Change. It was the word of the off-season. No matter how despondent Bills fans had gotten over the lowly fate of their beloved franchise, there was change this year and there wasn't going to be any winning around here without that. Russ Brandon told us his Bills brand had been tarnished, that they'd become irrelevant. Important admissions from them, common and longstanding analysis from out here.
Like many, I've been impressed by their changes. The Bills realized they didn't need head-coaching experience from their head man, and thusly hired Doug Marrone. They noticed all the young quarterbacks succeeding in the league, and in EJ Manuel they tabbed their own. New general manager Doug Whaley was here already, the heir apparent for the job, but at least with him unlike the last decade's worth of predecessors Buddy Nix, Marv Levy and Brandon, we don't have to debate whether he's qualified.
Whether Marrone provides a real difference on game days though is a long way from being proven.
Marrone arrived with two important points in his favor. One, by all accounts he was a coveted commodity in the albeit short coaching search. Had the Bills not hired him perhaps Cleveland or San Diego would have.
The second attribute is revealed by the first: Smart, forward-thinking people in football think highly of Marrone. When you can't look at someone's record to help you predict results, you go by recommendations and your gut. I accept that the Bills believed in Marrone. I don't fault them for the choice.
Marrone lost his first season opener Sunday -- incredibly, just as every other coach in Bills history has (0-16) -- 23-21, to New England. The Bills unveiled a new offense with a rookie quarterback and hung in there against a perennial power that for a dozen years has been eating them for lunch.
But were they really different? When it comes to the decisions that in short time convinced me both Dick Jauron and Chan Gailey wouldn't win here, Marrone wasn't different at all. Twice, the Bills punted on 4th-and-1 from strong field position. On a day where C.J. Spiller couldn't get off and their wide receivers amassed all of five receptions, the Bills still averaged close to 5 yards per play.
In key situations when they needed just one yard though, Marrone gave the ball up. With a 6-foot-5 athlete at quarterback. To Tom Brady's team.
Sorry, folks, that's not going to cut it. You can be someone different, but if you can't muster the courage to run a play on 4th-and-1 from midfield or better then you're not different enough.
I've been saying it for years and it's no less true now: A coach with a mastery of win probabilities would have a great advantage in the NFL from Day One. Yet, disappointingly, nobody in such a job seems interested. One might have hoped that a relative unknown choice out of Syracuse might have made his name in part on this understanding.
I'm glad Marrone has so many supporters, and I'm not at all after one game ruling out the possibility of his succeeding. But for me, his decisions Sunday were a major letdown. I'm watching the Bills year after year try futilely to beat Bill Belichick while ignoring statistical information that would help them. The results (two wins in their last 26 tries!) speak for themselves.
If Brandon truly wants the Bills to be up to speed, if not lead, in the vast, ever-evolving world of sports analytics, he simply must include game-day decisions into his operation. We all know the Bills don't have many advantages in the league. They don't have a winning reputation, they don't have a modern facility, they don't have (relatively speaking) much nightlife, they don't have (relatively speaking) opportunities for player endorsements.