The Buffalo Bills have hired long time NFL coach Brian Daboll, and his resume by all accounts is a perfect fit. Daboll has coached in the NFL for 17 years, which includes stops in New England, New York, Cleveland, Miami, and Kanas City, but most of those NFL years were spent in the Patriots’ system. In 2000, Daboll was hired as a defensive assistant for the Patriots but was then promoted to wide receivers coach the following year. He was one of the bright minds that Belichick was grooming.
According to Mike Holley, who published War Room, Daboll was well respected due to the work he did with receivers Troy Brown, Deion Branch, and David Givens. Daboll got the most out of that unit, and it helped them propel past the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl.
As the years went by, Daboll wanted to continue rising up the ranks, but Josh McDaniels, who was the offensive coordinator, really limited how far up the chain Daboll would climb.
In 2007, the head coach of the New York Jets, Eric Mangini, brought him on board as the quarterbacks coach, the next step on his ladder to head coaching. Daboll remained in that position until 2009, when he got the opportunity he was looking for: he was hired as the offensive coordinator in Cleveland under Romeo Crennel. This was a position he would hold for two seasons with very little success, before being named the offensive coordinator for the 2011 Miami Dolphins, then one year later the OC for the Kansas City Chiefs. After several short stints and just as many failures as an offensive coordinator, Daboll returned to the Patriots.
He served as an offensive assistant in 2013, but was then promoted to tight ends coach in 2014, the position he held up until his jump to the college game. But he didn’t join just any college team. Instead, he jumped aboard the most successful team, the Alabama Crimson Tide. Daboll got to show off his play calling skills on the most dominant team in the most dominant conference.
This was a smart move for him. Analysts will try to go back to his play calling days in Kansas City or Miami to get a good idea of the type of coordinator he his, but they should really be looking at his time at Alabama. His ability to mold his play book not only to the football intelligence level of a college kid, but to the college game and its ever changing style, really helped him land another opportunity in the NFL.
When you look at the NFL game you can see it’s changing. More and more college concepts are being run on Sundays. Every weekend you will see triple options, power reads, jet sweeps, and run pass options (RPOs). These concepts are what coaches need to bridge the gap between the college game and pro game. It is something that Bills fans have been pining for after spending the entire season watching a traditional play designer like Rick Dennison at the helm.
Dennison had a very small percentage of these college concepts in his play book, and most of the time they were early on his play script and not a part of this base offense, the kinds of concepts that are repped continuously and become your go to concepts later in games. Fans want creativity. They want coaches that maximize their skilled position players not just with concepts, but also for those concepts to be encased in ‘eye candy’. They want plays that give their players options.
When you look at Daboll’s play design and play calling in the Alabama vs. Georgia National Championship, Bills fans can only be excited.
Daboll literally had to have two game plans in place. All season starting quarterback Jalen Hurts had struggled as a passer. His limitations as a passer really restricted the type of calls Daboll could make. Going into the game, there was chatter that true Freshman Tua Tagovailoa, the better passer, may enter the game if Hurts struggled. So early on in the game Daboll put his QB in position to succeed.
Daboll called half field reads off of their base zone read concepts.
This made the reads easy for Hurts and put the ball in the hands of their best WR, Calvin Ridley. This flood concept is very similar to what the Bills ran under Rick Dennison. This play makes life very difficult for the boundary defenders. Do they step up and stop the possible read concept from the pistol or get to their zone landmarks?
Daboll was able to add the pizazz of college football plays into his playbook. On this 2nd-and-8 call, he uses Jet action to make the read for Hurts easy, but also to get 1-on-1 coverage for Calvin Ridley. The motion forces the safety to ‘rock and roll’ with the receiver to help defend any Jet sweep.
The other safety (#35) is supposed to roll to the center of the field, as it appears that the defense is in cover 3 match.
The coverage puts Ridley 1-on-1 outside on the ‘Sluggo’ route with no safety help over the top. Unfortunately, Hurts is unable to complete the pass. This all verticals concept (Seattle) is all the rave and has been utilized by the Eagles, Rams, and Chiefs this season.
Hurts has been an extremely smart decision maker over the course of his career, so Daboll gave him plenty of opportunities to be smart with the football while still doing what he does best. On this play, the Tide run what appears to be an RPO. They utilize a ‘Travel’ motion with the running back, and that motion will determine whether Hurts throws the screen to him or keeps it on the QB draw.
The defender widens with the motion post-snap, so that gives Alabama the five man box they want to see.
This, in turn, gives a very talented offensive line what coaches refer to as a ‘hat on a hat’: five offensive linemen to block five defenders allows Hurts to gain a good chunk of yardage with his legs.
The St. Francis High School graduate has an array of screens that he can dial up at any time, not only your typical screen to the running back, but also a multitude of wide receiver screens. One example is this bubble screen from a 3×1 receiver set. The movement by the RB Scarborough across the formation is done to hold LB Smith, and it works. These are plays that helped Tagovailoa get his head in the game and allowed for another talented true freshman, Henry Ruggs, to make some plays.
Bills fans will be delighted at the arsenal of RPOs that Daboll has added to his playbook. Run-pass options come in many forms; sometimes the decision can be made pre-snap, while some are post-snap. The Bills ran several RPOs this season, but most of those were choices by QB Tyrod Taylor prior to the snap, sort of like this. This play by Daboll is typically made post-snap by reading the conflict defender, but because the true freshman Tagovailoa entered to start the second half I believe Daboll made it more of a pre-snap decision RPO. The run portion is made to look like a power run with the backside guard pulling. The receivers to the top of the screen run a ‘Tosser’ concept and the wide receiver to the bottom of the screen runs a 5-step slant.
The offensive line blocks as if it is a run, to the point where a penalty should have been called. It sets up like an RPO, but because of the defensive look the decision to throw it was made prior to the snap, Tagovailoa doesn’t even bother to put the ball in the back’s belly.
As the linebacker gets downhill, he hits the receiver for the completion.
What excites me the most is the run game versatility that Daboll will bring to Buffalo. He employs concepts that could line up perfectly with what Buffalo has across the offensive line. How about this skip pull by the right tackle for the power run game? That’s right, picture Dion Dawkins or Cordy Glenn pulling and leading up inside like on this third-and-short play.
This is something that former coordinators Greg Roman and Anthony Lynn had, but Dennison ignored. Whether it’s Taylor, Alex Smith, Kirk Cousins, or a young QB they draft, Daboll has the ability to scheme a run game within the structure of the spread offense. Check out this zone read of the defensive tackle.
Running the football is always a numbers game, and Daboll understands that on many levels. The Tide leave the defensive tackle unblocked, and Tagovailoa is reading him.
If that defender chases the running back, then Tagovailoa would have a big lane up the middle. The defensive tackle holds and the mesh between Tagovailoa and RB Scarborough slightly holds all world linebacker Roquan Smith.
But more importantly, the play design gives Alabama the numbers at the point of attack. They are able to move the defensive line, reestablish the line of scrimmage, then climb to pick up Smith. Look at how far the linemen have moved the defenders.
The design gave the strength of the Alabama offense, the offensive line, the ability to dominate. Scarborough took advantage of the big hole that the design created.
Creativity has been added to his play book, but sometimes you just have to exert your will on the defense, something the Bills used to do with their power run game. It is truly incredible the amount of run concepts he ran with college talent. In this game they ran outside zones, inside zones, power, counter treys, and even pin-and-pull runs. This was the Bills’ bread and butter with Roman and Lynn.
The amount of run concepts executed in this game shows the attention to detail in Daboll’s game planning and something that showed up on film all year. The offensive linemen must have the line calls to match any defensive front that they will encounter in a game.However, this also demonstrates how Daboll is able to design plays to get numbers in his favor by using the QB to hold the backside contain player. You will see this play executed two times by freshman RB Najee Harris for big yardage!
The jet motion has taken the NFL by storm. Teams use it to set up the run and pass game, and Daboll isn’t any different. On this play he uses jet motion, and that motion causes the defense to change as the ball is snapped. So the defenders must know what coverage they are in as the ball is snapped AND able to process the route combinations. Georgia drops into what appears to be cover 3 as Daboll runs a variant of the ‘Yankee’ concept. This concept on 1st down is perfect from this area of the field.
Tagovailoa reads it perfectly because the flats defender, the safety dropping down, stays at depth, so the QB hits the receiver in the flats.
On this play, Daboll calls what appears to be an outside zone run QB keeper. This is another call that wins the numbers game.
A large playbook is a good thing to have because it makes it much more difficult for opponents to prepare for. But a large playbook must be one that is easy for college and NFL players to learn. It must have a language that is easy to digest and remember. That was evident in this National Championship game. Tagovailoa and Hurts were able to run lots of tempo to tire out the defense, but the simplicity of the scheme gave Tagovailoa the ability to easily call audibles at the line of scrimmage like he does on this play. Tagovailoa checks to outside zone late in the fourth quarter. Another good run by RB Harris:
In the fourth quarter it was a trio of true freshmen making plays, and it is a testament to the preparedness of Daboll’s offense and his play calling. Quarterback Tagovailoa, running back Najee Harris, and receiver Devonta Smith ( game winning touchdown) took over late in this contest. After taking a terrible sack, Tagovailoa kept his head in the game and executed the techniques taught to him by Daboll.
On 2nd-and-8, Daboll calls a ‘Seattle’ concept, an all verticals concept that is usually installed early in training camp. Here is an example from the Alabama playbook. It is a versatile concept that can work versus several coverages IF the receivers and quarterback are on the same page, as the routes can change based on how many safeties are deep.
Tagovailoa does a great job of recognizing the coverage, using his eyes to move the deep safety, and then throws a strike to win the game.
Brian Daboll has had his struggles coordinating offenses in the NFL, but it has been several years since he has commanded one on Sundays. Sometimes coaches need to step away from their positions to learn new tricks of the trade, to study trends, to expand upon their knowledge of how to attack opponents. Daboll got a chance to do that the last few years in New England, but I think his experience this past season is one that will truly help him revive his NFL career.
He may not bring all of the concepts that he utilized in this game versus Georgia, but you can bet part of the reason why McDermott brought him on board is to help the Bills bridge the gap between the NFL and college game, something his former boss in Kansas City, Andy Reid, has also done.
Landing Daboll is the best of both worlds as a Bills fan. The organization hired a guy that has experience game-planning and play calling on the biggest stages at both the NFL and collegiate level. He has championships with New England and now with Alabama. He was groomed under Nick Saban dating all the way back to his Michigan State days and then under Belichick in New England. So he has the attention to detail that McDermott wants, which includes teaching young QBs like Hurts and Tagovailoa, but he also has a touch of modern football in his arsenal. Daboll is able to use creative personnel groupings and looks on offense to confuse defenses, all while making things as easy as possible for his QB and offensive unit as a whole.