When the Buffalo Bills face off against the New Orleans Saints this Sunday at the Superdome, it will be a battle between teacher and pupil when the Saints head coach Sean Payton squares off against his former offensive coordinator in New Orleans, new Bills head coach Doug Marrone. Marrone is the second former Payton assistant to be hired as an NFL head coach, the first being current Oakland Raiders head coach Dennis Allen.
Payton recalled fondly on Marrone’s time in New Orleans this past week. He was Payton’s first OC with the Saints and was recruited on the tough sell of coming to coach in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Marrone had spent the previous four seasons as the offensive line coach for the New York Jets. Payton lured him to the broken Big Easy with his first ever job as a coordinator. There was another guy that was lured to New Orleans that offseason, a guy named Drew Brees. Together, Payton, Marrone and Brees worked to build an offense and a team that the people of New Orleans could attach to in the aftermath of all that they had been through.
On Sept. 25, 2006 the Saints returned to the Louisiana Superdome for the first time in over a year. They had already won almost as many games as they did in 2005 before Payton and co. got there (three) with two road wins to open the season. The Saints romped the Atlanta Falcons by a score of 23-3 to win their third game of the year in front of a jubilant New Orleans crowd. They went on to win seven more games that year and won the NFC South. Their storybook season ended in Chicago with a loss to the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship game. Despite falling short of their ultimate goal, those Saints accomplished something that may have been more important — they brought both football and a sense of pride back to the city that was in ruins just 12 months earlier.
Three seasons later, when the Saints hoisted the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in their history, Marrone was in his first year as head coach of Syracuse. But Marrone had already helped Payton lay the ground work for a team that would become a perennial contender in the NFC. He helped start a career renaissance by the disappointing Brees to the point that he is now a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he retires. And he did his part to help those people in New Orleans use football as part of the healing process.
Now, Marrone is attempting to be part of a much different healing process, one that completely pales in comparison to what the people of New Orleans went through. All he has to do is set a long-suffering franchise on the right track and get them back in the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. It may not happen this year, and Payton and Brees certainly won’t help his cause on Sunday, but it might be hopeful to note that this Marrone guy does pretty well in the face of adversity.