The Buffalo Bills snapped their 17-year long playoff drought last year but general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott weren’t content with their first-round exit and quickly fired offensive coordinator Rick Dennison after scoring three points in their Wild Card loss to the Jaguars. This year, Brian Daboll, a creative and innovative mind with years of experience coaching multiple positions will be called upon to jump-start Buffalo’s offense and just one week into the preseason, it looks like the Bills may do just that.
Buffalo’s offense struggled under Dennison last season. An older coach that comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, Dennison was a proponent of the zone run as a staple of his West Coast offensive system and was reluctant to adjust the scheme to fit the Bills’ personnel.
Rick Dennison’s boring, vanilla offense held Bills back
Despite Buffalo boasting the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense in each of the two seasons prior to Dennison’s arrival, the former Broncos coordinator failed to recognize an obvious strength of the team and didn’t adjust the offense until the season was near its midway point.
The offense wasn’t consistent, struggling to sustain drives and score touchdowns, ultimately finishing the year ranked 22nd in points and 29th in total yards. They managed to rush for 2,017 yards, the sixth-most in the NFL – but averaged 4.1 yards-per-carry, down from 5.3 yards-per-carry the previous season when they gashed opponents for over 2,600 yards.
Despite taking several games, the run game eventually got into a groove but the passing offense never could match that efficiency. Tyrod Taylor and Nathan Peterman each had struggles of their own, but the lack of playmakers at wide receiver and vanilla pass concepts without much creativity by Dennison didn’t help.
Brian Daboll comes to the Bills with an extensive, impressive resume. He joined the New England Patriots’ coaching staff in 2000 as a defensive assistant and wide receivers coach before joining the New York Jets in 2007. After serving as the offensive coordinator of the Chiefs and Browns, Daboll re-joined the Patriots in 2013 as Assistant Head Coach and tight ends coach. He was a part of five Super Bowl winning teams but left New England to join Nick Saban at Alabama last season and won a National Championship.
The team lost their first preseason game of the 2018 NFL season to the Carolina Panthers and while a loss isn’t ideal, the game provided a glimpse into what we can expect to see from the new offense Brian Daboll is installing. The preseason is about giving a coaching staff the opportunity to evaluate their roster and see how players adapt to new schemes installed on either side of the ball. These exhibition games are important, especially for the Bills, as they are entering the year with a vastly different team than what they finished the 2017 season with.
Brian Daboll building from ground up
Of the 90 players currently on Buffalo’s roster, just 30 were with the team last season. Key starters like quarterback Tyrod Taylor along with offensive linemen Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito and Eric Wood are gone, replaced with low-cost free agents or young and inexperienced rookies. Despite all of the roster turnover, Buffalo’s offense is hard to get behind when looking at the unit on paper. The skill position groups are vastly unproven outside of star running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, while the quarterback situation remains a mystery.
During the offseason, Buffalo traded Tyrod Taylor and added AJ McCarron in free agency, before trading up to select Josh Allen with the No. 7 overall pick in the draft. Allen and McCarron join Nathan Peterman – the team’s fifth-round selection a year ago – are all young, inexperienced players who are competing for the starting job. McCarron won three National Championships during his collegiate career at Alabama but spent the previous four seasons as Andy Dalton’s backup with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Nathan Peterman got the opportunity to start last year when Tyrod Taylor was benched, but he had one of the worst showings in NFL history, throwing five interceptions in the first half in a loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. He finished the season with a 49-percent completion rate in four games. He threw for 252 yards, averaging 5.1 yards-per-attempt, tossing two touchdowns and five picks.
Peterman improved during the offseason, though, and he has worked his way into the first-team unit by training camp and finally got the starting nod for the team’s first preseason game against the Panthers. Each of the three quarterbacks looked solid against Carolina, thanks to Brian Daboll tailoring the game-plans to match the skill-sets they possess. For Peterman, this meant quick passes to efficiently move the ball downfield. Peterman doesn’t have the arm strength Josh Allen does, but he works through progressions and reads coverages quickly which allows him to keep the offense moving with tempo.
He completed 9-of-10 passes for 119 yards and one touchdown pass, before McCarron took the field. The former Crimson Tide star was also efficient, completing 7-of-10 passes for 116 yards, but most of his attempts were limited to the intermediate area of the field.
When rookie Josh Allen entered, Brian Daboll opened up the playbook. His first pass attempt was a deep bomb that traveled over 55-yards in the air to wide receiver Robert Foster. It was just off target, but set the tone for the types of throws Daboll wanted to see Allen make.
Allen only completed nine-of-19 pass attempts but looked the most impressive of all the Bills signal-callers. His athleticism and strong arm were evident as he casually launched passes that Peterman and McCarron couldn’t match if they tried. Allen made several impressive throws and displayed the ability to read coverages, manipulate the free safety and throw with anticipation. His strong play was enough for Buffalo’s coaching staff to elevate him to second string in practice this week.
Winning with numbers and mismatches
Brian Daboll has previously shown that he will adjust his offense to put his players in positions to succeed. He wants to create mismatches and play fast – something every coach hopes to do – but Daboll has simplified his schemes in a way that is easy to digest for his players, who have had nothing but praise for the University of Rochester graduate. Members of the Bills’ offense are already expressing their excitement to play for Daboll, noting that they understand the scheme and are anticipating big things this year.
Marcus Murphy, who had a big game against the Panthers had this to say about Daboll when speaking to NYUpstate.com.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “I definitely like this scheme. We’re not where we want to be but I think we’ll get there. We have to make a big jump from week one to week two. We have a lot of things to work on and that’s just part of the grind. “He gets the backs in space and not just the backs but a lot of our playmakers on offense. He gets the right matchups. He puts us into a position to win. That’s what football is all about, winning the one-on-one matchups and being able to execute, and it starts with the play-calling.” [/perfectpullquote]
Daboll is known for his versatile approach to constructing a scheme that maximizes the talent he has on hand. He wants to attack defenses by utilizing multiple formations, motions and shifts that create mismatches in his favor and various personnel groupings to expose weaknesses that the defense may show.
His passing game is based off the Erhardt-Perkins system which utilizes more broad concepts for route combinations that use less verbiage than what a play from a West Coast system would require. WCO playcalls describe each player’s responsibility. “Scatter-two Bunch-Right-Zip-Fire 2 Jet Texas Right-F Flat X-Q.” for example – is not only difficult for a quarterback to shout out in a huddle, but for a team to hear, process and execute the play in live action.
Daboll breaks things down to naming the concepts as the playcall. In a post I wrote for USA TODAY SMG, I broke down his “Ghost/Tosser” play that the Patriots ran over and over and over again with success.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] This example shows a three-man route combination and a two-man route combo on the opposite side. The concepts are the same in each of the four plays diagrammed, but each is ran from a different formation. Nonetheless, the “Ghost,” or three-man concept, features the same principles: the outside receiver runs vertically, the slot or middle receiver runs a shallow out route and the H-Back or the innermost receiver runs to the flat. The opposite side of the formation is “Tosser” or a double slant concept.
These are all the same plays in the eyes of the quarterback and by running it out of several formations, mismatches can be exploited by using different personnel in different alignments. Additionally, when adding the element of tempo and no-huddle, the offense can quickly get to the line of scrimmage, hear the quarterback call out the two-word play, understand the call and snap the ball before the defense is prepared. [/perfectpullquote]
While the Bills certainly need to bolster the overall talent on the offensive side of the ball, Brian Daboll has the ability to identify strengths of his players and put them in positions where they can succeed. If he’s able to call more games like he did in Buffalo’s preseason opener, the team could be one of the biggest surprises in the NFL, for a second consecutive season.