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The Buffalo Bills worked into Sunday night on a contract for Syracuse's Doug Marrone to become the team's next head coach.

A Bills source, speaking on condition of anonymity, informed The Buffalo News the team and Marrone had agreed in principle Sunday morning and that an announcement was expected today.

The Bills declined to comment officially on Marrone's status Sunday night. ESPN reported Sunday night the contract would be for four years.

While Marrone didn't create the same splash as other candidates would have, news of his hiring was well-received in the NFL community. Marrone is viewed as a solid and respectable choice for a woebegone franchise that was last competitive when cell phones had antennas.

The decision likely will define whether Russ Brandon is considered successful as Bills president. Brandon took over the title from owner Ralph Wilson one week ago.

“They don't know [Marrone],” said ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, who as New York Jets coach hired Marrone as an offensive line assistant in 2002. “He's one of those guys where everybody's going to be saying, 'Who? Wha? Huh?'

“He doesn't have that name when you think about offensive guys. But Doug did a good job at Syracuse, got them back to respectability. He built a program.”

Rather than hire someone who has been an NFL head coach before, the Bills chose an up-and-comer they hope will spark a team that has missed the playoffs 13 straight seasons.

“That's a great hire by the Bills because he brings together that pedigree that is popular now: a substantial pro background with that mix of college,” former head coach and NFL Network analyst Brian Billick said.

Marrone, 48, took on a culture of losing at Syracuse and turned it around. The Bronx native will try to do the same thing with the Bills.

In picking Marrone, the Bills are going with an offensive-minded coach with a reputation for being a disciplinarian.

Head-coaching experience was important to the Bills, but they opted for a candidate with college experience over two other interviewees – former Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith – who took their teams to Super Bowls.

The Bills also interviewed Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton and Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly. A scheduled interview with Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was canceled Saturday.

The Bills never have hired a head coach directly from college, but Marrone has NFL credentials.

Marrone was the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator under Sean Payton from 2006 to 2008, although Payton called the plays on game day. Payton is one of the most highly regarded offensive minds in the league.

“I think he's certainly someone the players will respond to, and I think he's ready,” Payton told the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Sunday.

Before joining the Saints, Marrone coached the Jets' offensive line for four years. He oversaw a rugged unit that paved the way for future Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin.

“He's a detail guy,” Edwards said. “He's very organized. He understands the importance of fundamentals and technique. He will stress that. He will make sure the assistant coaches teach that.

“His strongest traits will be putting players into position to have success, and he's about developing players. He'll be very good offensively. He understands a skill set of players. The offensive line along with the quarterback probably will be his focal point.”

But Syracuse is where Marrone showed his full abilities as a leader.

Marrone took over a program that went 10-37 the previous four years and had gone seven straight seasons without a winning record.

Marrone went 25-25 in four seasons with the Orange. He went 4-8 in 2009, improving by one win over the previous season. Syracuse then posted records of 8-5, 4-7 and 8-5. Syracuse won the Pinstripe Bowl over Kansas State in 2010 and over West Virginia last week.

“When his opportunity came at Syracuse, it was his alma mater, and he was able to get that program turned around,” Payton said. “I think he'll do a great job. I really do.

“I know he had a handful of options this offseason with some of these pro teams. I'm excited to see him get this opportunity. He deserves it.”

Marrone played for Syracuse as an offensive lineman and was a captain.

Upon arriving at Syracuse, Marrone was committed to eradicating a losing attitude. A couple dozen players wound up leaving the program over the next two seasons.

“He came in with rules, and the people who didn't want to follow the rules are gone, and those who did want to follow stayed,” linebacker Derrell Smith told reporters in 2010.

Early in Marrone's first season, he gathered the players in the locker room one morning and had them clean the room so they could take more pride in where they spent their day.

He required players to dress in a suit and tie instead of sweat suits on game days. He required they sing the Syracuse alma mater before leaving the field after a game. If players were late to class, he would post photos on TV monitors in the weight room.

On the field in Syracuse, Marrone ran the Saints' offense, more or less. It's a pro-style attack that has its roots in the West Coast offense. It relies on the quarterback getting the ball out of his hands quickly and hitting receivers in stride. It uses tight ends and a fullback in situational roles.

In New Orleans, Marrone worked with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Drew Brees.

At Syracuse, he developed Ryan Nassib into a winner. Nassib will enter the NFL draft in April and could be a prime target of Marrone and the Bills.

email: tgraham@buffnews.com and mgaughan@buffnews.com