FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Last December at Gillette Stadium, when the Buffalo Bills wrapped up their season with a 6-10 record, the signs of progress from the 6-10 team that coach Doug Marrone inherited weren't immediately apparent.
But when the Bills packed up and left the same building Sunday with a 9-7 record, the difference was noticeable.
Despite falling short of the playoffs for a 15th consecutive season, the Bills put together the most competitive team they've had in a decade. Because of that, Marrone deserves to keep his job next season.
Yes, the Bills came away Sunday with their first victory at Gillette Stadium since it opened, 17-9 over the New England Patriots. But it wasn't their season-ending win -- against a halfhearted effort from a division rival -- that will be the keystone to Marrone's case for a third season.
Instead, it's the entire body of work from the Bills this season, one in which they finished with a 4-2 division record and in second place in the AFC East for the first time since 2007.
"I don't understand why you would let a coach go who brought a team from not having a winning season [since 2004] to having one," safety Aaron Williams said. "That's good enough for me to have him here."
"If you look at the first time you have a winning record in a decade," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said, "that speaks louder than anything or any player or anything like that can say."
In some years, there are obvious situations in which coaches should be fired -- it would be shocking if Rex Ryan returned to the New York Jets after their 4-12 season, for example -- but this isn't one of them. There is no scandal, no controversy, no glaring need for a shake-up. Players have Marrone's back.
"The guys in this locker room love playing for him," running back Fred Jackson said. "Love the energy he brings to the team. He's always getting us ready to go and we wanted to do something to kind of quiet that noise a little bit."
The "noise" has been a result of the Bills' ownership change. After taking control of the team in October, Terry Pegula will have decisions to make in the coming weeks about how he wants to organize the front office. Does he keep the existing power structure in place, with president Russ Brandon and general manager Doug Whaley in their current roles? Or does he add someone from the outside and potentially reduce the sway that Brandon and Whaley have in decision-making?
"He's the owner. He can do whatever he wants, obviously," Brandon said after the game. "We talk all the time, both [with] Terry and Kim, but it's his prerogative as the owner to handle anything as he sees fit."
The problem for Marrone will be if the Pegulas add an outside voice, one that may or may not view Marrone's two seasons with the Bills in a positive light. While it's hard to justify firing a coach after a winning season, you can bet that Marrone understands the blunt reality to this business: You can't please everybody.
It has been subtle, but we've heard bits and pieces of how Marrone will defend his tenure to the Pegulas and any potential additions to the front office.
"It's been two years now. We've played I don't know how many quarterbacks," Marrone said Dec. 18. "We're playing with a quarterback [Kyle Orton] that wasn't in our training camp. I think all of those things are pretty big challenges when you're trying to get things going from an offensive standpoint."
Translation: Yes, our offense has struggled, but what do you expect with the quarterback situation that my coaching staff has been handed?
Asked a question about where the Bills' defense ranks following Buffalo's signature win over the Green Bay Packers earlier this month, Marrone managed to squeeze in a commentary about his own offense.
"They're right up there," Marrone said of the Bills' defense. "They're right up there. Fortunately or unfortunately, we've seen all of them. The only one we haven't seen is Seattle. When you look at the top 10, we've probably seen seven or eight of them."
Translation: Don't go too hard on our offense, because we've had to square off with some of the NFL's best defenses this season.
Less than a week later, during a gathering with reporters, offensive coordinator Nate Hackett was asked a question about Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack, and managed to jam in the same stat that Marrone cited.
"It was funny because we looked at it, and we've had eight games against top-10 defenses," Hackett said, before beginning his praise of Mack.
Coincidence? Possibly. But if Marrone sits down with the Pegulas in the coming days or weeks and is pressed on his offense's struggles, expect both of those points to come up in discussion.
It's no guarantee that it will work, and based on everything we've seen this season, Marrone deserves another chance.