Mitch Morse had an interesting description of Brian Daboll this week.
The Buffalo Bills’ center was asked about the idea that the team's only true identity on offense is that they don’t have an identity, and what that says about the coordinator.
“I think it says he's somewhat of a lunatic, you know what I mean?” Morse said.
Um, not exactly. That requires a little more explanation.
“Lunatic in a good way,” Morse said. “He's just nonstop football. Puts in ridiculous hours. Relays information, divulges information to the players that is pertinent, but understands how to do that in a way that he wants it to and it's about success.”
The Bills’ offense is ever-changing. One of Daboll’s go-to phrases deals with how the NFL is a week-to-week league.
“That’s how I’ve been brought up in the business,” he said Thursday as the Bills concluded their practice week ahead the AFC wild-card playoff game Saturday at Houston. “The defenses are different that you're going against. The schemes are different. You try to put together the best plan you can to try to win that game, whether it's run it a bunch, throw it a bunch. Different run schemes, different pass schemes, that's what we try to do.”
The Bills passed the ball or attempted to on 553 plays in 2019. That represented 54% of their offensive plays and ranked 25th in the NFL. The Bills were seventh in rushing attempts, with 465 carries making up the other 46% of their 1,018 plays.
“We don’t run the same thing that other teams run. We have our own style and our own system, but the philosophy behind game-plan (specific) offense is something that I really believe in,” Daboll said. “We have a good staff. We have a bunch of guys who work tirelessly in trying to help our guys go out there and do the best job that they can do. That's what our job is.”
Daboll is the owner of five Super Bowl rings and one college national championship from his time as an assistant on Bill Belichick’s staff with the New England Patriots and as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator with the Crimson Tide.
Saturday, however, will mark a first for him in his 27th NFL playoff game: Daboll will get to call plays.
The Bills are looking to win a postseason game for the first time since 1995. Daboll was at the University of Rochester at the time, having graduated from St. Francis High School two years prior.
“It's very special. This is a community and a place that means a whole bunch to me,” he said of coaching in the postseason. “It's special for the players, the guys who have been here working hard since March. It's a good opportunity. We're going to have to do a good job, but make no mistake about it, it's very special.”
Daboll isn’t one to make the story about himself, so the personal significance that would come with ending such a lengthy drought is not something he’s addressed with the team.
Morse, though, said he can sense it.
“We all know what it means for every one of us in here, but especially for Brian,” he said.
“I've heard a lot of cool stories about growing up in Buffalo and West Seneca and Brian's early childhood around here, and I think it's really cool that he can coach basically for the team he grew up watching in his own backyard,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “Having said that, we've got a job to do and I expect to be focused for the week, Brian included and our football team as well.”
That’s usually a given, but there was a slight curveball thrown this week when it was reported that Daboll will interview for the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job. Cleveland.com reported that the interview will take place Sunday in Buffalo.
“My focus is totally on this job and trying to do the very best we can for a tough team,” Daboll said Thursday when asked about the Browns’ job. “It's going to take everybody. You would be doing a disservice if you weren't totally focused on what you need to do as part of the team for a moment like we're about to go into. Really, that's where my focus is and that's where it always will be.”
The Browns’ interest in Daboll, 44, likely starts with the job he’s done with second-year quarterback Josh Allen. Since returning from the elbow injury he suffered last year as a rookie against Houston, Allen has improved his passer rating by nearly 20 points and his passing yards per game by nearly 60.
“He's improving every day,” Daboll said. “He's a young guy that's hungry. Doesn't get too high, doesn't get too low. He's a good leader. This'll be his first postseason game, but there's a first for everything.
“You have to be prepared. You have to do your job like you do every week. Understand that you're only getting maybe 60, 70, 75 plays. You've got to make the most of them. You're not guaranteed anything other than that. We're all accountable to one another. We've all got to do the very best job we can do.”
The Bills’ offense is still a work in progress. The team finished the regular season 24th in yards per game (330.2), 24th in third-down conversions (35.85%) and tied for 23rd in points per game (19.6).
“We've had our challenges, but we started to lay a foundation offensively for how we want to build this thing on the offensive side of the ball,” McDermott said. “We've gone through the early swings and then we've kind of started to really improve in some areas and then there's other areas we have to continue to improve on, just like our overall football team. But I think just overall, Brian has started to lay a foundation.”
After a tough showing against the Browns in Week 10, Daboll moved from the sideline to the coaches’ booth. The Bills have consistently downplayed the significance of the move, but the following week, the team scored a season-high 37 points in a win at Miami.
The offense seemed to find something in going mostly with "11" personnel – meaning one tight end (Dawson Knox), one running back (Devin Singletary) and three wide receivers (John Brown, Cole Beasley and Isaiah McKenzie) joined Allen and the offensive line (including rookie right tackle Cody Ford). That formation was used on 120 plays – 11.75% of the team total. That ranked third in the league in percentage of plays featuring a team’s most common lineup.
“I think it has been pretty awesome,” Allen said of how the offense has evolved in his two seasons. “Having a guy like Coach Daboll, a guy that's extremely open to new ideas, new concepts, trying to utilize all of our talent on the football field. The rapport that we have and me going and talking to him and me trusting him with my whole heart and him trusting me when he calls the play – I think we've really been on the same page this last year and our relationship continues to grow and it's been fun working with him.”
Allen sounded genuine when he said he hadn’t heard about Daboll’s impeding interview with the Browns when he was asked about it.
“But we're so focused on the Texans right now and I'm sure he would tell you the same thing,” he said. “I’m extremely grateful for what he's done for me and how we continue to work together and if that time comes, the time comes, but for now, we're focused on the Texans.”
The matchup against the Texans will have an interesting subplot in that Daboll will oppose Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. Daboll got his start as a defensive assistant with the Patriots in 2000 and 2001. Crennel was New England’s defensive coordinator in the second of those years.
“I have so much respect for Romeo, his family, the type of man he is,” Daboll said. “He’s an unbelievable person, unbelievable football coach. … I think he garners a lot of respect from most people in the league, his players, other people he's worked for. He's smart, he's worked for some really good coaches in coach (Bill) Parcells and coach Belichick. He’s got his own stamp, he’s been doing it a really long time and he’s really good at it.”
Knowing Crennel the way he does, Daboll is aware that Houston’s defensive rankings might not tell the entire story. Although the Texans rank 28th in yards allowed (388.3), 31st in yards per play (6.09), 31st in third-down conversions allowed (48.51%) and last in red-zone touchdown percentage allowed (71.43%), there’s a good bet that Crennel will have something schemed that the Bills haven’t seen before.
That’s where Daboll’s creativity comes into play.
“I think our identity is just trying to figure it out,” Allen said. “Figure out a way to win the game. We've been in some tight ones that we've pulled through in and we've been in some tight ones that we haven't. So, ultimately, that comes down on my shoulders and we’ve got to trust whatever he calls and try our best to go out there and execute the way we can.”
If that happens Saturday, it will end another lengthy drought.
Perhaps better than anyone in the Bills’ locker room, Daboll knows exactly what that would mean for the community.