Upon hearing Saints coach Sean Payton's voice booming over the speaker phone in the Buffalo Bills media room, Doug Marrone couldn't resist getting in a quick hello to his good friend and mentor.
"Sean," the Buffalo Bills coach began, interrupting Payton's conference call with reporters this week. "This is Doug Marrone with the Bronx Times."
Immediately recognizing Marrone's voice, heavy with its distinctive New York City-borough accent, Payton laughed and said: "Man, they let anybody in that room."
It was a playful interaction between two coaches who first hit it off at a George Strait concert in Dallas of all places, and then proceeded to form a tight bond from 2006-08, when Marrone served as Payton's offensive coordinator in New Orleans.
On Sunday, they will be on opposing sidelines when the Bills (3-4) travel to play the Saints (5-1).
Marrone plays down the homecoming, saying this is no time to be sentimental.
Calling it a business trip, Marrone knows firsthand the challenges opponents face in playing inside the Superdome, where the crowd is raucous, and Payton's offense difficult to contain.
"In my experience there, we felt when we were at home, we had everything going for us," Marrone said. "It was an exciting thing, and I'm sure they feel the same way."
That will be a test for a young Bills team that is showing signs of establishing a competitive identity in having gotten off to a better-than-expected start.
That's a credit to Marrone, and what makes this game a little more significant for a rookie coach who credits the time spent working under Payton in New Orleans for furthering his career.
Payton provided Marrone access to general manager Mickey Loomis, included him in scouting meetings, and even opened the door to owner Tom Benson's office.
"I think that experience is invaluable," Marrone said. "A lot of who I am today is from that experience I had down there."
In some ways, Marrone finds himself in much the same position Payton was in when he took over the Saints in 2006.
The Saints had been the 'Aints for so long that Payton acknowledged he had a difficult time filling out his coaching staff. With the help of landing quarterback Drew Brees in free agency, Payton quickly transformed the Saints into Super Bowl contenders.
The Bills have hit hard times as well. They're a franchise now known more for its bumbling ways than winning four consecutive AFC championships in the 1990s.
At 13 seasons, Buffalo owns the NFL's longest active playoff drought. The team has not had a winning season since a 9-7 finish in 2004. And Marrone is the Bills fifth head coach since 2001.
Though a quarterback of Brees' caliber isn't yet apparent on the Bills' horizon, Marrone has begun shifting the culture by introducing a no-excuses approach and an attacking style on both offense and defense.
"We've always believed in ourselves, been confidence in ourselves," receiver Stevie Johnson said. "But having coach Marrone come in here and bring this locker room together like he has, it speaks volumes to what we're actually doing out on the field."
The Bills' three victories have been decided by a combined 6 points. They've also not been blown out. Buffalo has been within a score of the lead in the fourth quarter of each loss.
Marrone hasn't shied away from discussing the Bills' recent past.
"It's not the elephant in the room. We talk about it all the time," he said. "We're fighting, fighting, fighting. And that's what we're going to keep on doing. At some point it's going to start to break. And it's going to break over the top."
If Marrone has one regret, it's the opportunity he missed to be part of the Saints team that won the 2010 Super Bowl. He left to take the job at his alma mater a year earlier.
Marrone wasn't forgotten by Payton, who invited him to be part of the Super Bowl week festivities.
He had to pass up that chance, because he was busy recruiting. The invitation was thanks enough.
"They made me feel more a part of it than I probably was," he said.
It's another reason why Marrone — a former offensive lineman, who played for the Saints in 1989 — fondly remembers the Big Easy.
"I wouldn't be where I am today," Marrone said.
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