches, and what it signified.
That was surely a selling point with Brandon. He intends to create a new department of analytics, which will bring a more sophisticated and scientific approach to the football operation. It’s cutting-edge stuff, which hasn’t been Ralph Wilson’s trademark, to say the least.
That doesn’t mean they’ll win. In the end, you need players. You need a franchise quarterback. McCarthy, Payton and Tomlin won the Super Bowl in their first NFL head job. It’s no coincidence that they had Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger playing quarterback.
The decision on the next quarterback could determine the success of the Bills for the next decade. It’s probably more important than the coach. It’ll be good to have Marrone helping evaluate the college talent. The less input Nix has on the next quarterback, the better.
Marrone worked with Brees as offensive coordinator with the Saints, though he didn’t call the plays. He developed Ryan Nassib from a raw prospect to a star at SU. He knows what a great quarterback looks like, and what sort of transition is required from the college game to the pros.
It’s not all about the head coach, either. The Bills need to hire a staff of top assistant coaches. That means going to other NFL teams and plucking some of their rising talent, not grabbing eager college coaches on the cheap. Marrone has an NFL pedigree. He should get the best staff available.
This is on Brandon now. He was fully empowered by the owner to hire the right guy. He came back with Marrone, a daring and unconventional choice. He could be a flop. He could be great. The odds say he’ll wind up like most NFL coaches, in that vast, unremarkable area in between.
No one knows right now. But it’s usually the people who reach high, refusing to settle for the safe choice, who find their way to great.