The Buffalo Bills fly so far under the radar these days that they do not fly at all. They conducted the most rigorous coaching search possible within a 200-mile driving radius, hired Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone and promptly submitted their I-90 toll receipts for reimbursement.
Very little in the paragraph above is true. The Bills and Marrone met in Arizona, and if you were headquartered in Upstate New York in January, you would too. The Bills kicked tires on several major coaching candidates before selecting Marrone, who was not a consolation prize but a coveted coaching prospect who has everything going for him except a publicity machine. The only truth is that the Bills hired Marrone in the time it takes Jeffery Lurie to order an après-tif or Phil Emery to send out a mass mailing.
Fans in Philadelphia and Cleveland are howling on talk radio that their teams blew it when Kelly decided to return to the University of Oregon. (I am guessing about Cleveland. I can vouch for Philly.) They may want to howl about Marrone instead. Sure, Kelly’s Ducks dismantled Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, which we all watched, while Marrone’s Orange beat West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl, which would not exist in an orderly universe. Kelly’s resume appears too cool to even hang out in the same manila envelope as Marrone’s resume, at least until you take a closer look:
Doug Marrone, 2002-05: Offensive line coach for the New York Jets, an actual NFL team (at the time).
Chip Kelly, 2002-05: Offensive coordinator for the University of New Hampshire, which plays in the same conference as the University of Phoenix.
Doug Marrone, 2005-08: Offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints during their rise to power under Sean Payton.
Chip Kelly, 2007-08: Offensive coordinator for the Oregon Ducks during their rise to the top of the sports apparel industry under Nike.
OK, that last bit was glib; Oregon was very successful and innovative under Kelly’s watch, and only a substantial portion of that success can be attributed to successful branding. The fact remains that the coach who helped Sean Payton’s Saints lead the NFL in total yards twice should not automatically be considered the runner-up to the coach who helped Mike Belotti win a Holiday Bowl. History extends beyond 2010.
History also extends beyond last weekend, when Kelly conducted his high-profile dining tour of Arizona. The Browns met with him on Friday night, then the Eagles conducted an already-famous nine-hour luncheon/borderline kidnapping on Saturday in an attempt to coach-block the Browns. Kelly’s agent made sure that we knew his every move, the better drive up interest in Kelly’s services. Marrone also interviewed with the Browns and Eagles, but did not check in to Foursquare every time.
By Sunday, the Browns had soured on Kelly pursuit and declared that they would “reboot” their coaching search -- a fitting metaphor for a franchise always facing a blue screen of death. The Eagles hit the elliptical runner to burn off that nine-hour lunch and began pursuing coaches who don’t prompt an all-points-bulletin before every meeting. Kelly returns to Oregon with more name recognition than ever, which will boost recruiting, which will make his program even more successful, which will further increase his profile and NFL demand. Everybody wins, especially those who work on commission.
Not every team strikes suddenly like the Bills, lingers over dessert like the Eagles, or hits CTRL-ALT-DEL the moment one thing goes wrong like the Browns. Phil Emery and the Bears are acting like an actual organization, conducting multiple interviews for what is essentially an upper-management position in a corporation. Their list of completed or expected interviews is, well, comprehensive: Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements, Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, Cowboys special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis, Montreal Freakin’ Alouettes head coach Marc Trestman, and Texans offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.
There is method to Emery’s seeming madness. Most of the coaches on his list have an offensive background. Trestman may seem like an off-the-radar choice, but he was coordinating a Steve Young-Jerry Rice offense in San Francisco back when Chip Kelly was just wrapping up his coaching tenure with the Fighting Stethoscopes of Johns Hopkins. If Emery attempted a nine-hour lunch with each of these candidates, it would add up to 90 hours, or three and three-fourths days of nonstop munching and negotiating. Luckily for everyone’s health, none of these candidates expect that level of courtship.
The Eagles are also interviewing several of these candidates, as are the Browns and (probably) some other teams that are taking a more leisurely approach to coach selection. Many of them have outstanding qualifications. Take Mike McCoy, whose offense is flexible enough to support both Tim Tebow and John Elway. Bruce Arians shepherded a team full of rookies to the playoffs in Chuck Pagano’s absence and had the kind of mentor-protégé relationship with Ben Roethlisberger that should appeal to a team like the Bears. Arians is recuperating from a bout of nausea that hospitalized him on Sunday. He appears to be fine, but his interview schedule will be delayed a bit, and suitors should steer clear of the nine-hour lunches.
The Cardinals, like the Bears, are taking their time. “It’s not going to move at lightning speed,” owner Bill Bidwill said last week. “You don’t want it to, because you learn a lot during your due diligence period.” So far, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley have surfaced as Cardinals candidates. Due diligence for the Cardinals should mean watching film of the Bengals’ offensive performance against the Texans on Saturday, speaking to anyone associated with the Chiefs during Haley’s tenure there, and then promoting defensive coordinator Ray Horton, whose defense diligently hung on while the Cardinals offense handed opponents the football at midfield. Bidwell may want to quicken the pace before Emery gets to “H” in his contact list and calls Horton (though Emery appears to be steering clear of defensive coaches, being all Lovied out).
Speaking of Lovie Smith, he interviewed with the Bills last week, then vanished from the radar. Jon Gruden has also been strangely quiet. Also, no Bill Cowher. The Chargers have yet to pounce, the Browns are sure to lurch from one Big Paradigm Guy to the next Big Paradigm Guy, and the GM-less Jaguars may have a mid-January surprise planned, so the marquee candidates may soon have their star turns. For a brief window of time on Monday, Kelly and Andy Reid were off the board, Lovie was in limbo and solid candidates interviewed for coveted jobs with minimal relationship drama.
Which brings us back to Marrone, who took over a Syracuse program during hard times, made them bowl-viable and developed an NFL quarterback prospect in Ryan Nassib, who will be projected to go to the Bills in every mock draft published from now until mid-April. (All 14 trillion of them.) The Bills did due diligence, speaking to everyone from Chip to Lovie, but they also moved at lightning speed.
Like the introduction to this essay suggests, the Bills are easy to poke fun at: a cash-strapped, identity-challenged outpost organization grabbing the local college coach because they cannot compete for the services of the prom kings. But maybe the Bills did things right: avoided the lunch marathons and self-promotional tours, steered clear of Haley-like reclamation projects, focused their search and grabbed a guy who was second on many team’s lists while the guy who was first on their list ordered dessert.
It will a year or two to learn if Marrone is really the answer for the Bills. In that time, Kelly will win another Rose Bowl and see his name attached to every coaching job in the NFL. Emery will run out of cell phone minutes. And if he is not careful, Jeffrey Lurie will weigh 300 pounds.