COMMENTARY | He has only been with the Buffalo Bills since Jan. 7, so it's way too early to draw any lasting conclusions about the Doug Marrone era. But, the first-time NFL head coach has already made some positive moves that should be encouraging to Bills fans.
2013 promised to be a season of change in Buffalo, a movement that began on New Year's Day with the ascension of Russ Brandon to president and CEO of the franchise. Replacing Ralph Wilson in the day-to-day operations of the club, Brandon announced that he would move swiftly to find the best possible leader for the club then promptly went out and interviewed some of the top names on the coaching market, including Ken Whisenhunt, Lovie Smith and Chip Kelly. But it was Marrone who impressed the Bills enough that they gave up their search within a week. The hire drew a lot of uninspired reactions, considering that Marrone's only head coaching experience was a 25-25 mark at Syracuse University and that he did not call the plays as offensive coordinator years earlier for a potent New Orleans Saints offense.
However, as quickly as the Bills moved to snag Marrone out from under other suitors, Marrone has moved just as fast to build his own staff. His picks include a well-regarded NFL defensive coordinator poached from a division rival, a few well-known former NFL players, as well as many lesser-known coaches, and even one holdover from the Chan Gailey era.
The hiring of Mike Pettine was the biggest splash. Pettine was defensive coordinator for the New York Jets under Rex Ryan from 2009-12, overseeing a defense that finished in the top 10 in total defense in each of those seasons. In 2012, the Jets ranked second in passing yards allowed per game (189.8) and fifth in the AFC in total defense (323.4 ypg). Pettine didn't come alone. He brought to Buffalo two position coaches from the Jets, linebackers coach Jim O'Neil and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver
Donnie Henderson, a former defensive coordinator for the Jets and Lions, joins the staff as defensive backs coach. He spent last season as an assistant under Marrone in Syracuse, one of seven Orangeman assistants to make the move west on I-90. That group includes offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley.
Wheatley, of course, was already well known as a bruising running back from the University of Michigan who had a solid 10-year pro career with the New York Giants and Oakland Raiders. He was a teammate in New York with wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, a 12-year pro, who last season coached in Washington.
The Bills also hired an experienced special teams coordinator in Danny Crossman, who has led special team units for eight years at Detroit (2010-12) and Carolina (2005-09). Head strength and conditioning coach Eric Ciano is the only holdover from the previous regime.
Marrone's hiring was not the big splash that many expected (or hoped) the Bills to make. But the staff has filled out quickly with lots of solid little splashes, and that just may accomplish the same thing. The fact that Marrone was able to get so many good hires so quickly speaks well to his reputation around the league, and more importantly, it gives the staff a very long offseason to work on preparing for September.
It's also a positive that he has hired so many of his former assistants from Syracuse. Their familiarity and established working relationships will make for a smoother transition and help speed the implementation of whatever systems are put in place.
Some concerns still remain. After all, football people had great things to say about Gailey and Dick Jauron, but those hires didn't exactly work out. Of course, it will all boil down to wins. And how the most pressing concerns - Will Pettine be able to get the defense to live up to its potential? And who will play quarterback? - play out will have a major impact on how successful Marrone will be.
We won't know the answers to those questions for months, but at the very least, Marrone and the Bills appear to be moving in a good direction.
Patrick Broadwater is a freelance writer living in Buffalo. His work has appeared at The Hockey News, The Good Men Project and several newspapers and magazines. Follow him on Twitter@PSBroadwater