Perry Fewell has coached more games in Jacksonville than anywhere else. So when he makes his head-coaching debut Sunday with the Buffalo Bills, he might be more comfortable than anyone would imagine.
“Great memories,” he said. “That’s where I got my start.”
Fewell, an assistant under Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville (1998-2002), was hired as Buffalo’s interim coach after Dick Jauron was fired Tuesday. Fewell, the team’s defensive coordinator the last three years, said he was shocked by the news but honored to take over.
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Now comes the tough part. Fewell will try to motivate the Bills (3-6), spark a lethargic offense, snap a two-game skid and find some sense of normalcy after a tumultuous week.
“I’m challenged by the opportunity,” he said. “To say that I’m not excited, I would not be telling the truth. I’m excited about the challenge to lead the football team and to have an opportunity to go win a football game. When you get into coaching, you dream of having this opportunity. It didn’t come the way I would have liked for it to come, but the opportunity has presented itself.”
The Jaguars (5-4), meanwhile, are looking for their first three-game winning streak in nearly two years.
They are coming off a confidence-building 24-22 win at the New York Jets that may have been the team’s best all-around performance this season. Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 123 yards and a touchdown, David Garrard made some huge throws down the stretch and the defense came up with three turnovers.
“There was a lot of gratification to the fact that we pulled together and got that done,” coach Jack Del Rio said. “We know we’ve got a long way to go. We’re grinding. We’re at the midway point, or just past it, and there’s a lot of football in front of us. We want to take that cohesion that we felt and build on it and continue to improve.”
Jacksonville has won five of seven since an 0-2 start, and won three in a row at home despite playing in front of thousands of empty seats. The small-market franchise has gotten a boost from a major roster turnover. Nine rookies, including four starters, have seen significant playing time.
The team looks so different that Bills defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, a three-time Pro Bowler with the Jaguars, hardly recognized anyone when he watched tape this week.
“Gosh, I don’t even know who a bunch of these guys are,” Stroud said. “And I was just down there two years ago. So you know, it’s very different.”
He also noticed something very familiar.
“One thing that the Jags can still do is they can run the ball,” Stroud said.
Jones-Drew ranks second in the AFC and fourth in the NFL in rushing with 860 yards. He leads the league with 12 touchdowns. He’s been at his best the last four weeks, with 530 yards rushing and seven scores – the most impressive stretch of his four-year career.
Now he faces Buffalo, which ranks last in the NFL against the run. But Jones-Drew expects the coaching change to give the Bills a lift in every phase.
“Teams are going to go in two ways in that situation, and we’re expecting they’re going to come out fired up and wanting to make a statement,” Jones-Drew said.
Fewell can only hope his players respond that way.
The Bills have failed to generate 300 yards of offense in eight of nine games, including seven straight, despite having receivers Terrell Owens and Lee Evans. Fewell’s first move was benching Trent Edwards and turning to Ryan Fitzpatrick.
No one knows if it will help. The offensive line is banged up and the defense has had even more season-ending injuries.
“I’m learning how to, in a sense, how to accept losing, and that’s not really what I’m accustomed to,” Owens said. “I’m very competitive and we’ve had a couple of quarterback changes, the shuffling, this and that, and I haven’t been as productive as I would like. But what can I do? The thing I can do is come here every day, work hard and go out on the field and try to do the best that I can on Sundays.”
Buffalo’s biggest problem has been finishing games. The team has been outscored 101-40 in the fourth quarter.
“If we want to try to make a run at anything, we have to finish games,” Stroud said. “We’re sticking with teams for three quarters, and then in the fourth quarter, they’re coming out and beating us.”
Fewell hopes to make a difference. He had no idea how NFL interim coaches have fared over the years, and he might be better off not knowing.
According to STATS LLC, only two of the NFL’s 14 interim coaches this decade – Gary Moeller in Detroit in 2000 and Mike Singletary in San Francisco in 2008 – have posted winning records. None of the 14 made the playoffs.
“Every game in the National Football League is a challenge, whether you’re 8-0, 9-0 or 3-6,” Fewell said. “That’s the great thing about our game, the great thing about our sport.”