By Jerry Sullivan
NEWS SENIOR SPORTS COLUMNIST
When Doug Marrone said you can find good football coaches anywhere, even in the high school and Division III college ranks, you figured the standard wouldn’t be too high for his first Bills staff.
Russ Brandon said they would leave no stone unturned. Marrone promised to bring in guys with NFL experience. But the assistants they’ve brought in so far have been largely — here’s that word — uninspired.
He hit the bull’s-eye on the defensive coordinator. Mike Pettine led four defenses under Rex Ryan that finished in the top eight in total defense. Pettine is the only coordinator who has beaten both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in playoff games on the road. That’s a steal, and in the division.
But the rest of the staff is populated with cronies, college guys and recycled NFL failures. Seriously, Danny Crossman? This season, Crossman’s special teams in Detroit became the first since 1940 to give up a punt and a kickoff return TD in consecutive games.
Under Crossman, the Lions were 31st in the special teams rankings a year ago and are near the bottom this season. In eight seasons with the Panthers and Lions, his teams have been in the bottom eight five times. Marrone and Crossman played together in the World League and coached together at Coast Guard.
Marrone said he wanted coordinators with solid NFL experience. He meant defense. Nathaniel Hackett, 33, the new offensive coordinator, is said to be bright and inventive. I’m guessing he’ll be quarterbacks coach, too. But his NFL experience amounts to two years in quality control with the Bucs.
I felt the Marrone hire was a bold one, reflecting fresh ideas. But I also wanted Marrone to bring in a lot of proven NFL assistants, not eager college guys who wouldn’t threaten his dominion over the operation.
On Monday, the Bills announced the hiring of 10 assistants with a combined 20 years of NFL experience. Half of that belongs to defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson, who has a way of showing up on bad NFL teams.
The Jets fired Henderson as defensive coordinator after a 4-12 season in 2005. He lasted a year as DC in Detroit, which went 3-13 with a No. 27 defense. In ’08, he coached defensive backs for the Jags, who went 5-11 and let him go. In 2010, Arizona hired him to coach the D-backs a year after making the Super Bowl. They went 5-11 and gave up 434 points. One of Ray Horton’s first acts after taking over the Cards’ D was canning him.
Henderson coached at Syracuse last season, so there’s a comfort level. Did anyone consider reaching out to Gill Byrd, part of the Bears staff that went out with Lovie Smith? Byrd could have joined his son, Jairus, the Bills’ top free agent.
Among the coaches hired Monday, Henderson was the only one who had been a primary position coach in the NFL. Jim O’Neil and Anthony Weaver were assistant defensive backs coach and assistant D-line coach, respectively, with the Jets. Samson Brown was a Jets intern. There’s the Pettine connection.
When you get a head coach from college, you bring in some college coaches. I’ve compared Marrone with Jim Harbaugh, who took some of his guys from Stanford to the Niners. A few were new to the pros. But his offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, had 12 years in the NFL.
Harbaugh retained several key members of the old San Fran staff, including the offensive and defensive line coaches and running backs coach. The only holdover Marrone has kept from Chan Gailey’s staff is Eric Ciano, the strength coach.
Marrone still needs an offensive line coach. Why not keep Joe D’Alessandris, who has groomed the young talent on the O-line? D’Alessandris has been coaching offensive line for 35 years. An older voice might be a complement to the youth on the staff.
College coaches often fail in their first shot at the NFL. Maybe it’s because they’re more interested in creating fiefdoms than finding the best coaches on the market. Great leaders want to be challenged by the people underneath them.
There’s nothing that says this staff can’t win. But after years of hiring second-rate coaching staffs, the Bills don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. You can find good coaches anywhere. You find out soon enough if they’re over their heads.