Brian Daboll got what he wanted, the chance to coach for his hometown team.
Now that his first season as offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills is one game from being over, he’s in the mood to be reflective.
“Like I said before, and I’ll say it now, there’s no more special place to me than this place,” Daboll said. “Growing up here with the tradition that they established back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, in particular, and now being part of it and being in the building and trying to rebuild that, it’s been awesome. But it would be more awesome with more wins.”
The Bills have a 5-10 record entering Sunday’s regular-season finale at New Era Field against the Miami Dolphins. Just as with most of their other home games, a group of Daboll’s family members and friends will be in attendance. That was something that rarely happened during his previous 16 seasons as an assistant coach in the NFL – New England (2000-06; 2013-16), Cleveland (2009-10), New York Jets (2007-08), Miami (2011) and Kansas City (2012) – or last year, which he spent as offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama.
Until now, Daboll’s coaching career had resided in a separate location from his family, which lives in Western New York. Besides his wife, children and stepchildren, that includes Daboll’s grandparents, who raised him in their West Seneca home after he was born in Canada.
“However many tickets we need, I get them,” he said. “Sometimes, the kids bring their friends or cousins or maybe neighbors. There’s only one rule: If we lose, nobody says a word, just because I don’t take losing very well.
“And if we win, I’m always (talking about) what we could have done better. I’m happy we got a win, but you can usually hear a pin drop in the car.”
In the latest “One-on-One Coverage,” Daboll spent some time with The Buffalo News talking about what it’s like to finally coach for the team for which he has rooted since childhood, interacting with his family, and working with Josh Allen and the Bills’ other quarterbacks.
Buffalo News: How different has the family dynamic been with your being on the Bills’ coaching staff?
Brian Daboll: It’s been fine. I think my wife does a fantastic job of kind of weeding everything out. The one thing when you’re in your hometown is there are a lot of people that you're close with, whether it’s family members or friends that care about you and want to see you do well. And that’s been great. I’m very appreciative of the support from all those people.
At the same time, you’re kind of locked in each week to a laser-focused approach of moving on to the next opponent, dealing with a win or a loss, taking care of the next thing. And there’s a schedule, so to speak, that they never really understand.
BN: Is it better for you, in a year that hasn't gone the way you or anyone with the team wanted, to be less out and about in the community?
BD: I think that really hasn’t changed from wherever I’ve been. You have to immerse yourself in this to the fullest. That’s the schedule, that’s what you're trying to do. If I have any down time, I’m spending it with my wife and the kids. I go over to my grandparents, but not much else. Other than that, I don’t really do too much. I'm about as boring as you can get when I'm outside of the office.
I can go watch the kids play their games now. I was at my daughter Haven’s JV basketball game the other day. That’s cool to be able to do that. She’s been playing sports since she’s been pretty young. Before, when those games were during football season, I missed them. In the summertime, when we got that month off, we’d see as much as we could. I mean, there’s your faith and your family, and there’s your profession, which for us is football.
BN: Spending more time around your grandparents has to be such a plus.
BD: I’ll try to stop there either on a Friday night or on a Saturday afternoon just to spend a little time with them. My grandfather’s going to be 93. Grandma is 84. They’ve done everything for me. So just to go over and sit on the couch with my grandfather, grandmother and watch one of her television shows or watch her sit there and play with our 1-year-old or 3-year-old, it’s pretty cool.
BN: Do your grandparents ever give you football feedback?
BD: My grandmother gets so nervous about outcomes – and she’s been this way her whole life – that she won’t even watch. My grandfather has come to every home game. Usually, my son or my wife will pick him up from the house I grew up in and bring him over. Then I’ll drop him off after the game. We’ll call my grandmother on the way home. Driving back from the Detroit game, she said, “Did you win?” I said, “Yeah, we won.” She said, “Oh, thank God! I was praying, I was praying.”
I’ve learned to have tunnel vision, but it wasn’t something that comes easy. What I try to do with my grandparents, in particular, because they’re older, is say, “You’ve got to learn to have tunnel vision no matter if it’s good or if it’s bad.” The kids are pretty good. The most emotional one is the 13-year-old. She’s just a competitor, she’s a firecracker.
BN: Have you had any circumstances where your family, especially the kids, have had to deal with negative things being said about the Bills or specifically about you or your coaching?
BD: That’s been fine. They haven’t had any issues with that. And if they have, they’re pretty strong-minded individuals, but they understand what goes along with the territory. This is the life we live. I’ve been blessed to have a great life in this industry. And I think you have to be real and honest with your children.
We all know what comes with the territory, and rightfully so. We have a great fan base. I was one of them and still am one of them. All we’re trying to do is win and when you don’t, you expect (criticism).
BN: You’ve worked with four different quarterbacks this year. Has that ever happened in your coaching career?
BD: No. We’ve had three twice. My second year in Cleveland, it was Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace and Colt McCoy. At Miami, we had Chad Henne, Matt Moore and (former Bill) J.P. Losman.
BN: You were able to work with Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman through the offseason and training camp, but how challenging was it to get Derek Anderson and Matt Barkley prepared for games in a couple of weeks or less?
BD: I think that goes along with the profession. Whether it be DA or Matt, it wasn’t too difficult because of the amount of time that they put in. They were here, I mean, all night. So we would spend so much extra time together, however late we needed to, however early. That's just the type of guys that both of them are.
We worked at it pretty hard together. I think it's important, too, that you’ve got to twist, turn and do some things that they feel comfortable with, too. It's not just a cookie cutter, (saying), “We’re doing this and this is what we’ve always done and this is why we’re doing it.” I think every one of them has different strengths, every one of them has different weaknesses, everyone has different experiences of plays that they prefer. So if (such a play) would be able to fit or we can manage it to fit, which is our job as a coaching staff, then that’s what we're going to do and that’s what we did.
If there's things that they don't feel comfortable with, then it wouldn't be very smart to run them. Both of those guys are smart, so even when (the game plan’s) condensed, it’s not like we had to cut everything off. Maybe DA liked a route that he had a lot of familiarity with at Carolina or Matt liked a route, so you put them in. Trying to do what your players do best is the job of a coach.
BN: How steady are you able to keep the quarterback room with the different personalities you’ve had in there this season?
BD: The three of those guys in that room have a very good chemistry. Obviously, DA has been in the league a long time. He hadn't played in a while, Matt just for a few years only had a few starts, been on a few different teams, learned the system. And then there’s Josh, who's obviously a rookie. But their personalities mesh well together.
I’d like to think that that I mesh well with those guys, too. I have a great sense of trust in all three of those guys. I think they’re all smart. They see the game and, right away, we can have very good give-and-take conversations. They’re very coachable and they get along well with one another. It's a fun room to be in. It's a professional room; there's a lot of good sets of eyes on the tape when you're watching it and very good conversations. I really enjoy being around those guys and coaching them.
BN: Allen is only the second rookie quarterback you’ve worked with besides Colt McCoy in Cleveland. What’s unique about coaching a rookie at the position?
BD: Well, everything is new. I had been a graduate assistant for Nick Saban at Michigan State for two years, but going to Alabama for that one year (also with Saban), I saw things differently when I came back (to the NFL). These kids (in college) have school. They have their social life. They're young kids that are still developing and growing in college and they have people helping them, academic support, coaching. You're helping to grow the young man.
Then, these young guys get here and they’re now professionals. We have a phenomenal support staff within our building that Sean (McDermott) and Brandon (Beane) have kind of put together that are helping these young guys, but still it's different being a pro and learning to deal with rookies. But I would say my patience level has increased significantly. Plus, I have kids that are not much younger than these guys.
The younger and younger they get, the older and older I get. It's different nowadays, but I would say just being around those college guys and then coming back, it’s helped me deal with younger players. I’m more understanding of things, just a lot of little things, which has been good. The old adage of, “Players don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,” I think that's an important quality that I try to be better at every year.
BN: What has stood out to you the most about working with Josh?
BD: There’s a lot. I have a great appreciation for him in a lot of areas – how he works, how he listens, how he tries to get better every week, how he’s hard on himself and demanding of himself. He can take coaching. He’s developed his own, unique style of leadership; he's not trying to be anybody else.
BN: How would you define that leadership style?
BD: He’s a fiery guy. He wants to win in everything he does. It doesn't matter if it’s a quiz in the meeting room with the two other guys, hitting the crossbar in a drill, throwing it in a bucket in a practice. I mean, he’s highly competitive, he’s highly motivated. He’s smart, tough. I know he’s from California and went to Wyoming, but I'm from here and I think he’s a Buffalo guy.
He knows he’s got a lot to improve on, we all do. But he has the right mindset for it and he's a great young guy to work with. I really appreciate the effort and his continually wanting to get better. He’s got a bright future.
BN: What goes through your head when you watch Josh run, especially the way he did during that three-game stretch where he averaged 112 yards per game with his feet?
BD: I think that he has a good feel in the pocket of when he can do it. We talk about making sure he's protecting himself when he needs to protect himself. He has good vision. Some of those where he's holding onto it late, late, late in the pocket and he knows he's got nothing and he can just throw it away and save himself on a little nudge out of bounds, that we’ve got to keep on working on. And, again, that competitiveness, the fire that he has in him. That’s what you love about him. He knows these are long seasons, it's big, fast strong men that he's out there against and he's got to do a good job of knowing when to say when.
BN: How much work are you able to do on his mechanics and addressing areas such as footwork, which greatly impacts accuracy, during the season?
BD: You don’t do as much as you would do in the spring, but we always pick one or two things every week, when it's just the quarterbacks doing drills during special teams period, whether it’s throws under congestion, throwing on the move, scramble drill, scramble reset drill, eyes downfield and go to your third read after you go to your first two. The (stepping over and around) bags, the feet, we do those more so in the offseason, so we’ll just take a few things from each week that we think we need to clean up on. You have DA and Bark out there, too, and it’s good for Josh to have a lot of sets of eyes on him.
BN: How well does he pick things up?
BD: He can absorb as much as we need him to absorb. But as a coach, sometimes you’ve got to know when to cut that off to and when too much is too much.
BN: Being a Buffalo guy and having rooted for the Bills your whole life, how do you balance your emotional and professional attachments to the team?
BD: That's a great question. First thing is, it is a profession, so you have a professional obligation to do everything you can do to try to be part of a team and help in any way you can to be successful. But I make no bones about it: This is home and this is a special place to me, involved with an organization that I grew up cheering for. We have a bad game, I was probably one of those guys yelling about the bad game.
You take it hard on yourself because you work so hard as a staff collectively to try to accomplish a goal every week. You’ve only got 16 of these things and if you do well, maybe some more. But you do everything you do during the week to put as much into it as you can to get the results you want. When you don’t, you get ticked.
BN: And you know, if something doesn’t go well with one of your calls, there are a whole lot of young Brian Dabolls upset with you.
BD: No question, there’s no doubt. I was one of them. I’m still one of them. I to try to be as hard on myself as anyone can be.