Former Saints assistant Marrone trying to turn around Buffalo’s fortunes

Like a lot of other NFL coaches who inherited programs that have not been successful, Buffalo Bills first-year coach Doug Marrone knew the one thing — the most important thing — he had to do when he took the job.

He had to forget about the past and wipe it away, which is something that isn’t easy to do when you take over a team that went through five head coaches and experienced only one winning season in 13 years.

It may be a cliché, but he had to change the culture.

“You don’t really know what’s gone on before,” Marrone said Wednesday. “You just kind of go in there and want to create.”

So Marrone, who served as the New Orleans Saints’ offensive coordinator from 2006 to 2008 on Sean Payton’s first staff, set about doing just that.

He assumed control of a team that hasn’t reached the postseason since 1999 and had one winning season over the next 13 years — a 9-7 mark in 2004 — while compiling an 82-126 record.

The first thing he had to do was build a trust with players, which he said is difficult to do under the new collective bargaining agreement because they don’t have to report for offseason workouts until mid-April.

“I’m not big on social media, so this was the first time I thought it was a great advantage for me because I was able to communicate with a lot of the players on the team through social media to make sure they knew what was going on — who we were hiring, what we were doing,” Marrone said.

“We were trying to really build a trust,” he added. “I tell people all the time when people use those catchphrases, changing a culture and things like that, the first thing you have to learn is how to communicate with each other.”

The message has come in loud and clear for the Bills, who have a 3-4 record going into Sunday’s game with Payton and the Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

That mark includes two heartbreaking losses to the New England Patriots (23-21) and New York Jets (27-20) and an overtime loss to the Cincinnati Bengals (27-24) — all teams with winning records.

Turn two of those three around, and the Bills are right at the top of the AFC East race as they approach the midway point of Marrone’s first season.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” he said Wednesday, “but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”

More surprising than the record is how Marrone has managed to do it — starting with two rookies and a former practice squad player at quarterback and injuries to star running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and veteran wide receiver Stevie Johnson.

“Everybody has injuries, and nobody is going to feel sorry for you,” said former LSU defensive tackle Kyle Williams, who has seen all the lows in seven-plus seasons with the Bills. “He’s just trying to change a lot of the mindsets, or enforce a lot of mindsets.

“He’s done a good job as far as taking expectations and putting them out there to the guys … and not being ashamed of them,” he said. “He’s really kind of holding you to the standard and living up to them and pushing you to get there. That’s what he’s done for our team.”

That’s certainly no surprise to Payton and Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who on Wednesday credited Marrone with developing the Saints’ offensive line that helped them win Super Bowl XLIV — 14 months after leaving to become the head coach at Syracuse University, his alma mater.

But the lure of the NFL brought him back to the pro ranks as Marrone, after compiling a 25-25 mark in four years at Syracuse, was a candidate for jobs with the Bills and Cleveland Browns.

Marrone leaned heavily on Payton, his good friend, during the process and also mentioned Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis and owner Tom Benson for helping him land his first NFL head coaching job.

“I was very fortunate to be around people that I felt I could communicate with,” Marrone, a former offensive lineman, said of his second stint in New Orleans after being on the Saints roster for four games in 1989.

“Sean and Mickey weren’t only people that I worked for, but they were also good friends. A lot of who I am today is from that experience that I had down there.”

Marrone said the communication skills he learned from Payton and Loomis is the biggest thing he took away from his time with the Saints.

“Sean was always a great communicator, he will always be a great communicator, with the players and the staff and just how he handled everything,” Marrone said. “It’s the same way with Mickey.”

For Payton and Brees, the chance to see Marrone become a head coach says a lot about his work ethic and passion for the game.

“It’s nice to have guys that were on that initial staff here like Doug and (Oakland Raiders coach) Dennis Allen get opportunities as head coaches,” Payton said. “That’s something I’m excited about, and the organization feels good about. He did a great job while he was here.”

“I feel he’s the perfect guy for that job,” Brees said. “I feel like he was a big part of what we accomplished in those first three years, really building the foundation for what became our Super Bowl team. Even though he wasn’t physically here for it, he was a part of that in building that foundation.”