Marrone brings history of turnaround success to playoff-desperate Bills
The Syracuse football team's first exposure to Doug Marrone was nothing if not chilling. The Orangemen were in the midst of their winter conditioning drills four years ago when their new head coach suggested they go outside, in sub-freezing temperatures, with snow on the ground and flakes blowing in the air. The players wore their cold gear. Marrone came out in a T-shirt, hoodie and shorts.
"He just stood there the whole practice, and we're thinking, 'This guy is crazy,' " recalled Ryan Nassib, who just completed a four-year run as Syracuse's quarterback and is now preparing for a career in the NFL. "What did we get ourselves into when we agreed to stay and play for this guy?"
The Bills players certainly are wondering what they're in for now that Marrone has pulled up stakes in Syracuse and moved 150 miles west on I-90 to Buffalo, where he becomes the team's seventh head coach since 2000. While high-profile college coaches such as Oregon's Chip Kelly, Penn State's Bill O'Brien and Notre Dame's Brian Kelly interviewed or were speculative candidates for the eight NFL head-coaching jobs that came open after the end of the regular season, Marrone was the first one to move off campus. Chip Kelly joined him in making the jump a week after Marrone's move, after rampant reports that he'd be staying in college.
This won't be Marrone's first ride in the NFL. He previously worked as the offensive line coach for the Jets (2002-05) and the offensive coordinator/line coach for the Saints (2006-08). But this will be his first time as a head coach in the league.
So what can the Bills expect from this obviously warm-blooded, 48-year-old native of the Bronx?
"The first year for those boys is probably going to be pretty rough, especially in training camp, those sort of things, because he's going to want to find out who's going to stick with him when times are tough," former NFL tight end Mark Campbell, who played for the Saints from 2006 through 2008, said during a recent interview on WGR 550 radio in Buffalo.
Buffalo just completed its eighth consecutive losing season and finished last in the AFC East for the fifth year in a row. The Bills have not been to the playoffs since 1999 -- the longest postseason drought of any team. So Marrone faces a monumental mountain.
But he is used to challenges. When he went to New Orleans in 2006, the year after Katrina, the Saints were on a streak of five consecutive seasons at .500 or below. Along with head coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and other key contributors, Marrone helped the Saints win the NFC South that year and develop into a successful team that won the Super Bowl three years later. At Syracuse, Marrone took over a program that hadn't had a winning season since 2001 or had been to a bowl game since '04. In his second season there, the Orangemen went 8-5 and won the Pinstripe Bowl -- two achievements they repeated last season.
"Those places haven't always been successful when he was going into (them), but he turned them into a success," said Bills tight end Scott Chandler, who attended Marrone's introductory press conference in Buffalo. "You look at what he's done with Syracuse, and the Saints hadn't been winning very much either. He's been at places where they've changed the culture, and that's what he's looking to do here. As players, we're going to be receptive to it. We're going to go out there and work hard for him and win some games."
Longtime Jets guard Brandon Moore, one of Marrone's former players, predicted that Marrone will be a "great" NFL head coach.
"He's a former offensive line coach, and they look at things a little differently than a lot of other positions," Moore said. "He's going to understand very strongly what he wants his offense and defense to be, and guys are going to be expected to uphold that. I think he has a good grasp on what it takes to build a team, an all-around team, and managing all the different personalities with his communication skills."
As a Jets assistant coach, Marrone helped convert Moore, a former undrafted defensive tackle from Illinois, to a steady, durable offensive lineman who has started 146 consecutive games (including the postseason) and went to the Pro Bowl following the 2011 season.
"I know a lot of times coaches that deal with guys changing positions, even going to the other side of the ball, maybe don't show as much attention or invest a lot of time in them," Moore said. "He showed a keen interest in my development."
Nassib, who as a senior set single-season Syracuse records for completions (294), passing yards (3,749) and touchdown passes (26), also credited Marrone for honing his game.
"I feel like he did a great job of bringing me along from when I was a young quarterback until my last year," said Nassib, who some NFL scouts are projecting as a second-round draft pick. "And he always put me in a position to succeed. He always made sure that the game plan was something I could handle. When I was young, he didn't ask me to do a whole lot of complicated stuff, where later in my career I was able to do more things as I felt more comfortable."
Although Marrone's background is in offense, he had his hand in all phases of the game on the sideline at Syracuse (last season, he spearheaded the Orangemen's special teams). Nassib said Marrone did a good job at finding a happy medium between winding his players up too tight and allowing them to feel too loose.
"He's a great coach to have on the sideline," Nassib said, "because he knows how to get you up and get you going, and he knows how to calm you down if he feels you're a little rattled."
Former Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, one of a handful of coaches Marrone has brought with him to Buffalo, said he learned firsthand from Marrone how to create an offensive system and build a foundation in pass protection and the running game. During his first press conference with Buffalo media, Hackett, who will be the Bills offensive coordinator, also cited one of Marrone's biggest intangible skills.
"The way he instills the ability to win," Hackett said. "The confidence in players when they did not know if they had it, and he was able to put that into them to make them feel powerful and feel confident. I think that is what he does the best."
So how can Marrone, who replaces Chan Gailey, change the losing culture in Buffalo?
"I think it's going to be different," Chandler said. "Chan was more of an offensive-minded coach; he was calling the plays and stuff. It looks like Doug's going to take more of a CEO approach and just kind of dabble in everything. So that will be different for us.
"I just think as players we're going to have to be really receptive. He's a younger guy and I'm sure he's going to have a lot of energy, and we're going to go to work for him."
Last week, on the day Marrone was introduced as the new coach in Buffalo, Chandler received a text from Cowboys tight end Jason Witten. Marrone was Witten's position coach at the University of Tennessee. Witten's message to Chandler was that the Bills had acquired a good man as their new coach and that the players would be happy with him.
"That was encouraging," Chandler said.
And right now, the Bills need all the encouragement they can get.