NFL Nation: Doug Marrone
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.
Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.
Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?
Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.
Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.
James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.
Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?
Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.
Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.
Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.
Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.
@mikerodak running backs look to be more interesting than I expected, and even though there isn't competition QB growth is #1- Bob rieth (@Bob_rieth) June 16, 2014
Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?
Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.
Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.
Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.
Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.
@JamesWalkerNFL Dion Jordan. Can't hold him back anymore. He will get 10 sacks and will be on the field 40 plays per game- Tom Ernisse (@ternisse13) June 4, 2014
How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?
Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.
Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.
Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.
Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.
@MikeReiss Two. (hoping he goes out with a ring (a la John Elway)- Because i think he has less than 3 - I'm watching the back up QB battle.- Elizabeth (@capesquad) June 18, 2014
Running back C.J. Spiller is able to become a free agent after this season. Speaking to reporters following his first offseason workout Tuesday, Spiller dropped a line that could send shivers down Bills fans' spines.
"It's my first rodeo. I'll take advice from guys that have been there before. I'll reach out to Jairus [Byrd] and see how he handled it," Spiller said. "I haven't talked to him. I've seen him this offseason but I will [reach out] eventually."
Byrd was franchised last offseason and chose not to sign his tender, sitting out the offseason program and most of training camp. Spiller, on the other hand, was with his teammates Tuesday.
"The biggest thing is, I'm here. Last year, Byrd and his situation was different and he didn't show up," Spiller said. "And it worked out in his favor. But I'm here, ready to work."
Spiller was asked if he was taking part in the voluntary workouts as a sign of "good faith" in the upcoming negotiations.
"No, this is a lot of different things. I'm not the type of guy that -- I love being around my teammates. I love working out. So, is that going to boost anything? Who knows," Spiller said. "I can only control what I do. I can't worry about anything else. I understand that this is a business. Decisions have to be made. You have to respect that. But being here has nothing to do with that stuff."
As for any negotiations, Spiller is in the process of hiring an agent. Gary Wichard, who negotiated Spiller's rookie contract in 2010, died in 2011.
"Hopefully I'll get one pretty soon. I'll need one pretty soon. So I kind of got some guys in mind, that I'm looking at. I've had a chance to meet with a couple, so that process has been going pretty well so far," he said. "I just haven't really had enough time to really get into trying to really sit down and see who the best agent would be best for me, with different characteristics that I'm looking for.
"Because my previous guy, I had a unique bond with him and that's kind of what I'm looking for. So it will take a while to try to get a feel for guys, but through a lot of talks and a lot of prayer, I know I'm going to select the right person. So it's nothing to do with trying to delay any negotiations, because I haven't had any time. I've been spending time with my daughter and my family."
Spiller didn't say when he would like to begin negotiations with the Bills' brass.
"I haven't really given it any thought. I'm sure once that time comes, both parties will try to sit down and try to get something down and start negotiating. Right now, I'm pretty sure these guys are getting ready for the draft. I'm getting ready for the season," he said. "I haven't really given it any thought, about this possibly being my last year."
Playing into the contract talks will be the diminished market for free-agent running backs. As explored in a recent piece by ESPN's John Clayton, running backs are having trouble getting paid after reaching free agency.
Spiller still sees the position as valuable.
"If you look at this free agency, running backs really didn't make a big splash in the market. I don't know if teams just decided to make this a passing league, which it already is," Spiller said. "To me, you're always going to need a running back. A quarterback's best friend is the running game. Fortunately for us, that's what we're going to have here in Buffalo. We've had a great running game since I've been here.
"But some reason, some people started looking at that stat sheet, started looking at the age and different stuff, instead of looking at production and what guys done. Take Adrian Peterson, for instance. Look at his production. Look at Chris Johnson, who went for 1,000 yards for six straight seasons. So to me, you got to have a running back. You got to have more than one because of the season."
ESPN NFL Nation writer Kevin Seifert recently examined running backs' performance as they age and found a "cliff" after age 27. Spiller, who turns 27 in August, brushed aside any fears of a possible decline.
"I don't think nothing about it. It's just somebody that came up with a stat. Good on their part," he said. "I don't think my play is going to decline. If you really go look at my body of work, I don't really have a ton of carries. I probably have maybe 600. And this is going into my fifth year. You look at other guys who have almost 2,000 carries, it's a huge difference.
"I don't think about it. I don't pay attention to it. I'll be 27 this year and if people say that's my peak, then that's them. But to me, I'm just going out there and just balling."
Spiller defended his play last season, when he was limited by an ankle injury but rushed for 933 yards.
"I was very pleased. Considering that I was playing on one wheel, really. Almost went for another 1,000-yard season," he said. "That was one of my big goals, trying to get back to that 1,000-yard season. Just came up short. To be able to do it on one wheel, that was pretty impressive."
However, Spiller's production and playing time dipped from the season prior. He and coach Doug Marrone seemed to be on different wavelengths at points last season, with Spiller eventually sitting out one game in October to rest his injured ankle.
"I won't forget what everybody was writing in the papers," Spiller said Tuesday. "What really stung? Everything. 'Should I [have] sat down? Was the 2012 year just a one-year thing?' But it is what it is. You guys get paid to do what you do, and I get paid to do what I do. Like I said, I'm gonna be ready to go this year and hopefully I can get back to that 2012 form."
Despite the potential to test the free-agent market next spring, Spiller said he would welcome a long-term deal with the Bills.
"I would. There's not too many guys that can say that they've played [their whole] career at one spot," he said. "But at the same time, you've got to be a realist with yourself and understand that this is a business, as well. But my goal -- I would love to stay here and finish my career -- but who knows how it'll play out."
One person with a special interest is Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone, who coached Williams at Syracuse. Williams' college career didn't end well. He was suspended for academic impropriety and later quit the football team.
"I've always had a lot of respect for Mike," Marrone said during the AFC coaches breakfast Tuesday morning. "I thought Mike was a heck of a football player. We had a lot of conversations. There were a lot of good things that were going on. I got a lot of calls before the draft and I told those guys that Mike would do well. We've been disconnected obviously from when he left to his time in Tampa. But I liked Mike. I really did. I wish him well. Yesterday, I talked to [Tampa Bay general manager] Jason [Licht] just to see if he was OK. Obviously, I care about Mike."
Williams was stabbed in the thigh. He was treated at a local hospital and released. The Buccaneers have said they're still gathering information about the incident.
A first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2008, Williams has never lived up to expectations while bouncing between guard and tackle. He started 16 games at guard for St. Louis last season, but the Rams weren’t eager to re-sign him. But Marrone sees Williams as a reclamation project.
“I’ve been part of this before,’’ Marrone said during the AFC coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meeting Tuesday morning. “I was fortunate that I had a player, Jeff Faine, out of Cleveland that wasn’t playing that we were able to attain in New Orleans and he came in and performed at a Pro Bowl level and became the highest paid center in the league.
“My goal, my challenge, is to have the same type of thing happen with Chris. I’m excited about working with him. I know there are a lot of people that have a lot of question marks about him. I really don’t. I don’t at all. I’m fired up to work with him and he’s fired up.’’
Marrone believes Williams can be an impact player at left guard. That’s why the Bills gave him a four-year contract worth $13.5 million. Marrone said he thought Williams had enormous potential when he was coming out of college.
“I really liked Chris coming out,’’ Marrone said. “I really thought he had the skill that someone like myself was looking for in an offensive lineman. I know that things have not worked out as well for him or things have not gone the way he wanted them to go for himself or probably the team that picked him. It’s been tough. There have been struggles for him. People have gotten on him.’’
But, now, maybe it’s time for Williams to finally reach his potential.
In other news, Marrone said it’s possible the Bills will practice with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the preseason. Marrone also said cornerback Corey Graham, who the Bills signed in free agency, might be moved to safety.
Williams, a former first-round pick, never panned out with the Chicago Bears. He started 16 games at left guard last season and now will have a chance to step into that same role with the Bills.
ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak, ESPN Rams reporter Nick Wagoner, and ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson discuss the signing:
Rodak: Nick, how did the Rams' line as a whole perform last season? Did Williams make it better or worse?
Wagoner: As expected, the Rams had their share of injury issues on a line full of veterans. They were mostly solid, especially after the team refocused on the run game. But they also had their share of struggles, especially when they faced the dominant front sevens in the NFC West. Williams was the weakest link of the group, though he provided more durability than any of his linemates. He held up OK, but those division foes especially had a knack for getting the better of him.
Jeff, you saw Williams early in his career and when the Bears first tried to make him a guard. Did you ever envision he'd land a contract like the one he got from Buffalo?
Dickerson: Not a chance. The Bears touted Williams as their franchise left tackle of the future when the team selected him in the first round (No. 14 overall) of the 2008 NFL draft, but he hardly lived up to expectations and is considered one of the Bears' biggest draft busts, along with Gabe Carimi, in the last seven or eight years. His chronic injuries and uneven play ultimately led to his release. To be fair, Williams turned out to be much better suited to play inside at guard, however, he was never viewed as one of the elite guards in the NFL, except by the Bills, apparently.
Rodak: Jeff, Doug Marrone is a former offensive line coach and has valued size among offensive linemen early in his tenure with the Bills. Williams (6-foot-6, 326 pounds) is a load, but how effectively did he use his size with the Bears?
Dickerson: Again, I don't want to make it sound as if Williams was a terrible guard, but he never had the reputation of being an ultra-athletic or ultra-aggressive offensive lineman. Maybe that changed when Williams went to St. Louis. Obviously, he has the requisite size to play inside. Marrone is a terrific coach. Hopefully it's a good pairing. But his size was never viewed as a negative or a positive when Williams played in Chicago.
Rodak: Nick, what was your sense on how the Rams valued Williams? Do you think they wanted to bring him back as a starter?
Wagoner: They had interest in bringing him back, though I think it's likely if he'd come back he would have either been a backup or, more likely, in a competition for the starting job like he was in 2013. To me, it made sense if they could get him back to serve as a swing man simply because he could play anywhere on the line except center. Having a player like that at a cheap price is pretty much ideal for a backup. But I don't think they were going to extend themselves too far to bring him back. Offensive line coach Paul Boudreau has a great reputation for taking reclamation projects and getting something out of them. Although this is another starter subtracted from the line, I believe the Rams feel they can upgrade the starter at this spot and develop someone else to fill a backup swing role he could have had.
Jeff, something that applies to the Rams and Bills, but you saw up close. The Rams look like they're going to have to do some quick work to improve the line this offseason and they may have to use the draft to do so. It seems the Bears were able to do that last year, what did you see in how they were able to turn it around so quickly?
Dickerson: General manager Phil Emery double-dipped in free agency and the draft. He spent big bucks to land left tackle Jermon Bush and reunite him with his old New Orleans Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, and followed that up by signing guard Matt Slauson. Both turned out to be major upgrades over what the Bears had in 2012. Then Emery drafted right guard Kyle Long in the first round and right tackle Jordan Mills in the fifth round to complement veteran center Roberto Garza. It was a stroke of pure genius.
Wagoner: The Rams might need some of that genius in the next couple of months here though when they lean on Boudreau to be their offensive line whisperer of sorts.
Mike, obviously this is a move that has Jeff and I scratching our heads, and I know you feel that way, too. What was the need for Buffalo on the offensive line, how do you see Williams fitting in and what do the Bills hope to get from him?
Rodak: Nick, the Bills have told Williams that they want him to be their left guard. That was a problem area for the Bills last season, as they never found someone reliable to step in for Andy Levitre. The Bills are big on Williams' size and if it works out, then he'll be an upgrade over Doug Legursky, who should ideally be their backup center. With the contract the Bills gave Williams, he should be starting at left guard on Day 1. If he's not, that's a problem. They're not paying him to be a backup, although with his versatility, he could help as a swing player at several positions. It's a signing that addresses an area of need but also comes with an element of financial risk.
Earlier start in July: The Bills were one of the last teams to start training camp last season, as they began their preseason on a Sunday instead of a typical Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night game. That won't be the case this year. The Hall of Fame game is held a week ahead of the first full preseason weekend, meaning the Bills might also start training camp a week early. It's not a requirement that they do, but expect coach Doug Marrone to take advantage of the extra time to get his team prepared. That means a shorter July vacation for players and the coaching staff.
Longer haul in camp: With training camp starting early and five preseason games on the slate, this will be a longer summer than usual for players. The Bills were hit with a rash of injuries last preseason, with several key players -- EJ Manuel (knee), Kevin Kolb (concussion), Stevie Johnson (hamstring), and Stephon Gilmore (wrist) -- sidelined. For Manuel in particular, the longer camp could be beneficial from a development standpoint, but it also presents more risk for injury, especially with Manuel's knees already under the microscope. It wouldn't be surprising if Marrone works more rest days and walk-throughs into the camp schedule to keep players fresh.
Ideal road trip: From a fan standpoint, the combination of Reed's induction (on Aug. 2) and the Bills-Giants game (on Aug. 3) make for an ideal summer road trip. With Buffalo-to-Canton less than a four-hour drive, expect plenty of Bills fans in the stands. The Bills last played in Canton in 2009, falling to the Tennessee Titans, 21-18.
I began a question during his podium session today at the combine by noting that he was probably Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien's best friend in the league.
"Did he say probably or you said probably?" the Bills head coach said with a smile. That was my word, not O'Brien's. "I just wanted to make sure. When I see him I'm going to ask him."
"It's a funny profession," Marrone said. "You start off, and I started off in Division III after I'd gotten done playing. You grow up with a lot of people. usually it's regional. we were all obviously in the northeast together. ... You see everyone grow and see everyone grow in the profession. It's a gratifying experience to know people in your profession have integrity, have character, that work extremely hard and are able to be successful."
Marrone didn't say much about what O'Brien was like when they were young coaches together, but I asked him off the podium if the intensity everybody talks about with O'Brien has always been part of his character.
"Bill wears his heart on his sleeve," Marrone said. "I'd say it's intense, but it's intense in a positive way, not a negative way. ... If he couldn't turn it off, that would be a negative way. ... He's done it throughout his whole career, not only as a head coach, but even when I saw him as a position coach."
Marrone recently went through the same transition O'Brien is about to. I felt similarities in their feelings about making the move. Marrone actually felt the transition from college to the NFL was easier than the transition from working in the pros to working in college.
"I was much more comfortable with the schedule, calendar, the way it was in the NFL than it was in college," Marrone said. "The schedule is different. It's very difficult to spend as much time as you'd like to coaching."
That move to the NFL makes actual coaching much more of a focal point than it is in college. Marrone made that move last season. His team went 6-10 after his move from Syracuse to Buffalo, but Bills writer Mike Rodak indicates the team has pieces in place to get better next season.
An upward trend for the Bills would fit Marrone with the new trend of college coaches who become NFL head coaches. If you asked a few years ago, conventional wisdom indicated former college head coaches struggled with a move to the NFL. That is not really the case anymore as coaches like Pete Carroll, Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly have shown.
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?
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.
But before the season started? Well, that's different. Prior to the Bills' regular season opener, often-outspoken receiver Stevie Johnson said the New England Patriots did not have "anybody that could stop me."
"People have to be who they are," Marrone said on Sept. 9. "You guys are going to ask tough questions, and you want them to answer it. You want people to be who they are and what they do. As long as it's not a standpoint of giving away any strategic information. ...I think that's where I would have a problem with it."
In the wake of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman taking trash-talk with San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree to the national airwaves, we're examining how each head coach handles trash-talking on his team.
In the case of the Bills, Marrone's answer back in Week 1 makes his opinion clear. On a scale of red (not allowed), yellow (within reason) and green (go for it), Marrone's stance on trash talking is: Green.
"I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Mike on becoming the Browns new head coach and thank him for all of his time and efforts with our team this past season. He did an excellent job of improving our defense and we wish him the best.
We have a plan in place and we will introduce our new defensive coordinator after our final decision has been made."
Driesbach, 61, told Tom Moore of the Bucks County (Penn.) Courier Times on Monday evening that he was stunned by the move, saying he was called into coach Doug Marrone's office and given little explanation for his termination.
"I have no idea what happened. I don't know if they felt like I did a (poor) job or somebody better became available. I don't know and probably never will. It's the bad part of the business."
Driesbach, who coached for 36 years in the college ranks before earning his first NFL job this season, has ties to the defensive coaching staff. Driesbach served as defensive coordinator at Pitt from 1993-1996 and gave current Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine his first coaching job as a graduate assistant in 1993.
Pettine, Driesbach, and Bills outside linebackers coach Jim O'Neil all attended Central Bucks West High School in Pennsylvania. Driesbach also played for Pettine's father.
While he had no prior background with Marrone, Driesbach said he never had a run-in with the first-year head coach.
"[Marrone] never got sideways with me once," Driesbach told the newspaper. "He let me coach ... I gave my (weekly) reports and we agreed on everything. It's a little bit of a shocker."
Driesbach says he plans to continue coaching.
"The organization was absolutely fabulous," Driesbach said. "That's why it's so crazy. It was a great experience. I was treated wonderfully by everybody in that building, then this bombshell fell."
Coming off their first consecutive victories this season, the Bills had a chance to make it three straight and start their offseason on the right foot. That didn't happen.
"I think it would have been much different if we ended on a three-game winning streak," coach Doug Marrone said. "I think this game kind of burst that bubble."
More accurately, it was Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount who sent the soggy Bills back to Buffalo on a losing note. Blount set a Patriots franchise record with 334 all-purpose yards, slopping through the wet turf for 189 rushing yards, including a pair of long touchdown runs.
Otherwise, the Patriots were not as sharp as they could have been. Quarterback Tom Brady finished with a 68.4 quarterback rating, throwing a fourth-quarter interception that gave the Bills life late in the game -- until they were forced to settle for a field goal.
It was the kind of game that exemplified the Bills' season. Just when things were starting to go right, something immediately went wrong. There may have been no better example than late in the third quarter, when T.J. Graham caught 12-yard touchdown pass -- only for Blount to return the ensuing kickoff 83 yards to set up a Patriots touchdown.
"Right now I'm pissed," Marrone said after the game. "I am upset. ... I mean, I'm mad. I have to smile because that's what I have to do. [That's] the media training."
The Patriots were heavily favored in this game. The Bills were starting their backup quarterback, Thad Lewis, in a venue where the team has never won, against a coach and quarterback -- Bill Belichick and Brady -- who have walked over their division rivals time and time again.
Still, Marrone liked his chances.
"I actually had in mind coming in here and winning the game. I really did. I felt really good about coming in and winning this football game," he said. "I felt that we had good plans. I felt that we had a good formula for what we needed to do to win."
That's not unusual -- find a head coach who enters a game planning to lose it -- but Marrone had a point. The Patriots have looked susceptible all season and Sunday was no different. Consider that C.J. Spiller rushed for more than 100 yards and Lewis completed five passes of 20 yards or more, and the gap between the AFC East's best and worst team doesn't look so wide.
"Do I feel that, you know, we can beat them? Yes, I do," Marrone said. "But today we didn't. And the first time we played them, we didn't."
The teams' first meeting, the season opener, was decided on a Patriots game-winning drive and field goal late in the fourth quarter. Sunday's loss wasn't quite that close, and in both cases, the Bills walked away with a defeat.
To Marrone, nothing else needs to be said.
"You've got to go out there and do it at the end of the day, and we haven't done that," he said. "To say that you are closer or anything like that, until you win, you really don't have a leg to stand on."
The Patriots needed a late drive to beat the Bills 23-21 in the opener, but the teams went in mostly opposite directions over the next 15 weeks.
Unfortunately for the Bills, the script is a familiar one. They haven’t qualified for the playoffs since 1999, the longest active drought, so now the focus turns to next season.
Meanwhile, the Patriots enter another finale with playoff positioning in mind after having clinched the AFC East title for the 10th time in the past 11 seasons. The Patriots could actually thank the Bills for that, because Buffalo’s 19-0 victory against Miami last Sunday handed the division crown to New England.
Here to preview the matchup are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Rodak (Bills) and Mike Reiss (Patriots).
Reiss: Mike, this seems pretty obvious, but coach Doug Marrone is finishing his first season, and a win against the Patriots could go a long way toward the foundation he’s attempting to establish. What signs, if any, have you seen from Marrone that the Bills are on the right track?
Rodak: Mike, I think the past two games have said something about this team. After their 27-6 loss to Tampa on Dec. 8, the season was essentially over for Buffalo. They could have packed it in and waited until next season to make improvement. Instead, they have strung together their first back-to-back wins of the season. Does that matter in the long run? Probably not, but Marrone often talks about establishing a sense of accountability and resiliency in his team, and there have been some signs of that over the past two weeks.
Mike, the Patriots have shown plenty of resiliency this season too. Is this the best coaching job you've seen from Bill Belichick?
Reiss: Belichick and his staff have been coaching their tails off, no doubt about that. I have always rated 2008 at the top of the mountain, because when you lose Tom Brady on the 15th offensive play of a season and still manage to go 11-5, that’s pretty remarkable from this viewpoint. I think we’ve seen in recent years what often happens when a superstar quarterback is lost for the season -- the 2011 Colts with Peyton Manning as one example, which cost team president Bill Polian his job. We also see how the Packers are struggling this season without Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots have been hit hard by injuries this season too and also have quite a few young players who have been asked to take on significant roles. So it’s been impressive.
As for young players being asked to carry the load for the Bills, the big question from here is if EJ Manuel is a franchise quarterback to build around. What is your opinion on Manuel in that regard?
Rodak: That is a tough call, and it's going to be the biggest question Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley will need to address this offseason. From a leadership standpoint, Manuel has a presence and a poise that any successful quarterback needs. But it hasn't translated to consistency on the field. Since returning from his second knee injury, Manuel has thrown six interceptions and shown wild swings in accuracy as a passer. The Bills seem content with pressing forward with Manuel and allowing him to develop with live action each Sunday. That is the approach most teams take with young quarterbacks; it doesn't always work out. In most cases, deciding when to make a change is difficult. However Manuel's career unfolds, the Bills would be smart to have a Plan B, even as soon as next season. With J.P. Losman, that Plan B was Kelly Holcomb. With Trent Edwards, it was Ryan Fitzpatrick. Ultimately, neither of those veteran backups put the Bills in the right spot to win, which is why I think the organization must aim higher when hedging their bets with Manuel. Drafting another quarterback in the first round isn't an option that should be immediately dismissed.
This week, Marrone mentioned how the Patriots have several rookies playing roles on both sides of the ball. Watching undrafted defensive tackle Joe Vellano back in spring camps, I never would have thought he would be contributing as much as he has this season. But can the Patriots rely on Vellano and their other younger players in the playoffs? It doesn't seem that long ago when safety Patrick Chung, then in his second season, botched a fake punt that cost the Patriots in a divisional playoff loss to the Jets.
Reiss: Mike, I’d be shocked if the Bills take another quarterback in the first round. If they do in 2014, Buffalo wings on me from Duff’s for the next five years every time the Patriots come to western New York.
As for the Patriots, the rookies playing the largest roles are now [receiver] Aaron Dobson, [defensive tackle] Chris Jones, [cornerback] Logan Ryan and [punter] Ryan Allen. The others are sprinkled in from more of a complementary standpoint or as a short-term fill-in (e.g., Josh Kline at left guard vs. Baltimore). Vellano, for one, has seen his snaps decrease in recent weeks in favor of second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. Anytime a team has rookies and youngsters playing front-line roles, it comes with some added risk. But I’d say this about the Patriots this season: As young as they are in certain spots, no moment seems too big for most of the players on the roster.
Defensively, the Bills look strong up front. What do you see from them on that side of the ball?
Rodak: They certainly are, Mike. At this point, it's safe to call it the best defensive line in the league. The Bills have benefited from career seasons from both Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, who are both serious candidates for the Pro Bowl. Same with Mario Williams, who is enjoying his best season since signing his monster deal with Buffalo. But there have also been some under-the-radar contributors. Whaley's offseason swap of linebacker Kelvin Sheppard for defensive end Jerry Hughes has paid dividends. You can add Hughes to the list of players having career seasons under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. In the secondary, that theme continues with Leodis McKelvin, who had four shaky years before finding his groove this season. The Bills have also gotten big things from their smallest player -- 5-foot-7 slot cornerback Nickell Robey, who went undrafted in the spring but has played like an early-round pick. There have been bad moments for the defense, but in general, they came mostly earlier in the season. Right now, it looks like a unit on the rise.
Mike, one area where the Bills have been vulnerable at points this season has been their run defense. They rank 20th in the NFL, allowing 4.2 yards per rush. Is the Patriots' running game capable of exploiting that weakness? And perhaps more importantly, will the Patriots need their ground attack to advance in the playoffs?
Reiss: They are certainly capable of doing it, and last Sunday’s win against the Ravens is the evidence. The Patriots entered the game with a mindset of being physical, and they won the battle of the line of scrimmage, churning out 142 yards on the ground against a sturdy Ravens front that struggled against some zone runs. The Patriots ran it 34 times and had 28 dropbacks in the game. I don’t think they necessarily have to have that type of split in the playoffs to win, but like most offenses, this attack is at its best when it's most balanced. Ball security was a big issue the first few months of the season, mostly with running backs Stevan Ridley, and to a lesser degree with LeGarrette Blount (fumble in Oct. 6 loss to the Bengals), but that has subsided. One of the big keys with the running game last Sunday is it helped the Patriots in the red zone, where they are still recalibrating after losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 8.
With one game remaining in their season, the Bills might ultimately choose to sit their rookie quarterback in the finale.
"I think there’s always a chance," Marrone said. "I mean, there’s a chance that Marquise Goodwin can’t play, there’s a chance that Aaron Williams can’t play. There’s a chance that someone can come in here tomorrow and say ‘I don’t feel well.’ So I think it’s very difficult."
So then why did Marrone declare so emphatically last week that Manuel would play? The first-year head coach said Monday that it's his job to be optimistic.
"You guys have known. You’ve been around me. I’m one of those guys, I really don’t know a lot about when it comes down to the specifics of injuries. I’ve been that way since training camp. But I’m always pushing, trying to get them out there and trying to get them to play," he said. "And I’m optimistic, probably more than everybody that’s here right now when it comes down to that. And I need to be. I really do. I need to be that way."
Offensively, the Bills are a work in progress. But on the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's efforts won't go unnoticed by teams in search of a head coach this offseason, especially after Sunday's 19-0 shutout win over the Miami Dolphins.
According to a report last week from TheMMQB.com's Peter King, the NFL recently created a panel of former coaches and general managers to recommend head-coaching candidates to teams with vacancies. Pettine, 47, is on the list.
In his weekly radio appearance on WGR 550 in Buffalo last Wednesday, Bills CEO Russ Brandon said it would be unlikely that the Bills would block someone like Pettine from interviewing with other teams.
"It's something that obviously would come through me, [general manager] Doug Whaley and Coach [Doug] Marrone. But it all depends on what the opportunity is, but if it's a head coaching, certainly [he] would have that opportunity," Brandon said.
"My belief and foundation always has been about opportunity for people. You work your tail off in this business for opportunity. If coaches have that chance to better themselves for their career and for their family, it's something that you rarely, rarely would ever stand in that way for that opportunity."
Losing Pettine would be a blow to the Bills' rebuilding efforts, but having assistant coaches in line for promotions elsewhere might be a good problem for Buffalo.
"If that's the coach's goal, obviously we encourage it and support him in every way if he has that opportunity. Obviously I would like to see him stay right here in Buffalo, because I really think we're building something special on that side of the ball," Brandon said. "But he's a heck of a coach. But I'm sure he will have interest down the road here, especially if we keep improving. That's the catch-22.
"If we're improving as an organization or as a team, you're going to have your coaches poached a little bit, and that wouldn't be a bad thing. I'd like to worry about it, actually."
If teams with head-coaching openings look at Pettine, Sunday's win will be at the top of Pettine's résumé from this season.
Already with an NFL-best 49 sacks entering the game, the Bills added another seven sacks Sunday, shattering Buffalo's previous franchise single-season record set in 1995. The Dolphins never reached the red zone, were held to 2-for-14 on third downs and finished with just 103 net yards on offense.
"That was a pretty good beating," Pettine said with a smile after the game.
The shutout win and sack record serve as a feather in the cap for Pettine, who has led the turnaround of a Bills defense that had underperformed in recent seasons. While the Bills ranked 18th in points allowed entering this weekend, more fine-tuned statistics tell a different story.
This season, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi created a "defensive index" that tracks total turnovers, red zone defense, third-down conversions and points allowed by the defense. The Bills' defense ranked 12th in last week's installment and will undoubtedly move higher after Sunday's performance.
Prior to this season, it would have been easy to knock Pettine's coaching résumé. In his previous stints with the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, Pettine served as an assistant to Rex Ryan, a defensive mind who received much of the credit for that unit's success. But last offseason, Pettine decided to step out of Ryan's shadow and pair up with Marrone, whose NFL coaching background has come entirely on offense.
Now, the credit is due to Pettine. While the Bills' defense hasn't been excellent -- it ranks 23rd in rushing yards allowed per game, for example -- it has been very good for stretches this season, which could be enough to prove Pettine's worth to head-coaching headhunters in search of a top coordinator.
Still, the Bills' overall record this season might work against Pettine when coaching jobs open as soon as next week. It's often coordinators on playoff teams -- not those in last place in their division -- who receive consideration for head-coaching vacancies, so Pettine could be hurt by the limited national exposure the Bills received this season.
Pettine's career aspirations aside, it's fair to question if the Bills have wasted their defense's strong performances this season. It's even something Marrone's 9-year-old son has asked his dad.
"My son asked me the same thing, the same exact question you asked me. 'Do you look back and say should've, could've, would've?' I told him in life you can't do that," Marrone said. "Not in the present time and not with what we're doing. You always have to move forward and just keep working and building it."