JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- An ivy-covered house in a gated Florida community is the perfect place to disappear. As Doug Marrone drags his trash cans off the curb, a neighbor in an Infiniti stops, not to badger him about clock management, but to ask about a recent family trip to Europe. When he walks into the gym to watch his daughter Maddie play volleyball, he's no longer followed by a hundred sets of eyes. Here, he is not The Man Who Left Buffalo, he's like just about every other coach and player in Jacksonville: anonymous.
Helen Marrone would prefer to keep it this way, which is why she didn't sleep the night before. It is mid-July, months removed from the day Marrone stunned the NFL and walked away from a head-coaching job on a winning team, and she cannot figure out why in the world he'd agree to an interview. Their kids have finally stopped crying themselves to sleep, and the venom toward a man who took a $4 million opt-out clause to leave Buffalo has slowed to a trickle. She slips into the room every so often to hear what he's saying. "You're panicking," Marrone tells his wife.
She knows he's not good at this stuff. And that's probably one of the reasons Marrone is where he is right now: an assistant coach for one of the NFL's worst teams, less than a year after he led the Bills to their best record in a decade. He is awkward around a microphone, and his demeanor comes across as gruff. He cuts an intimidating figure, an old lineman in a 6-foot-5, 270-ish pound body.
But on this summer day, he looks like a dad who's just come back from the beach, dressed in jeans, flip-flops and a salmon-colored button-down shirt. It isn't one of Marrone's favorite shirts, but Helen urged him to wear it. She wants him to make a good impression. Deep down, so does he. He grew up believing that good coaches needed to know players and football, not the secrets to scoring personality points, but here he sits, near the couch cushions he meticulously vacuumed a few hours earlier, trying to prove he's not a money-grubbing ogre.
"It's funny," Marrone said. "When we were sitting here, I said, 'You know what?' My goal in the interview -- you're going to write what you write, I can't control that -- by my deal was, I just hope when you leave here, you're like, 'F---, this guy's not a bad guy.'"
Marrone chats for hours, so relaxed that he occasionally talks with his mouth full of hummus and chips. He gives off the vibe of a man comfortable and at peace.
But later that night, Marrone calls. He says he wishes he'd never talked at all.
The people of Buffalo believe that Doug Marrone quit on his team. What's the penance for that? Is it a year in purgatory, slogging behind the scenes in a smaller office with fewer responsibilities? Is it a hundred helpings of pride, swallowed every time one of his old players gushed about what new coach Rex Ryan is and Marrone wasn't?
Buffalo and Jacksonville met Sunday in London, and Ryan appeared to be taunting Marrone when he selected his captains for the game, all offensive linemen, in honor of the Jags' O-line coach. Ryan was not laughing at the end, however, when Jacksonville pulled out a 34-31 victory.
Marrone ran out with the offensive line during their warmups Sunday and exited when they were done. He never walked over the to the Bills' side of the field. He quietly slipped out of Wembley Stadium in his Jaguars' hoodie when it was over, declining to talk to the media. He didn't want to make the game, or the week, about him. Maybe late Sunday he was chuckling that Bills fans are restless again, frustrated over a 3-4 start, and several players are now complaining about their roles in Ryan's regime.
Or maybe Marrone stared across the field and wondered what could've been.
There are only 32 head-coaching jobs in the NFL, and it's exceedingly rare for a man to leave one of those coveted positions voluntarily, especially after a winning season. Nearly a year later, Marrone still won't talk about why he quit. He hasn't even told his parents.
The obvious guess is that Marrone, weary of constant criticism and unsure about his new bosses, took advantage of an uncommon clause in his contract when the Bills changed ownership, assuming he'd snag one of the open jobs in New York, Chicago, Atlanta or San Francisco. His name was hot back in early January. He was considered the front-runner for the Jets job.
But just before his interview, the New York Daily News ran a column citing anonymous sources who called Marrone a control freak and a phony who belittled his staff. Then an ex-assistant on his staff at Syracuse piled on in a radio show, and suddenly Marrone's name was toxic.
"He's obviously not Rex Ryan," said former NFL exec Bill Polian, an ESPN analyst who considered taking a front-office job with the Bills this past winter before Marrone left and who believes firmly that the bad publicity doomed Marrone's chances. "But he's not Lex Luthor, either, and that's how he was depicted."
Asked if he thinks the Jets were spooked by the Daily News column, Marrone said, "I hope people are stronger than that.
"Would it help the article if I say, 'Yes'? Here's why I struggle with that answer. If I say yes, then I've lost a lot of faith in human beings. I know that sounds really deep, but I mean that. If it was because of that, I wouldn't want those jobs anyway. Because when the s--- hits the fan, it's not going to work. So I don't even want to go that way. Once I do that, then I lose faith in everything."
Ex-NFL execs Charley Casserly and Ron Wolf, who advised Jets owner Woody Johnson on the coaching search, deny that the reports had any impact. (Johnson didn't reply to interview requests through the Jets.) "Woody picked the guy who was the best coach for the Jets, who, personally, I thought was the best coach for the Jets," Casserly said. "I think Todd [Bowles] is a great hire. A tremendous hire.
"That said, I think Doug deserves to be a head coach in the NFL, and I'd hire him in a minute."
The worst feeling Marrone has ever had did not come on a football field or in a rejection letter. It took place in an elegant, expensive restaurant in Miami Beach.
Marrone was a young lineman for the Miami Dolphins. He'd grown up from meager beginnings in the Bronx and was the first person in his family to graduate from college. He strutted into that restaurant with the confidence that he'd finally arrived.
Then he was handed a menu. It had no prices. There were eight forks around his plate. Marrone didn't know what to do with the forks, and to this day still can't pronounce the word "sommelier." He'd never felt so out of place.
He hated the feeling so much that years later, when he became head coach at Syracuse, he sent his players to etiquette classes. He wanted them to know how to tie their ties and that eating with a napkin tucked under your collar is unacceptable. He wanted them to never feel like they didn't belong.
In Buffalo, Marrone never seemed to fit in. He came across as paranoid, abrasive and thin-skinned. He seemed puzzled that the city didn't get behind him in 2014, in the midst of a rare 9-7 season. Sports-radio types were talking about the possibility of him getting fired in the last weeks of the year.
Marrone has a tendency to be harsh and brutally honest with his players, regardless of fragile egos. He is considered old-school, and the players who "get" him are often the ones who've hung around the league for a while. In conversations with various NFL insiders, Marrone's personality was often compared to that of Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells and Woody Hayes. But those coaches made up for their lack of warmth with championship rings.
Kyle Orton, a former Bills quarterback who retired after last season, is a Doug Marrone fan. Orton despises talking to the media, but he made a point to return a call this summer so he could praise his ex-coach. Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, on the other hand, is open about being glad that Marrone is gone. He says his ex-coach is anal-retentive and treats his players like children.
"He was always like he was walking on eggshells," Dareus said. "It seemed like he was nervous all the time. That just doesn't go well with players, especially because we're supposed to be following you."
But other players confirm that Marrone has a beating heart. There's the linebacker at Syracuse whom Marrone helped clear up his immigration status. There's a punter Marrone visited when the kid was battling cancer.
Rob Long was a team captain and an All-Big East selection at Syracuse when Marrone arrived in 2009, tasked with restoring glory to a program that had gone 5-37 the previous four years under Greg Robinson.
Long struggled his senior year, and in the middle of a late-season loss to Connecticut, Syracuse special teams coach Bob Casullo lit into him on the sidelines after several mistakes. The public dress-down seemed to last forever. A few days later, Marrone fired Casullo. He never explained why.
Two weeks later, Long went to the doctor and discovered he had a tumor in his brain. Though he wouldn't play in the Pinstripe Bowl, and his college career was over, Marrone would check in on him during his radiation and chemotherapy.
"He was a good guy to me," Long said. "I'm sure you've seen his press conferences. They're not something to throw on YouTube and watch a thousand times. He's very plain and monotone. [But] there is a lot of personality there, a lot of drive to be the best he can be. He's a very good football coach, the best that I ever played for."
This past winter, Long was in his car when he heard a former Syracuse assistant talking about Marrone on the radio. The assistant called Marrone "self-centered, selfish and greedy." The assistant was Bob Casullo.
In his interview this summer, Marrone insisted he did not leave Buffalo thinking he had the Jets' job in the bag. "I wouldn't be that egotistical," he said. "I know anything can happen in this league."
His opt-out clause gave him a three-day window after the season ended to decide whether to stay or to go and collect $4 million with no offsets. On the first day of the window, Marrone says, he believed he was staying. He met with the team and had the Bills' schedule for the next six months mapped out. But by Day 2, he had doubts. He won't say what caused them, only that the concerns arose after meetings with Buffalo's management.
A week before Marrone quit, he sat down for Christmas Eve dinner with Bills president Russ Brandon. The conversation was casual, and Brandon assumed the two would be sharing a few more holiday meals.
Brandon is surprisingly effusive in his praise for Marrone. He says the Bills played hard for the coach despite a bizarre 2014 season fraught with challenges. In March, owner Ralph Wilson died. Then star linebacker Kiko Alonso tore his ACL, ending his season. Then a historic storm slammed Buffalo in November, dropping seven feet of snow and forcing the team to play a home game in Detroit.
"With all this going on, Doug stood at the face of adversity and led our franchise," Brandon said. "Everyone had an excellent relationship, and everyone was striving to turn the ship around."
So why would Marrone leave? "I can't answer that question," Brandon said. "That was his decision."
Marrone, for his part, says he was never unhappy. He scoffs at the reports that he stormed out of the war room during the 2014 draft when the Bills surrendered a first-round pick to select receiver Sammy Watkins. Marrone said he simply got up to tell his assistants, who were in another room, about the pick. He downplays the significance of a sideline argument last year between him and general manager Doug Whaley: Coaches and GMs don't always see eye to eye, he says.
One of Marrone's former assistants, Fred Pagac, believes Marrone decided to leave after he failed to win contract extensions for his staff. "He felt he was a lame-duck coach," Pagac said. "This is my opinion. I don't know really what he felt. He had that out clause in his contract, and he did it."
With a serious face, Marrone now says he has no regrets. Coaches are supposed to say these kinds of things, but Marrone is steadfast that it's true. "It's a decision I made for me and my family," he said. "It was the best decision for me."
One of the hardest things Marrone had to do this past winter was listen to his kids as they cried at night. They couldn't understand why they had to leave their friends in Buffalo. Marrone figures they've been upset about moving before, but this is the first time he's been around to hear it. He is spending more time with them, trying to make up for all the years he was a head coach. Now he takes his kids fishing on a lake near the house he bought.
He could've sat out this year with his money. That would've been the prideful thing to do. But there he was in January, his ego battered from the rejections, talking to head coach Gus Bradley about football and culture.
The Jaguars' staff liked to bust his chops over the summer about his downsized office and about whether certain tasks might be beneath him. Marrone engaged in the banter. He appreciated the slower pace and being one of the guys.
"I don't know if Doug Marrone could ever take a year off," Bradley said. "He's so passionate about the game and passionate about being a part of the team. I think that's what drives him. He wants to be a part of something special."
One day, during a summer workout, Bradley watched Marrone with the players. He stopped him at the end to tell him he's a good teacher. Marrone was taken aback and maybe a little embarrassed. But Bradley went on. "I'm gonna tell you, you're really good, man," he said.
Marrone knows he might be putting his house on the market at some point. He wants to be a head coach again. "But it's obviously not something I'm actively going out and looking for," he said. "With my situation in Jacksonville, I feel it's a great opportunity that Gus and Dave and [owner] Shad [Khan] gave me. To work with this group of young linemen and be part of this offense ... I'm excited about that. But I think the head-coaching stuff was something I was good at."
The Jaguars' season is anything but special. They are 2-5 and miles away from preseason dreams of the team's first winning season since 2007. One of the few bright spots has been the steady improvement of Marrone's offensive line, which in the past was the weakest link on the team. They've made defensive stars Ndamukong Suh and J.J. Watt look mortal, and in September went an entire game without allowing a sack for the first time since 2013.
"His players like him," Jaguars center Stefen Wisniewski said. "He's a grinder. He always puts the work in. He's smart. We know we can trust him. When guys see that, they'll go to battle for a guy."
Here, Marrone doesn't have to score personality points. He's burrowed into his hole, coaching his linemen. He just needs success. He's no longer thinking about the players who bashed him after his departure. Underneath his big, rough exterior, the words cut through him. His friends would always encourage him to open up, a la Rex. Maybe if people knew him, they'd like him.
But in the end, Marrone is who he is.
When the interview is over, he promises that in 14 years, when he's 65, he'll meet over beers and spill it all about why he left Buffalo. He walks outside, to the palm trees and the friendly neighbors, and says goodbye. Here, far away from the New York heat, he hopes he's got them thinking:
"F---, this guy's not a bad guy."
ESPN staff writer Mike DiRocco contributed to this story.