ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll loves his players.
Not just their talent, fit or production. No, Daboll loves his players for the people they are, and that love is palpable.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen‘s grandmother died the night before a 44-34 win against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9, although you would hardly be able to tell based on his play; 415 passing yards and four total touchdowns marked one of the best games of his career.
“I kept a cool head until after the game and I saw Dabes,” Allen said. “I’m just glad Dabes was there and I just let it all out. I love Dabes and I appreciate everything that he’s been to me here.”
Knowing what his quarterback was going through, Daboll met him in the locker room after the game. They shared an embrace and cried together.
“When he came in off the field and into the locker room, he kind of fell into my arms a little bit,” Daboll said. “A lot of emotion there, particularly for him, but for me also. When you love somebody and something happens like that, it’s tough.”
It’s not just X’s and O’s with Daboll, and that’s why those around him see him as an ideal leader — and why the Bills might be without their offensive coordinator of three years when the 2021 NFL season begins.
As they prepare to host the Baltimore Ravens in an AFC divisional round matchup Saturday (8:15 p.m., ET, NBC), the Bills do so in spite of Daboll’s potential departure, as he is a trendy candidate for some of the seven open NFL head-coaching jobs.
Daboll, 45, has interviewed with the New York Jets, Los Angeles Chargers and is believed to be a candidate with the Houston Texans — a reward for the brightest season of his seven as an NFL offensive coordinator. The Bills finished the 2020 season ranked second in scoring (31.3), second in yards per game (396.4) and third in passing yards per game (288.8). It’s the first time a Daboll-coached offense has ranked higher than 20th in those categories.
After stints with the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and the University of Alabama, working under coaching legends such as Bill Belichick and Nick Saban along the way, Daboll found his wheelhouse in his hometown of Buffalo.
Interest in him as a head coach stems from his creativity on the field and his ability to forge relationships off it — especially with Allen, who has vaulted into the league’s MVP conversation with Daboll’s help.
Those relationships run so deep his players are hesitant to brag about Daboll publicly.
“I hate to keep giving him so much credit because I don’t want anyone to steal him from me,” wide receiver Stefon Diggs said. “He’s a guy that knows what he’s doing, he knows the flow of the game, knows when to call what. We just trust him, whatever he calls, I’m running it. … He always has our back and I ain’t seen him miss yet.”
Daboll’s Buffalo roots have made this season’s success even sweeter. For him, this isn’t just a job, it has been a dream come true.
He grew up in Buffalo, graduating from St. Francis High School in Hamburg in 1993 — the next town over from where the Bills play in Orchard Park. So when the Bills won their first playoff game in 25 years Saturday, he felt it on a deeper level.
“These people around here have waited a long time for a competitive team. And we’re working to try to give it to them,” Daboll said. “To be part of this community, to grow up here, to understand that the Buffalo Bills mean a lot to this area, it’s important. It’s a testament to the people that came out and all the good people that had their parties going, watching on television. Just an awesome football town.
“It’s not surprising, I’ve seen it for my entire life here.”
‘A chef’s only as good as his ingredients’
The Bills’ offensive renaissance is even more impressive considering where it was over the past two seasons under Daboll.
Buffalo ranked 28th in total offense during his first two seasons (2018 and 2019) and was one of four teams to average fewer than 200 passing yards per game.
Especially after last season, when the Bills scored a paltry 19.6 points per game, Daboll became a popular scapegoat among fans.
But general manager Brandon Beane was realistic when it came to evaluating the Bills, Daboll included.
“Going back to when Brian was here in ’18, obviously [we were] very young on offense and inexperienced at critical positions,” Beane said. “Then you go to ’19 and, all right, we helped the O-line, it’s Year 2 for Josh and we gave him a couple weapons in [receiver] Cole [Beasley] and John Brown — but we still don’t have enough here yet … I thought what Brian did from ’18 to ’19 showed growth and it obviously starts with the most critical position — look at Josh’s growth and what he did. Brian was hands-on that, [QBs coach] Ken Dorsey, too.
“That’s what kind of gave us promise, ‘Hey, if we could just add some more, Brian and his staff will be able to help us score more points.'”
Beane said he wasn’t ready to make the same hasty decisions Daboll’s previous teams made when he spent one season with the Dolphins and one with the Chiefs. Before that, he was fired after two seasons in Cleveland.
But those offenses were lacking playmakers when Daboll was there. He had a couple standouts — wide receiver Brandon Marshall in Miami and running back Jamal Charles in Kansas City — but those front offices weren’t patient enough to let him incorporate his system and add enough talent to do so.
“I do see in the league sometimes where I feel like coaches get graded on players that there’s only so much you can do with,” Beane said. “A chef’s only as good as his ingredients.”
True to Beane’s word, Buffalo led the NFL in measurable continuity this season — the number of coaches and players returning. It included 10 returning starters on each side of the ball.
Daboll said that continuity is critical, not just in terms of the players’ development, but also the chemistry he builds with his fellow coaches.
“When you have continuity, it helps,” he said. “You can draw from past experiences. We could be sitting in a staff meeting and one of the coaches will say, ‘Hey, remember two years ago? We did this on this third down.’ That’s hard to do in the first year. It’s hard to do sometimes in the second year. We made a lot of changes from Year 1 to Year 2 with the coaching staff, we also did it with the players. So, chemistry is really good as long as you have it with the right kind of guys that you’re working with.”
That chemistry also led to arguably the biggest development in the Bills’ attack this season.
The birth of a new offense
Perhaps the most obvious change in Buffalo’s scheme for 2020 is how Daboll has used his personnel. For the first time in his career, he had the players to run a pass-heavy offense.
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Buffalo ran the second-most plays in the NFL this season with four or more wide receivers on the field (155) after running 14 over the past two seasons combined. With the offseason truncated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it wasn’t immediately clear what the Bills had on offense.
“We knew the tight ends and the backs, but that whole four-wide package really didn’t come about until training camp, seeing the type of individuals we had and how they competed against the guys that we had on our defense and then the production that they had. And then you build it from there,” Daboll said.
Bills coach Sean McDermott called the decision to run more four-receiver personnel groupings a product of “collaboration and communication,” and even though it was unprecedented during his tenure with the Bills, they were quick to roll it out.
In Buffalo’s Week 1 win against the New York Jets, it ran 22 such plays in what became Allen’s first 300-yard passing game. By season’s end, Allen had set franchise records in passing yards (4,544), completions (396) and passing touchdowns (37) in a single season, thanks in large part to the scheme changes.
Allen and Daboll have an open line of communication over the course of a game, to the point the former often suggests plays to his coach — who trusts his quarterback’s judgment.
During the Bills’ rout of the Broncos in Week 15, Allen hit Diggs on a 55-yard completion to seal the game. The playcall was all his.
“I went to Dorsey, and I said, ‘This is the play I want to get called,'” Allen said. “And Daboll gave me the opportunity to do it. He trusts me in those situations if it’s not there to find my outlets down underneath. But it’s one of those plays we kind of got them with a quick count and our guys outran theirs, and I gave him the chance to go catch the ball.
“It means the world to me to know that [Daboll] trusts me enough to listen to my input. … When it’s a play I suggest to him and he calls it and it hits, it feels a little extra special.”
A blessing and a curse
If Daboll leaves, it puts a halt to the continuity that helped the Bills go from 6-10 in 2018 to a legitimate Super Bowl contender in 2020. But it’s a sign the organization has taken a step forward.
“When you win, people want a piece of winners and success and I get that,” McDermott said.
Beane hopes it makes Buffalo’s assistants more selective when considering other opportunities.
“What you hope is that you have a good situation — which I think we have here — to where Brian’s not just going to take the first job that’s offered to him,” Beane said. “If he’s going to leave, you hope that it’s a place that he feels good that he can win.
“[Defensive coordinator] Leslie (Frazier) is the same way, Leslie deserves a chance as much as anybody I know … He has done the head coach thing but definitely wants another taste of it, I’m sure. You hope that here in Buffalo, they’re both going to get interviews, that they say, ‘I like the opportunity, I liked the interview but I don’t know if they’re ready to win. I don’t know if it’s the right situation for me, I’ll go back to Buffalo for another year,’ or something like that.”
Beane made it clear there will be no hard feelings if Daboll moves on.
“Unless they’ve been [a head coach] before, I think most guys want to test themselves at the highest level,” the Bills’ GM said. “Brian hasn’t been a head coach, so I’m sure he falls into that category, like most, and he’s going to want to test his wits.”
Regardless of whether he leaves his hometown this offseason, Daboll said he is thankful for the opportunity to coach the team he grew up rooting for.
“It’s a class-act organization that does things the right way.”