By Len Pasquarelli
Nearly every NFL offseason includes at least one unexpected head coach departure, and on Thursday afternoon, the Buffalo Bills' Mike Mularkey provided the surprise factor for this year's cycle of firings and hirings.
In a lengthy meeting with Bills management, Mularkey stunned owner Ralph Wilson and newly appointed general manager Marv Levy by tendering his resignation after only two seasons on the job, ESPN.com confirmed. His departure will be confirmed by the Bills at a Friday news conference scheduled for 11 a.m. ET.
Team officials declined comment on Thursday evening.
Sources close to Mularkey said Thursday night that he has already left Buffalo. Wilson and Levy were said to have been taken aback when Mularkey contacted them Wednesday and acknowledged he was mulling his resignation.
News that Mularkey had entered the meeting with Wilson and Levy intent on resigning was first reported by ESPN's Chris Mortensen and by ESPN.com. It was believed there was some chance the that Buffalo brass might be able to persuade Mularkey to stay on, especially when the parties briefly adjourned without the coaching having officially quit, but that was not the case.
Mularkey informed some members of his staff earlier in the day that, after considerable deliberation, he had decided to leave the job. When the session with Wilson and Levy ended just before 6 p.m., Mularkey reaffirmed that stance to some confidants and said his farewells to some office staffers still in the building.
"It's mind boggling," Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes said on ESPN Radio. "I don't really understand what's goin' on but I thought he did some things well and there were a lot of things a lot of the guys didn't agree with. I don't think that he was a bad coach.
"When you come into the city of Buffalo people expect you to win not later, not two or three years from now, people want you to win now. So it's a lot of pressure. … As a man I will always respect him because of his position and how he treated us as a whole."
He leaves the job with three years, at about $1 million annually, remaining on the five-year contract he signed in 2004. In his two seasons, Mularkey compiled a 14-18 record, including a disappointing 5-11 mark in 2005, when many pundits expected the Bills to contend for a playoff berth.
Sources said that, while family considerations played a large role in Mularkey's decision, his views on the future of the franchise were also a significant factor. Since the end to a dismal season, the Buffalo organization has undergone a quick overhaul, and people in the NFL have questioned the Bills' direction.
A source close to Mularkey told ESPN.com's John Clayton the primary reason for Mularkey's resignation was professional. According to the source, Mularkey didn't think the way the Bills were being set up would create an environment in which he could be successful.
Wilson fired team president/general manager Tom Donahoe; re-hired Levy, the Hall of Fame coach who led the Bills to four Super Bowl appearances; and made other changes to the front office. It is believed that Wilson also suggested, but did not mandate, changes in the coaching staff. Mularkey subsequently dismissed five assistants.
One example of how bizarre things are for the Bills franchise right now: The club this week received permission to interview Atlanta Falcons secondary coach Brett Maxie for the defensive coordinator job. But Jerry Gray, the incumbent coordinator, has yet to be dismissed, in part because he is interviewing for head coach vacancies elsewhere.
In the wake of Donahoe's dismissal, Mularkey, 44, had become the new target for fans critical of the team's direction. Friends of Mularkey said he was deeply affected by the firing of Donahoe and that this season exacted a physical and mental toll.
Mularkey played nine seasons in the league as a tight end and was an assistant coach for 10 years, much of that as an offensive coordinator, before succeeding Gregg Williams as the Bills' head coach in 2004.
Among the names already speculated as possible replacements for Mularkey are former New Orleans Saints coach Jim Haslett, recently fired Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and current Bills special teams coach Bobby April. Haslett and Cottrell served on Buffalo coaching staffs in the past. Haslett has strong ties to Bills assistant general manager Tom Modrak and some current and past players have already begun lobbying for Cottrell to be interviewed. April was the league's special teams coach of the year in 2004, is popular with players, and is seeking a head coach position.
Although he may merit support in some quarters, there is little chance that Levy, who compiled a 123-78 record as Bills coach 1986-1997, will be considered as a possible Mularkey successor. There were some whispers last week, when Mularkey's status was uncertain, that Levy could return to the sideline, but Wilson seems to regard him more as a much-needed front office confidant now.
ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and ESPN's Chris Mortensen contributed to the report. Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.