Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. This year we want your opinion on what the most likely answers to these questions will be. After reading each daily installment as the Bills get set for Year 1 under head coach Doug Marrone, go to the Bills daily fan poll leading up to report day at training camp and vote. You could be eligible to win tickets to night practice. Here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and the Sept. 8th home opener.
For the past 13 years, wins have not been easy to come by for the Buffalo Bills. They’ve won more games than they’ve lost in just one season since the turn of the century. The club hired its fifth new head coach since 2000 this past January in Doug Marrone in an effort to change things. In a head coach’s first season there is so much that must be pulled together that it often takes half a season for parts of the team to jell and function smoothly. It typically leads to a trying season where stacking wins proves supremely difficult.
Marrone, however, has taken a far different approach from that of his more recent predecessors with his coaching staff and his team. Will it lead to an improvement in the team’s won-loss record from last season?
For Marrone the challenge is far from insurmountable. The Bills are coming off back-to-back 6-10 seasons, and those were preceded by a 4-12 campaign. Surpassing a six-win total even with a challenging schedule that includes the NFC South and AFC North is realistic.
Where the real challenge lies is every member of the coaching staff is new to the players. Those coaches in many cases are teaching brand new techniques. The scheme for each phase of the game is new for the players as well. Getting the players adjusted and capable of executing at game speed usually takes time, especially when there’s a coaching staff that has to be schooled up on everything as well.
That’s where Marrone took a different approach.
A synchronized staff
When the Bills’ sideline boss hired his staff he did it with the primary aim of assembling a group of coaches who all possessed a firm working knowledge of the schemes on their side of the ball.
“A lot of us come from the same type of foundation on each side, be it offense or defense,” said Marrone. “There isn’t a lot of time. We have to make sure we hit the ground running and you don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to catch someone up on the type of communication and terminology really because that’s going to keep you moving backward at a time when we’ve got a lot of things going on.
“When you get in that room and you talk about terminology, everyone knows it. You don’t have to spend a lot of time coaching coaches. You’re putting in a system and you’re putting it together and now you’re spending your time getting ready for the most important thing which is getting our players ready. For me I probably put a lot more weight in that than other things.”
Many of Marrone’s predecessors chose to hire accomplished coaches, focusing more on resume than familiarity with a system. Marrone’s approach should put him and his staff ahead of the game when it comes to preparing their team not only in training camp in Year One, but each week for an opponent in the regular season too.
Being a head coach on game day is no easy task with all the split-second decisions that must be made. Whether to throw the challenge flag, whether to go for it on 4th-and-2 at the opponent’s 42-yard line, etc. When a head coach takes on the added responsibility of calling plays on the offensive or defensive side of the ball it only adds to the mental strain during a game and can lead to errors in judgment when it comes to the big decisions.
Two of the last three head coaches for the Bills called plays on game days (Mularkey, Gailey) although Mularkey seized control of play calling from his coordinator after a year. Marrone is delegating that responsibility to his coordinators.
“I won’t be calling the plays, but everything will go through me,” said Marrone. “Everything is game planned, offense, defense and special teams. We have a plan going in, the defense is on the field, I'm on the headset with the defense. We'll go through it. There are game management decisions to be made. I'll be part of that process. Same with special teams and offense.”
Without the burden of play calling, Marrone should be able to focus on the ebb and flow of the game and make effective head coaching decisions when necessary, which can sometimes mean the difference between winning and losing.
Marrone is a first-time NFL head coach, much like previous Bills coaches Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey. Much like the two that came before him, Marrone inherits a team that has some personnel holes to be filled and a team that did not finish above .500 the year before.
All three had, or in Marrone’s case have, either rebuilding or retooling to do when it comes to the roster. Where Marrone stands in stark contrast to Mularkey and Williams is he was a head coach at the college level at Syracuse. He’s also been a part of two successful rebuilding efforts, the most recent being the Syracuse Orange.
“That's where I appreciate my experience at Syracuse,” he said. “From a managing style for myself and things I learned about being a head coach. Being the head coach for four years at Syracuse has helped me.”
His other successful rebuilding effort was as offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints.
Marrone’s first season with the Saints was in 2006, a year after the club was uprooted from the Superdome due to Hurricane Katrina. They played their home games at the Alamodome in San Antonio in 2005. Coming off a 3-13 season, Marrone and head coach Sean Payton had to resurrect an offense that finished 31st in scoring.
New Orleans first season back at the Superdome proved to be one of marked improvement. The Saints finished first in the league in total offense and fifth in scoring nearly doubling their point total of a season ago (235) scoring 413. The Saints finished 10-6 and won the NFC South division.
“I've been a player in this league. I've coached in this league,” he said. “So I have a good insight into the NFL. So for me I'm excited about taking those principles and approaches that we've used in the NFL and outlining that with the players and making sure they know what my expectations are and what their expectations are of me as the head football coach.”
At the start of every training camp every NFL head coach lays out the goals for the season and has some motivational words to inspire everyone to practice and play at their very best every day.
The NFL season however, is a long one and the weeks can drag for players especially when success on Sundays proves elusive.
Marrone motivates with his words, but there is motivational messaging for the players everywhere one turns at One Bills Drive. A player can’t help but be reminded of the tradition, responsibility and accountability they have as a member of the Buffalo roster.
It’s an approach that has convinced the players that their best in the past simply wasn’t good enough. As one of Marrone’s wall writings reads, ‘Don’t confuse effort with results.’
“Just because you’re a professional athlete or coach doesn’t necessarily mean that automatically you’re going to come in and be motivated at a high level,” said Marrone. “When you have things around it’s a reminder. There are a lot of standards of excellence that we need to uphold, from being part of the Buffalo Bills organization to what our individual responsibilities are. I think it’s important that we realize that when we come into work. Now at the same time you can’t just throw things up there. It has to have meaning and it has to be explained.
“But I don’t think you can ever over communicate messaging whether it’s leadership, competitiveness, winning. I think people under communicate that in my opinion. Whatever you have to motivate yourself, I think that it’s important. I even have a couple of sayings at my desk to remind myself so I’m motivated every day.”
Part of the reason Marrone was hired was because he and Nathaniel Hackett developed a unique offenseive attack that no one else was running and executed it with great success. On the other side of the ball Marrone hired Mike Pettine to run his defense. He too has a scheme that is morphing and changing its look while also being aggressive and relentless.
Marrone has also brought with him some analytic measures to make players more effective on the practice field and avoid overuse injuries.
“As far as the analytical process for what we do in football, we've been using that quite a bit with our team,” he said. “We used that at New Orleans. We want to be innovative. We want to use that to be on the cutting edge to push us forward. We've use some things that Syracuse and we're looking forward to implementing those programs and being on the cutting edge.”
As hard as Marrone works to make sure his players and staff understands their responsibilities, he’s keenly aware of his own.
“I do understand the responsibility that I have, not just for the players, the organization, but this region,” he said. “It's a lot of responsibility. I feel I'm the best person for the job. I've done this before. I've gone through this change, and I'm excited to work with the players here in this change.”