PITTSFORD, N.Y. – It was a bold thing the president and CEO of the Buffalo Bills said on the practice field at St. John Fisher College the other day. Russ Brandon hadn't meant his words to sound audacious. But he was overtaken with this ebullience, a sensation that hasn't exploded inside him in so many years. And as he talked about the new football coach he has hired – a man named Doug Marrone – he grew more and more effusive about the man's genius until the words just blurted out.
"This guy will win!' Brandon declared.
Told this was a presumptuous statement, Brandon stared hard at his questioner, eyes serious and repeated himself.
"He will win," he said. "I believe it."
Later, Brandon amended his promise, diluting his words as if, perhaps, they were not what an NFL executive should say about a coach before his team has played a game.
"We didn't get into this to hope to win and sell hope," he said. "We expect to win and we believe Coach Marrone will win."
But the jolt of Brandon's first words lingered in the summer air. The optimism bubbling through the Bills offices these days has spilled onto a training camp practice field. The team's executives see a difference now, and that's a new thing. They sense the end of an empty cycle where the organization trundles out a new coach and new hope only to have the franchise stall a year or two later.
You see, something has changed in Buffalo. It changed after New Year's Day when owner Ralph Wilson promoted Brandon by adding the power of team president to the CEO title he already had. Something changed when Brandon demanded a firm blueprint for the future. And something changed when the team went to find its new coach and searched for a man who fit that vision.
Then when the team found him, it didn't matter to Bills officials that he had never been a head coach in the NFL and that his college coaching record was just 25-25 at Syracuse. They saw in Marrone a path from the endless losing. And they can sit now as Doug Whaley, the new 40-year-old general manager, did this week, look at a young front office, a young coach, a rookie quarterback drafted in the first round and a fleet of fast receivers and running backs in their early 20s and say: "With our ages we have a chance to have something for a long time."
Rebuilding began immediately after the previous coach, Chan Gailey, was fired on Dec. 31. As Wilson prepared to give Brandon the title of president the next day, Bills executives knew they had to make a change. Another coaching search was about to start and what exactly were they trying to accomplish?
Brandon asked GM Buddy Nix, who planned to work through the draft, and Whaley, the assistant GM who would replace Nix, to help devise a strategy. Whaley called Pittsburgh Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, who had once been his boss there, and asked for advice.
"Come up with a philosophy that you want to portray and find a coach who will fit that rather than look for a coach and fit to his philosophy," Colbert told him.
The Bills were about to hire their sixth coach in 12 years. They had tried everything: from recycled head coaches like Dick Jauron and Gailey to fiery assistants like Gregg Williams. Nothing worked. Buffalo never got better. The fans grew frustrated. Hope died. The organization felt stuck.
But a philosophy? What was their philosophy? What were they trying to project?
Brandon had a working idea, something he had used in running the team's business department when he was able to re-establish a fan base in surrounding cities like Rochester and Syracuse. He wanted people who were innovative. He wanted an aggressive team. He wanted his organization to attack rather than react to the rest of the league.
In a series of meetings before Brandon's promotion was announced, his thoughts were discussed. A plan was devised. The Bills' new philosophy would be innovative with an aggressive style and an attacking style. As they prepared a list of coaching candidates that included Marrone, former Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, former Bears coach Lovie Smith, then Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton and Chip Kelly, who was still the Oregon head coach, Bills officials kept three words in mind: innovative, aggressive, attack.
"Most teams are always in survival mode," Whaley said. "But you don't hit on something unless you have a plan."
And what the Bills executives discovered was that those three words made everything simple.
"You have a road map," Whaley said. "If you stay on course and stay in the lines, it makes it a lot easier."
An hour after Brandon finished the news conference announcing his promotion, he, Nix and Whaley were on a private jet to Phoenix where Kelly was coaching the Fiesta Bowl and Whisenhunt and Horton lived. They booked a suite in the Westin Kierland Resort in Scottsdale and began interviews that evening.
As each candidate came through the suite that week, Bills executives looked at them through the prism of the organization's plan. Some fit part of the criteria but not the rest. Then Marrone appeared. Among the first things he said was: "This is who I am and if you don't want it, I get it. But if it's the right fit, we have a chance to do something."
Which was exactly how the Bills felt.
"He's not going to acquiesce just to get the job," Brandon said.
The interview stretched for hours, with subjects ranging from Marrone's offensive ideas to his practice plans to discipline policies. The conversation stretched through one afternoon and picked up again the next morning. By the end of the second day the Bills contingent knew whom it wanted to hire.
Buffalo still had three coaches left to interview, but nobody wanted to wait. There were rumors that other teams were intrigued with Marrone. Someone raised the fear that if Marrone was allowed to meet with other franchises, those teams might see what the Bills liked. The next day they invited him back to the hotel and together reached an agreement.
On Jan. 7, Marrone came to Buffalo for his introductory news conference. As he spoke, another private jet stood ready, this one to whisk Marrone, Brandon, Nix, Whaley and senior vice president for football administration Jim Overdorf to New Jersey where they rented another suite at another Westin and began their pursuit of Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
Pettine's contract was up, and the Jets seemed interested in keeping him. He didn't know Marrone personally. The two had mutual friends and the mutual friends kept calling with platitudes until Pettine answered his phone by saying: "If you are calling to tell me Doug Marrone is a good guy to work for, I get it."
When Pettine went to the hotel to meet Marrone, he was overwhelmed. Most coordinator candidates do not come to interviews expecting to see the team's CEO and GM and assistant GM and VP for football administration waiting for him.
"It was mostly Doug's meeting," Brandon said. "We were support to show we were all in. [Job] titles, we leave at the door."
What could Pettine say? He interviewed for hours, left the hotel to go home, only to return a few minutes later when the Bills called and asked to talk more. By the time he finally finished, he was ready to take the job.
"Why don't you sleep on it," Pettine's agent advised.
An hour later Pettine called his agent back.
"OK, I took a nap," he said.
When the plane returned to Buffalo the next day, Pettine was on it and Marrone was on his way to building a staff.
One of the things that made Marrone attractive to the Bills is that he already had been part of resurrections as an assistant at Georgia Tech and as the head coach at Syracuse, where his 25-25 record is seen as something of a miracle given where the program had been before he arrived in 2009.
But no rebuilding might have been more fantastic as the one Marrone was part of when Sean Payton asked him to be the offensive coordinator of the Saints in 2006, the year they returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. This was the season the Saints went from a disaster to the NFC championship game in large part because of a speedy, imaginative offense that overwhelmed opponents.
Marrone remembers turning around just before kickoff on the night the Saints played their first game back in the Superdome, seeing tears streaming down fans' faces, and he was struck with the power football has in a community. "Sunday can really, really matter for people," he said.
Having played and coached at Syracuse he understands how provincial Buffalo is and how much the Bills matter to a city that sometimes feels as if the rest of the country has forgotten about it. He saw how Payton and Saints GM Mickey Loomis restored belief in New Orleans, and he understands how an opportunity exists to do something similar in Buffalo.
"I've been in those situations before," he said as he stood on the same practice field that Brandon had promised his success. "I'm comfortable, for some reason, in those situations. Because maybe it's all I've ever known."
Marrone glanced around the stadium at St. John Fisher. He is a friendly but forceful man, conversational yet possessing an intensity that is a little like Payton's.
"I approach it as I like the challenges," he continued. "I welcome the adversity. I like to deal with issues quickly and I like to be straight. I think sometimes conflict is not a bad word. Getting angry is not bad. Suppressing those things, that can get you in trouble."
The new coach is from The Bronx. He yells some. He mumbles that he needs to stop saying a certain four-letter word that starts with "F" so much. He has also proven testy when asked questions he does not like.
Still, his presence brings comfort in an organization where nothing has seemed settled in years. They find him blunt around the Bills offices. They find him honest. He used statistical analysis at Syracuse to help with football decisions and wants to do the same in Buffalo where Brandon and Whaley are in the process of hiring a full-time analyst. He is enthusiastic about the nutrition program that Brandon implemented last year and quietly expanded until it dominates the Bills cafeteria as much as Kelly's more famous one does in Philadelphia.
Marrone laughed slightly as he recalled his first interview for an assistant coaching job in the NFL after years of working in colleges. Another assistant asked him how he was going to change his style given he would now be in charge of professionals.
"I'm not," he told the coach. "This is how I coach. This is who I am."
"I think that's the perception, people think you have to change," Marrone said. "If you have been successful at something you have to believe in it.
"You don't change. Rebuilding is rebuilding. Some of the same principles that you may do – it's not manipulation but some are better suited."
This week, Brandon read a memo to the team's interns. It's a letter he wrote the night after arriving in Scottsdale on the day he was promoted to president. The letter stands as the closest thing to a printed manifesto for the organization. He reads it every day, scanning the lines until they have become locked in his memory.
"We have to be a forward-thinking and aggressive organization," Brandon said quoting pieces of the memo. "Empower people to make important decisions … do all things together … organizations win championships, individuals don't … the only way we will do it is if we do it together."
As he stood on the practice field at St. John Fisher, Brandon said the memo will stand as the pillar of everything the organization now does. It's so much easier to believe in a plan, to believe that everyone is headed in the right direction, all going toward something.
Because, after all, it's been 20 years since football has brought anything big to Buffalo.
It was time to stop wandering in the dark hoping to find it again.
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