Assistant coach or former head coach? Occasionally, a team will identify a coordinator or even a lower-ranking assistant who can truly be successful. But, as Tom Donahoe found with Gregg Williams, it's less likely that a brand-new NFL head coach would succeed. Look at the Bills' history, even before the Williams debacle. The six with previous pro head-coaching experience have a 254-203-5 record, plus 14-14 in the postseason. The seven with just assistant-coaching experience have gone 59-138-3, with one postseason game (a loss). The head coaches' list would be better except that we included Harvey Johnson's second stint, when the Bills were 1-13.
The experienced candidates could include Dennis Green, Tom Coughlin, Jim Fassel, Dick Jauron and as a longshot, Jim Haslett. The assistants are Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Lovie Smith, Jerry Gray and Mike Mularkey. Any of the other head coaches let go after this season, except possibly Steve Spurrier, would be an improvement over Williams, who made Wade Phillips look like Vince Lombardi. And if that's a personal attack, Tom Donahoe, so be it.
Should power go to the coach or to stay with Donahoe? They should work as a team with the scouting staff, but the coach has to have the final say on the makeup of his coaching staff and his team on the field, within the salary-cap structure. It didn't seem that Williams had much say; Donahoe would have to give up some authority, and that could be a sticking point. Green, Coughlin and possibly Fassel would expect more power, and this year's most highly sought assistant probably would receive that consideration somewhere (but not in Buffalo).
A corollary to that question is whether to keep Drew Bledsoe or to dump him. Fortunately, Donahoe indicated he would let the new coach make that decision. We don't know how the candidates stand on the issue, though Weis and Bledsoe weren't a very successful team with the Patriots. Coughlin might want to bring in Mark Brunell at quarterback. Our solution would be to send Bledsoe packing, and we'll tell you how that could work in the next column.
Should Ralph Wilson open the vault to pay top dollar for a coach? For the right man, of course. For want of a nail, in the form of a few hundred thousand dollars, the Bills' kingdom was lost for another three years. One of Donahoe's strengths has been having an idea of players' market value. It's no secret in his circles how much money teams shell out for the top coaches. If such a man is available at $2 million or more instead of the $900K-1 million Buffalo paid Williams, he should get that money to coach the Bills and not a rival team. The highest-priced candidates would be former head coaches, among whom Green and Coughlin have the best track record.
The one question the NFL seems to focus on is racial background. The African American candidates include Green, Crennel, Smith and Gray. It doesn't matter whether Buffalo's coach is black, white, yellow or red. The idea is to get the best possible coach.
Who would that man be? For my money -- and keep in mind that three years ago I was on record in favor of Marvin Lewis -- the best coach would be Tom Coughlin, with or without Brunell. He could right the ship, especially on offense. In the meantime, Jerry Gray could continue to run the defense and grow as a head-coaching candidate, possibly moving to assistant head coach and being groomed to replace Coughlin after a successful stint as Bills coach. I don't really expect that to happen.
It isn't my money, which is a good thing, because that wouldn't buy any kind of coach. The thing that scares me is how Donahoe's media pipeline, ESPN, always throws the name of Mularkey, who didn't have a whole lot of success this season as the Steelers' offensive coordinator, into the ring. He doesn't have nearly the track record of the other coordinators.
But, hey! He would come cheap, just like Gregg Williams. Watch out if Mularkey comes in with all his pencils lined up neatly.