The Buffalo Bills have moved on to their fifth head coach since Wade Phillips was dismissed following the 2000 season (not counting 2009 interim Perry Fewell), and for the first time in franchise history they dipped into the college ranks, hiring Doug Marrone away from Syracuse.
Marrone has spent the last four years turning Syracuse from an abysmal program (10-37 in four years under Greg Robinson, and never better than 4-8) into a merely mediocre one, going 2-25 in his four years on the hill, a record that includes two Pinstripe Bowl wins (including this season's 38-14 romp over a West Virginia team that came into the season with national championship aspirations).
The track record of college coaches in the NFL is spotty at best. On one side are the likes of Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, the only two coaches to win both a Super Bowl and an NCAA title. Bill Walsh also had a relatively successful college career before taking over the 49ers dynasty in the 1980's. On the other side are the likes of Steve Spurrier, Lou Holtz, and Nick Saban, all very successful college coaches who foundered when making the move to the pros.
It's hard to say where Doug Marrone will fall in the spectrum. Unlike most coaches who have made the jump, he hasn't been hugely successful in the college ranks. Even Greg Schiano, who left Rutgers with a 68-67 record after 11 years, spent some time in the AP Top 25.
Schiano is actually a good place to start when considering how Marrone might fare. His Buccaneers team started off 6-4 this past season before dropping five straight, finally closing with a win at top-seeded Atlanta (which did not rest its starters) to finish at 7-9. The team drastically improved on both offense (27th in scoring in 2011, 13th in 2012) and defense (last in scoring in 2011, 23rd in 2012).
Their point differential in 2011 was -207; in 2012, it was -5. Quarterback Josh Freeman's completion percentage took an eight-point tumble, but he topped 4,000 yards and improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio from 16-22 in 2011 to 27-17 this season. Doug Martin made a strong case for Offensive Rookie of the Year under Schiano, rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns, both fifth in the NFL.
Marrone will be working somewhat in reverse from that. He comes into a situation with the dynamic and extremely versatile C.J. Spiller, who averaged 6.8 yards-per-touch in a 2012 season where no other 1,000-yard rusher (including Adrian Peterson) even managed a clean six. The closest thing Marrone had to Spiller in Syracuse was Antwon Bailey, who was a strong presence in the passing game and finished his NCAA career with 5.2 yards-per-touch. Utilizing Spiller in the same method will be Marrone's most pressing task in Buffalo.
On the other hand, Marrone will probably be breaking in a new quarterback, assuming the Bills and Ryan Fitzpatrick take their leave of one another. With Marrone in tow, it's expected that the team will make a run at another Ryan, Marrone's three-year starter Ryan Nassib. Nassib was a solid quarterback in college, completing 60.3 percent of his 1,312 passes for 9,190 yards and 70 touchdown to only 28 interceptions. He has sure potential to become an NFL starter, but he will likely need to spend some time on the bench behind a veteran quarterback before taking the reins.
The key in the situation is continuity, which is extremely important at the quarterback position. Anybody who questions that should look at the unexpected success of Ryan Tannehill under Dolphins' offensive coordinator Mike Sherman or the destruction of Alex Smith when he went through a different offensive coordinator for each of his first five seasons in San Francisco.
Defensively, Marrone's teams were in the mid-to-upper levels of the college game. Their standout season was 2010, where they finished seventh in the nation by allowing 301.5 yards-per-game. The Orange were largely led on defense by end Chandler Jones, a first-round pick of the Patriots in 2012. Without Jones this past season, they gave up a larger amount of yards (378.8 per game), but still ranked 48th in the nation.
Marrone has no experience coaching on the defensive side of the ball, but there is plenty of talent on the defensive line and in the secondary (especially if the team manages to resign free agent safety Jairus Byrd). Hiring a solid defensive coordinator to make the best use of the personnel will likely be the biggest long-term factor in the length of his stay in Orchard Park.
In the short term, as is the case for any incoming head coach, the most pressing task is building a staff. His staff at Syracuse did not feature anyone with NFL coaching experience, although he did have position coaches who played in the NFL, such as wide receivers coach Rob Moore and running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley.
He served as an offensive line coach under Herm Edwards with the Jets (his offensive coordinator at Syracuse, Nathaniel Hackett, is the son of his colleague Paul Hackett). He also was brought on with Sean Payton's first staff in New Orleans as offensive coordinator, although he was not responsible for play calling.
After watching Chan Gailey bungle the job for most of last season, Bills fans will be hoping that he can find someone who has proven themselves capable of the job. His connections on Payton's staff might be able to help him do just that.
After being teased with the likes of Lovie Smith and Ken Whisenhunt, Bills fans might be skeptical about plucking a relative unknown from the college ranks. However, after missing on hiring promising coordinators (Gregg Williams and Mike Mularkey) and recycled head coaches (Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey), the team seems to be trying something new under new team president Russ Brandon.
It's not a guaranteed success (like everything else in the world), but there is a real possibility that it could be the right move. It will likely depend on the personnel moves more than the coaching, but a good staff, a restart at the quarterback position, and proper use of the defensive talent can turn the Bills into a playoff team.
Doug Marrone could very well be the guy to put it all together.