By SalMaiorana Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
ORCHARD PARK - The moment Doug Marrone has been waiting for ever since he declared that coaching was going to be his profession arrives Sunday afternoon.
When his Buffalo Bills meet Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots at sold-out Ralph Wilson Stadium, Marrone's dream of being an NFL head coach will become a reality.
Too bad he already knows he won't be able to savor it.
"You're so busy, there's so many things going through your mind that you never really take a step back and say, 'Oh my gosh, here I am,' " Marrone said last week. "I know that sounds kind of lame on my part, but it's really true."
Marrone is no stranger to the NFL, so he's not going to be overwhelmed with emotion or overcome by anxiety when that ball leaves the kicking tee just after 1 o'clock. He played briefly in the league, and was an assistant coach for the Jets and Saints for a combined seven years before heading off to fulfill another of his dreams - becoming the head coach at his alma mater, Syracuse.
The 49-year-old native of the Bronx remembers what it was like that first game in 2009 when he stood on the Orange sideline at the Carrier Dome, in the very spot once occupied by one of his mentors, former Orange coach Dick MacPherson, who coached Marrone when he was an offensive lineman for Syracuse back in the mid-1980s.
It was a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, and even though the day ended on a sour note when the Orange lost 23-20 in overtime to Minnesota, Marrone was right where he wanted to be.
Four years later, he's right where he wants to be again, though he knows his inauguration day will be a blur and that no matter what happens, win or lose, he's not going to have a chance to truly enjoy the experience.
"You just kind of go out there and you don't really realize at times you're in a packed stadium, or if you're out on the practice field, or you're on a farm somewhere playing the game," Marrone said. "You're so focused in on what's going on. I have a tough time celebrating success because my mind is on to that next game and my mind is so focused on the other thing."
Marrone could not have asked for a tougher assignment for his debut. He'll be matching wits with three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Belichick, one of the greatest coaches in NFL history, who will be trotting out his fellow future Hall of Famer, quarterback Tom Brady, to face Marrone's fellow rookie, EJ Manuel.
Those two matchups alone - coach vs. coach, QB vs. QB - make it seem like the Bills will be overmatched in this 54th season opener for both franchises.
"We know it's a tough task, it's a veteran team coming in here, and they have one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, so we're looking forward to the challenge," said running back C.J. Spiller.
Spiller knows of what he speaks regarding Brady, and a key element of Brady's greatness is his decade-plus dominance of the often woebegone Bills. Gisele's husband has a lifetime mark of 20-2 against Buffalo, 5,407 passing yards, 51 TD passes, only 17 interceptions, a 65 percent completion rate and a passer rating of 103.0.
Go ahead, take a moment to digest those numbers.
"He's somebody that I've always looked at and thought he was a great quarterback," said Manuel. "He's a winner, that's what he's known as, that's what I want to be known as as well."
If the Bills are ever going to challenge New England for supremacy in the AFC East, they have start getting winning quarterback play from someone, and they firmly believe Manuel is that guy.
The first-round draft pick out of Florida State has all the physical tools needed to succeed at quarterback in today's NFL - big arm, sturdy build, speed and mobility. The Bills can only hope he has the mental acumen, leadership qualities, and the luck you must have to avoid injury. If they did their homework properly, and Manuel truly is this player, then the gap between Buffalo and New England will begin to close.
Then, maybe, the Bills can start realistically thinking about contending for a playoff berth, because they sure are sick of being spectators in January.
"Every year I watch guys in the playoffs, and you watch the Super Bowl, and it's like, 'when's it going to be our turn?' " wide receiver Stevie Johnson said.
Nobody outside their locker room gives them much of a chance this season, but the Bills aren't paying attention because they firmly believe that Marrone and his coaching staff have brought an energized and winning mentality to Buffalo.
"I think we worked like that this offseason," said center Eric Wood. "We worked hungry, and we played hungry throughout the preseason. That attitude is what we're going to need to get over this playoff drought. That feeling of our backs are against the wall and we have to fight our way out to get to the playoffs."
Johnson is excited about what lies ahead and he agreed with Wood that no one is going to step aside and open the door for the Bills - they have to take the initiative and burst through.
"Coach Marrone is a headstrong type of guy and he's leading us in that direction to where, forget what everybody says, just go do your job and make this happen instead of waiting for it to happen. It's not like waiting in line for your turn, you've got to go out and make that stuff happen. Hopefully we're on the right track."