On Wednesday, a reporter told Doug Marrone that he seemed to get a kick out of dealing with the hard issues in his first NFL training camp as a head coach. When the injuries hit, Marrone remained upbeat and optimistic, eager to tell everyone what a fun and exciting time it was.
“It’s not that I get a kick out of it,” Marrone said. “I wouldn’t use that phrase for me. I thrive sometimes on adversity. Because when adversity hits, in any part of your life, whether it’s on or off the field, that’s when character comes in, the true character of who you are and how you handle a situation.
“A lot of times, I like adversity early, because it separates people right away – who to rely on and who not to rely on.”
Well, if Marrone is looking for an early jolt of adversity, he’s come to the right place.
Today at 1 p.m., he will make his NFL head coaching debut against the Patriots at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Marrone won’t exactly be easing into his new job. For his opening test, He gets to match wits with Bill Belichick, one of the best football coaches ever to put on a headset.
Marrone will send out a rookie quarterback, EJ Manuel, against Belichick’s baffling defensive schemes. He’ll be going against Tom Brady, who is 20-2 in his career against the Bills and has the best winning percentage (77.8 percent) of any quarterback in the Super Bowl era with 100 starts.
That’s daunting enough. But there’s also this: No Bills head coach has ever won his opening day debut. Bills coaches are 0-16 in their first crack on Opening Day. That’s the equivalent of an entire winless season on the modern NFL calendar. It stretches from Buster Ramsey at the AFL’s old New York Titans in 1960 through Chan Gailey’s snoozer at home against the Dolphins in 2010.
Marv Levy won his first game, beating the Steelers at home after succeeding Hank Bullough in November, 1986. But Levy lost his first season opener as Bills coach to the Jets in ’87. I counted Lou Saban twice. He lost his season debut in 1962, and again when he returned a decade later in ’72.
Even more amazing, 12 of the 16 games were played in Buffalo. Between 1974 and 1988, the Bills opened every NFL season at home. Ralph Wilson had a little more pull back then.
So maybe Marrone is due to snap the streak today. He seems confident enough. I know it’s early. We’ll find out how much he loves adversity when the losses go on his career record. But nothing seems to faze the guy.
Marrone admits he gets butterflies before games. It’s been that way since he ran out of the house to play in the street as a kid in the Bronx. But once he gets to the game, he’s all business. He says he’s so focused on the task at hand, he becomes oblivious to the external surroundings.
“It was the same situation in college” at Syracuse, Marrone said. “You’re so busy. There’s so many things going through your mind that you really never take a step back and say, ‘Oh my gosh, here I am.’
“I know that sounds kind of lame on my part,” he said, “but it’s really true. You just go out there and you don’t realize at times that you’re in a packed stadium, or out on the practice field, or you’re in a farm somewhere playing the game. You’re so focused in on what’s going on.”
Marrone said it seems selfish for a coach to dwell on himself. Still, it’s hard to imagine he won’t have a little tingle when he walks into a jam-packed Ralph this afternoon. Oh yeah, here he is, a head coach at last, and over there, my gosh, that’s Bill Belichick!
It’ll be a big moment for Marrone, and for the franchise. For all the talk about the Manuel era, it’s also the beginning of the Marrone era. A quarterback makes all the difference in the NFL, but the Bills’ long tunnel of dysfunction has been equally a product of inferior coaching.
This is also the official dawning of the Russ Brandon/Doug Whaley era. While they’re hoping that Manuel is the real deal, the new CEO and GM are looking for reassuring signs of competence in the coaching ranks. Marrone is their guy, and he needs to be the right choice.
Marrone has been encouraging so far. He appears to have a leader’s command. He recovered from his early stumble over the Mario Williams injury. He expects greatness of his players and himself, and he doesn’t whine about what he doesn’t have. Marrone is developing a rapport with the media. He’s been honest and engaging and has a good memory for detail.
Again, Marrone isn’t being measured against Halas and Lombardi here. A modest level of competence will suffice in the short term. Marrone can begin today, not by pulling a monumental upset but by avoiding any monumental gaffes against the Bills’ main tormentors.
Every Buffalo coach during the 13-year playoff drought has been embarrassed by the Pats at some point. I hate to dredge up the ugly stuff in these hopeful times, but a brief review is in order:
• Gregg Williams punting from the Pats’ 32-yard line on fourth-and-2 with the Bills trailing by 10 points in the third quarter of the first Drew Bledsoe Bowl here in 2002.
• Mike Mularkey calling a bootleg for Bledsoe on fourth-and-3 late in the game here in 2004, resulting in a Tedy Bruschi sack and 68-yard fumble return for a TD by Richard Seymour.
• Dick Jauron failing to get the red flag out of his pocket in time to challenge a play in a loss at New England in 2008.
• Chan Gailey dialing up a pass play for rookie T.J. Graham that got picked off with 23 seconds left in a six-point road loss to the Pats last season. Graham had never run the play in practice.
Enough reminiscing. Bills fans aren’t asking for greatness from Marrone. It would be nice to have a coach who doesn’t turn into Homer Simpson in the clutch, someone with the razor-sharp focus you expect from a man entrusted with one of the NFL’s precious 32 franchises.
Look and speak the part. Know your talent and put the players in position to succeed. The Bills want to play fast on offense and attack on defense. That’s fine. Be true to your identity, but be flexible, too. Running up and down the field with Brady might not be the wisest idea.
The Bills don’t have the roster depth to make any kind of run this season. But when you have the right coach in the NFL, the talent tends to follow. If Marrone is the right guy, he’ll be able to find the right players. The team will reflect his football vision.
Marrone says he thrives on adversity. Terrific. It’ll help to know that Bills fans have suffered their share over the years. They aren’t expecting miracles. They just want some sign that their coach isn’t a bumbler, and that this time, the organization finally got it right.