- Mike Rodak, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Friday, we passed along news that the Bills promoted defensive quality control coach Jason Rebrovich to assistant defensive line coach.
When the Bills hired Doug Marrone as head coach a year ago, Rebrovich was one of six coaches that Marrone brought with him from his staff at Syracuse. That total increased to seven last Thursday, when Marrone added wide receivers coach Rob Moore to his Bills staff.
Along with Rebrovich and Moore, the Bills have hired the following coaches from Marrone's staff at Syracuse: offensive coordinator Nate Hackett, tight ends coach Greg Adkins, offensive quality control coach Jason Vrable, defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson and special-teams assistant John Anselmo.
That raises the following question: How much is too much when a college coach brings his former assistants on board in the NFL?
For some perspective, we took a look at the hiring patterns of Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who made the jump from Oregon last season, as well as former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, who left Rutgers for the NFL two years ago.
In Kelly's case, five of his Oregon assistants earned spots on his Eagles staff: assistant head coach/defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, assistant offensive line coach Greg Austin, assistant defensive line coach Erik Chinander, assistant special-teams coach Matt Harper and assistant defensive backs coach Todd Lyght.
Schiano, meanwhile, brought along six coaches from Rutgers: tight ends coach Brian Angelichio, wide receivers coach P.J. Fleck, linebackers coach Bob Fraser, assistant special-teams coach Phil Galiano, assistant defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley and defensive assistant Tem Lukabu.
In all cases -- with Kelly, Schiano and Marrone -- the college team replaced its departed head coach with one of his top assistants: Syracuse hired defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, Oregon hired offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich and Rutgers hired assistant head coach/offensive line Kyle Flood. Had that not happened, and those schools looked externally, then there may have been more defections of those former assistants to the NFL.
What is the benefit to keeping parts of a college staff intact as a coach makes the transition to the NFL? Besides giving a chance for loyal assistants to advance their careers, it provides continuity that can make a head coach's message easier to impress on players. Kelly stressed the importance of that when he hired his five former assistants in Philadelphia.
"That was really important to me to get a bunch of guys in here that understood me and really kind of built it from the bottom up," he said. "And Eric and Todd [Lyght], Matt Harper and Greg Austin are guys that are young coaches at Oregon that have been with me a couple of years and understood how I wanted things done and what my vision was."
However, unlike Marrone -- who bought along Hackett for the same position in Buffalo -- Kelly decided to have both his coordinators be coaches with NFL experience.
"I knew I was going to hire coordinators that were NFL guys that haven't had the opportunity to work with me before. I have a tendency to talk really fast and I want things to be efficient," Kelly said. "But I also know that I may forget to say something, and Pat Shurmur can go to Greg Austin and say, ‘What did he mean by that?’ Or the same thing with Dave Fipp and Matt Harper for those young guys. Now I can put together guys with NFL experience coming here, and those guys can say, ‘This is what coach means, this is how we operate.'"
As such, the decision to hire Hackett as offensive coordinator last season is where it may be easiest to quibble with Marrone. The move highlights the downside of a former college coach hiring his former assistants, particularly the risk involved in a college coach making a lateral move to the NFL. While Hackett may have been successful at the coordinator level in college, the NFL poses a whole new set of challenges.
Marrone may be well-intentioned in trying to develop Hackett as an NFL coordinator, but it is fair to question whether Hackett was the best option for the Bills to win. This offseason, Marrone has added two "external" coaches to his offensive staff: quarterbacks coach Todd Downing and senior offensive assistant Jim Hostler, seemingly acknowledging the need to give Hackett some help directing the offense.
There's also the need to have outside voices in the room, typically in the form of veteran coaches who have experience outside the shadow of that head coach. Marrone, at least in part, addressed that need in hiring his defensive coordinator each of the past two seasons. Mike Pettine and Jim Schwartz were external candidates but also the best options on the market at the time.
Pettine's hire paid immediate dividends for the Bills, as he brought dramatic improvement to the defense. Schwartz will now lead that unit and the expectation is clear: The defense needs to continue to perform at a high level.
Offensively, the Bills remain a work in progress. Acknowledging the challenges of developing a young quarterback in EJ Manuel, the Bills still need to make strides on that side of the ball next season. If that does not happen, legitimate questions will be raised about Marrone's decision to bring his offensive system -- and several of his assistants -- from Syracuse to the NFL.
4hEric D. Williams