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Bucky Gleason: Two years after Marrone's exit, questions remain

Bucky Gleason

This is no great surprise, but Doug Marrone declined interview requests from the Buffalo media this week in advance of the Bills-Jaguars game. He never came across as a guy who relished warm-and-fuzzy reunions, so I can’t imagine him pining for critics who buried him when he left town with $4 million.

Marrone returns Sunday for the first time since 2014, when he coached the Bills to a 9-7 record and abruptly hit the road with enough questions to fill Rex Ryan's pickup truck. His last game in Orchard Park was a 21-13 victory over Green Bay, which was 10-3 before Buffalo shut down Aaron Rodgers in the home finale, improved to 8-6 and remained in the playoff picture.

Sure, it would have been nice to hear Marrone’s version of what transpired after the season. Two years later, people still assume he was greedy. Or that he lost a power struggle with General Manager Doug Whaley. Or that he didn’t think he could win in Buffalo. Or that he pushed his chips to the middle while three cards short of a full house.

Marrone wasn't going to sway opinions either way, so explaining himself this week served little purpose to him and the struggling Jags.

The most sensible theory suggested a combination of variables led to his unceremonious exit after he helped the Bills shift in the right direction. They handed him 4 million reasons to explore his options. He figured he could build a stronger relationship with another general manager and increase his chances of success.

Marrone had three days to decide whether to exercise an escape clause in his contract that pumped $4 million into his bank account if the Bills changed owners. Most were unaware of the provision until he packed up his belongings, long after Ralph Wilson passed away and Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the franchise.

If he had a week or a month to contemplate his future, perhaps Marrone would have stayed in Buffalo. Who knows? He might have ended the playoff drought last season. The Pegulas, on the advice of Bill Polian, wanted to keep him. With the clock ticking and uncertainty building about their power structure, Marrone grabbed the loot and ran.

Who could blame him?

Marrone can expect a rousing reception, the kind reserved for Tom Brady and few others, when he shows up Sunday. Buffalo fans keep their most poisonous venom on reserve for people who hurt them the most. In their eyes, he turned his back on the organization, and on them, the moment he quit and walked out the door. Like most people in sports, he did what he thought was best for him.

It didn't matter that his decision backfired when he blew his interview with the Jets. He has interviewed for six NFL coaching vacancies since he left Buffalo. He remains the offensive line coach and assistant head coach under Gus Bradley, whose 2-8 record will likely lead him to the chopping block.

Say what you will about Marrone. He could be difficult with his porky personality and thin skin. He alienated certain players, had problems with Whaley and intimidated others in the organization. Dubious decisions, such as punting on fourth-and-1 from the opposition’s 40-yard line, marked his tenure here.

Overall, despite his flaws and a 15-17 record over two years, he was the best coach Buffalo had during its long and disturbing playoff drought. Not since Wade Phillips, when this 16-year run of futility began, did a Bills’ coach with two full seasons have a higher winning percentage than Marrone. Among former coaches, only Marv Levy, Lou Saban, Chuck Knox and Phillips had higher winning percentages in franchise history.

It speaks to their pathetic standards.

Ryan could finish with a better two-year record than Marrone. He was hailed as a savior but, with a 13-13 record so far, he’s hardly an upgrade. The Bills had far more talent last year under Ryan than they did the previous season under Marrone, yet finished with a worse record. Ryan was on the hot seat after losing the first two games and could be in trouble again if they fall apart over the final six.

Buffalo fans aren’t going to hold back Sunday, but deep down they know better. Underneath their anger and frustration with Marrone, the person who abandoned the franchise, rests a certain level of respect for Marrone, the head coach who did a solid job in Buffalo under trying circumstances.

Remember, he had a 6-10 record in his first season with EJ Manuel and Thad Lewis playing quarterback. Manuel was a rookie. Lewis played one game for Cleveland, made five starts for Buffalo and never played another down. Let’s not forget Jeff Tuel, either, for heaven’s sake. Buffalo was two overtime losses from going 8-8.

Marrone was no Bill Belichick but, looking back, 6-10 with that crew was an achievement.

The Bills had the fourth-rated defense in 2014 and led the NFL in sacks during the two-year stretch under Marrone despite changing defensive coordinators. Mario Williams had 27½ sacks and was inspired in two seasons under Marrone. He was one of the first players, but not the last, who quickly checked out under Ryan.

In 2014, Buffalo finished 9-7 with Kyle Orton starting 12 games at quarterback. Fred Jackson had 525 yards rushing and 66 catches to lead his team in both categories. Robert Woods had 65 catches, the most of his career. Marcell Dareus made the Pro Bowl both years, the only two times he was selected.

Marrone and Whaley had numerous differences, including one in which the Bills surrendered two first-round picks to select Sammy Watkins. Whaley also wanted Manuel to play over Orton. Dareus once described Marrone as being too strict with his players and treating them like children.

Well, the 2014 draft was loaded with good receivers who have since outperformed Watkins for one reason or another. Manuel, a disaster in a loss to the Jags last year in London, has been nailed to the bench. Dareus was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, another sign he was a problem child who lacked discipline.

Marrone was one of only two Buffalo coaches since 1999 who posted winning seasons. Mike Mularkey, in 2004, was the other. In both cases, they resigned after finishing 9-7. With only 32 jobs available and neither man in the company of all-time greats, their decisions were an indictment of the organization more than anything else.

Both were criticized mercilessly, but they concluded they were better off leaving rare opportunities than sticking with the Bills. It explains all you need to know. Whether they share their rationale or not, there's always another side to the story.

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