FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Perry Fewell has been a head coach for exactly one month, and he’s got the Buffalo Bills playing their best football of the season. Sunday, Fewell will match wits with a surefire Hall of Famer in Bill Belichick, who is in the process of trying to resuscitate the New England Patriots.
Despite being on completely opposite ends of the coaching spectrum, Belichick can loosely relate to Fewell’s situation. Fewell, who had no head coaching experience, took over as the Bills’ head coach due to the midseason firing of Dick Jauron.
In 1976, Belichick was an assistant special teams coach for the Detroit Lions, whose head coach, Rick Forzano, resigned after a 1-3 start. He was replaced by Tommy Hudspeth, who had been working in the front office prior to the change. Hudspeth made some midweek changes to the Lions’ offense, created a bit of a spark within the locker room and propelled Detroit to an impressive 30-10 home victory against the New England Patriots. (As an aside, the Patriots were riding a three-game winning streak in which they beat the Miami Dolphins, Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers by a combined 50 points. Prior to New England’s Super Bowl era, the 1976 team was considered one of the two or three best teams in the organization’s history, but it fell to the Raiders in the playoffs due to Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton‘s infamous roughing the passer penalty on Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler.)
“The rest of the year was a little bit of an up-and-down year,” Belichick said. “That was certainly the high-water mark, that particular game against the Patriots during the week of that change.”
Hudspeth directed the Lions to a 5-5 finish and retained the job for one more season.
Jauron, who played safety for those Lions teams, was fired after a 3-6 start in 2009. Fewell was promoted from defensive coordinator to interim head coach, which, as he put it, fulfilled his longtime dream.
“I don’t know if I was nervous,” said Fewell, who has guided the Bills to a 2-2 record. “I was excited more than being nervous. I’ve coached for 25 years, and I’ve often wanted to be a head football coach, so I’ve tried to prepare myself for the opportunity. The way the situation occurred was out of my control, but [I was] probably more excited than nervous.”
The situation wasn’t ideal and happened too quickly for Fewell to feel the fire, so he wasn’t afforded the time to prep for a season’s worth of challenges. Rather, Fewell was forced to walk straight into the Bills’ locker room, gather his troops and ask them to march in his direction.
“I have a pretty good communication with all the players,” Fewell said. “The biggest thing was, hey, were we all going to be on the same page? Were we all going to roll in the same direction? That was one of the things that I addressed in the team meeting. But besides that, I thought if I just got the team ready to play the next week — that was the Jacksonville week — then everything would be OK.”
The Bills fell to the Jaguars 18-15, but compared to their previous two losses by a combined 45 points, that outcome didn’t seem to be all that bad. Fewell has kept the system in place, but he’s made two significant changes. Ryan Fitzpatrick was named the team’s full-time starting quarterback, and Fred Jackson took over as the team’s starting running back in place of Marshawn Lynch.
“It’s tough. It’s just something that’s part of the NFL life, and you just have to go with it, and roll with it and continue to play hard,” said Fitzpatrick, who was drafted out of Harvard in 2005. “I think we were shocked when it happened. Everybody really respected Coach Jauron and the way that he coached, the way that he treated you as a man. We had to move on. We were just kind of forced to do it. Perry has brought energy, and enthusiasm and change. Sometimes, change is a good thing.”
Belichick, who has known Fewell for about a decade, seemed to be in agreement about the need for a limited amount of change.
“I think when a new coach comes in, you can’t change everything,” Belichick said. “You already have a training camp and a certain number of regular-season games under your belt. The team is already at a certain point in those areas, then you try to go in and modify some things … if you feel like that’s what [the team] needs. You try to address that. But how easily that is to change or modify will depend on the situation.”
If Fewell keeps the Bills improving at the current clip, he’ll certainly be a candidate to earn the full-time tag after this season. It might not bode well that multiple reports have indicated the Bills are interested in Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher, among others, as future head coaches, but Fewell said he’s not all that worried about it.
Fewell’s interim tag obviously doesn’t guarantee any security, but look at Jauron, who reportedly signed a contract extension last season. After all, there probably aren’t more than a half-dozen coaches in the NFL who could lose their last three games this season and know for certain they’re coming back in 2010.
“Whether you have a new contract coaching or you don’t have a new contract coaching, we’re kind of day to day,” Fewell said. “We’re week to week. We’re year to year. So job security, we don’t really think about. We focus, and we accept the opportunities that are presented to us. This opportunity was presented to me, so with that, I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’m enjoying the experience. I’m enjoying the players. I enjoy competing on Sundays.”
What Fewell has is the job interview of a lifetime. He didn’t have to go through a stressful interview process or compete against any outside candidates with Super Bowl resumes. Rather, Fewell is thriving in his underdog role and is — at the very least — forcing ownership to consider Fewell for the future.