Doug Marrone's first challenge? Finding the right defensive coordinator
The Buffalo Bills' defense has not ranked better than 26th in the league in any of the past three seasons. Doug Marrone's success as the Bills' new coach, then, may rely more on who he hires as his defensive coordinator than just about anything else.
Marrone became a hot commodity on the coaching market after guiding Syracuse to an 8-5 record, a share of the Big East title and a Pinstripe Bowl win over West Virginia.
He comes with an NFL background, too, having coached the Jets' offensive line from 2002-05, then taking on the Saints' offensive coordinator role from 2006-08. New Orleans finished first, fourth and first, respectively, in yards during Marrone's three seasons calling the plays.
That past success, plus the respect of Bill Parcells and Sean Payton -- as Peter King pointed out in this week's Monday Morning Quarterback -- gave Marrone the inside track on a head coaching gig, and Buffalo won the race for him.
But can he turn around that dismal Buffalo defense?
He will not be able to do it alone. Syracuse displayed a wide variance of defensive success under Marrone -- the Orange finished as high as 17th in points allowed (2010) and as low as 81st (2009; this year, Syracuse ranked No. 46, a standing hurt by back-to-back 42-point showings from opponents to open the season.
Marrone also has no experience coaching on the defensive side of the ball (aside from his duties as Syracuse's head coach). Prior to his time with the Jets and Saints, he was tight ends coach for the University of Tennessee and an offensive line coach for four separate schools, including Georgia and Georgia Tech.
Asking him to step in and fix what has ailed Buffalo's plodding defense may be too much of a request. Buffalo also axed defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt when ex-head coach Chan Gailey was handed his walking papers.
Marrone's experience makes it likely that Buffalo will be able to crank up its offense in the near future -- the Bills, despite two talented backs (C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson), a reliable top receiver (Stevie Johnson) and a relatively wide-open offense, have finished in the top 20 in points just once in the past eight seasons. Whether Marrone keeps Ryan Fitzpatrick as his QB, drafts Syracuse product Ryan Nassib or hits the free agent/trade market, the clear belief is that the first-year head coach can revive that dormant attack.
Will it matter, though, if the defense continues to underachieve? Maybe not. Which makes Marrone's next step a crucial one.
"The coordinators will need to have thorough NFL experience, especially on the defensive side of the ball," Marrone said during his introductory press conference in Buffalo on Monday.
The Bills' defensive shortcomings are not for lack of trying. Last year alone, they broke the bank for DE Mario Williams, then spent a top-10 draft pick on CB Stephen Gilmore. They also spent a 2011 first-round pick on DT Marcell Dareus and signed DE Mark Anderson prior to 2012.
The whole has been far worse than the sum of its parts, however.
Marrone badly needs to find the right candidate to pull that all together. There's no telling where he may turn now, but finding a new defensive coordinator figures to be atop his (and the franchise's) list of priorities.
If Marrone, with some assistance, can get the Bills' defense even up to average production levels, the potential of a Marrone-implemented offense could lead this team right into playoff contention. Buffalo's roster is built to win soon. That can only happen if Marrone makes the right choice for his defensive coordinator.