By NEPD Editor Matt Jones
The Buffalo Bills showed interest a wide range of head coaching candidates this off-season: they explored the possibility of hiring former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, former Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton and assistant head coach Russ Grimm, Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, and Cincinnati Bengals assistant Hue Jackson.
Ultimately, however, Bills CEO Russ Brandon opted to eschew the aforementioned possibilities in favor of Syracuse Orange head coach Doug Marrone, 48, who worked from 2002-2005 as an offensive line coach with the New York Jets before taking over as offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints, where he spent three seasons from 2006-2008 under head coach Sean Payton.
In December 2008, Marrone was named Greg Robinson’s successor at Syracuse following a dismal 3-9 campaign by the Orange. Marrone’s squad went 4-8 during his first year at Syracuse, but rebounded with an 8-5 record which included 36-34 win over Kansas State in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl. After going 5-7 in 2011, the Orange finished 8-5 once again in 2012, earning a share of the Big East Conference championship and another Pinstripe Bowl victory over West Virginia along the way.
Marrone has received endorsements from current Saints head coach Sean Payton, as well as from NFL legend Bill Parcells. So what can Bills fans expect from Marrone’s presence?
Brandon’s hiring reflects a desire to improve on the offensive side of the ball. Chan Gailey, hired in large part because of his reputation as a creative offensive mind, was never able to piece together an effective offensive attack. Buffalo finished 28th, 14th, and most recently 21st in points scored during Gailey’s three seasons; they ranked 25th, 14th, and 19th in yardage.
The hope is evidently that Marrone is able to recreate his high-scoring Saints offenses in Buffalo; from 2006-2008, the Saints finished first, fourth, and first in offensive yardage. Over the same span, the Saints finished fifth, twelfth, and first in points scored, with New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees rebounding from a worrisome shoulder surgery and establishing himself as one of the league’s elite passers after being effectively pushed out of San Diego by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. However, it’s fair to wonder how much responsibility Marrone deserves for this production, as head coach Sean Payton was calling the team’s offensive plays and New Orleans has been just as productive without Marrone.
Marrone’s offensive identity at Syracuse also appears to have deviated to some extent from hims time in New Orleans. In 2008, his final season as Saints offensive coordinator, he called for 654 passing plays (including four scrambling attempts by Drew Brees) and 396 designed runs, a 62.3% passing ratio. However, this season at Syracuse, the Orange attempted 473 passes and were sacked on another sixteen plays, far less than their 555 carries on the ground; just 46.8% of their 1044 offensive snaps were either passing attempts or sacks. Even if all 86 of Syracuse’s quarterback rushing attempts were originally designed passes, the resulting 55.1% called pass percentage represents a far more balanced offensive approach than Marrone’s in New Orleans.
Schematically, Marrone’s Orange offense this season was predicated on pro-style shotgun spread looks, typically featuring three wide receivers, one tight end, and a running back, a slightly more conservative look than Chan Gailey’s frustrating five-wide formations this past season. Such formations as the ones Marrone employed at Syracuse may be better-suited to take advantage of Buffalo’s current offensive talent, including C.J. Spiller, Stevie Johnson, and Scott Chandler.
Buffalo’s recent skepticism towards Ryan Fitzpatrick’s prospects as a potential franchise quarterback may have also been a factor in their decision to hire Marrone. Less than a month ago, Bills general manager Buddy Nix claimed that the Bills “…need a good, young quarterback, and we’re going to do our best to get him.” That December 14th claim suggested that Fitzpatrick may be unlikely to receive his $3 million roster bonus next season; the Bills can save just over $500k against the salary cap by releasing Fitzpatrick this offseason, potentially clearing the way for Syracuse senior quarterback Ryan Nassib to follow Marrone to Buffalo.
The 6’2”, 230-pound Nassib has started for each of the past three seasons at Syracuse and could be selected as high as the second round. As a sophomore in 2010, Nassib passed for 2,334 yards, 19 touchdowns, and eight interceptions, completing 56.4% of his passes and averaging 6.5 yards per attempt. He took a step forwards in 2011, passing for 2,685 yards, 22 touchdowns, and nine interceptions, with his completion percentage jumping to 62.4% while maintaining his 6.5 yards per attempt. This past season, Nassib’s draft stock improved substantially: he threw for 3,749 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, again completing 62.4% of his attempts while improving his yards per attempt to an impressive 8.0.
Marrone’s legacy will not be defined by whether or not he was able to find a legitimate starting quarterback, but by whether or not he was able to lead Buffalo into the postseason, where they have not been since 1999. The decision to hire a college coach with a 25-25 career record may come as a surprise to Bills fans, especially considering Bears head coach Lovie Smith was apparently interested in the job following a 10-6 season; however, it appears likely that Buffalo wanted to move away from their recent proclivity for hiring failed head coaches. Russ Brandon’s first major decision as team CEO is certainly a risky one; he may eventually regret passing on a coach with a reputation for pro success in favor of a relatively unknown quantity.