It was a pickup basketball game of all things. University of Miami head football coach Butch Davis had just taken a cross country flight overnight from Friday night into Saturday morning to catch a 17-year-old Ken Dorsey in a basketball scrimmage at 8 AM. Coach Davis took a seat in the bleachers and quickly spotted the 6-5 bean pole that was Dorsey. In sizing up to the two teams, he didn't like Dorsey's team's chances.
"I look out there and I say to myself 'Oh, man Kenny's team, they're going to get blown out of this gym,'" Davis said. "They've got no chance. The other team was way more athletic, bigger, stronger."
Dorsey quickly changed Davis's mind. The point guard was a veritable floor general, moving and directing his teammates to different areas of the court like chess pieces. Then he used deception to create easy scoring opportunities for those teammates.
"Kenny immediately jumped out with what he did with the ball," said Davis. "He brought the ball down the court and he's looking the defenders off to the one side and he's hitting guys on cuts to the hoop on the backside and I thought, 'That's a quarterback. A guy that can find the open receivers.' And his team won the scrimmage."
Dorsey took that ability to put teammates in position to be successful and applied it just as effectively to the football field at Miami where as a true freshman he started six games and quickly commanded the respect of upperclassmen like Najeh Davenport, Bubba Franks, Santana Moss, Clinton Portis and Reggie Wayne.
"All these guys, they were high-profile players, but they had great respect for Kenny," Davis said. "They knew what a grinder he was, how much he watched film, and when he was on the field, they listened to him. The one thing about Kenny that was really impressive to me coming from high school into college was how smart he was. I mean he learned our pro-style offense almost immediately and as a true freshman when you come in and you can play with all of those guys as a true freshman, you get a lot of respect."
That respect and trust resulted in a national title in 2000 and they were a bad call away from going back-to-back in 2001. His 38-2 record at Miami is something that is still readily mentioned in the quarterbacks' room at One Bills Drive.
"Talk about a guy that doesn't want to lose, that hates losing," said Josh Allen of Dorsey. "He absolutely hates it and that's why he was 38-2 in college. And he never lets me forget it. 38-2. Oh, yeah. I always try to jab at him like, 'Coach, what were you 36-4?' And the answer comes back immediately, 38-2."
A different perspective
Dorsey's exploits in college didn't boost his draft stock much. NFL personnel executives still saw a tall, skinny quarterback with limited mobility and an average arm. A high football IQ and sparkling college resume were only good enough to make him a seventh-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers. His professional career was short. It lasted five NFL seasons serving mainly as a second or third string quarterback with 17 appearances and 13 starts with the 49ers and Browns.
The opportunities to move the chess pieces around were limited, at best. But while he was in Cleveland he shared a quarterbacks room with Derek Anderson, a signal caller who enjoyed a breakout season in 2007. Anderson gives a lot of credit to Dorsey for his success that season. Their offensive coordinator with the Browns was Rob Chudzinski, who was Dorsey's coordinator at the University of Miami in his final two seasons. His intimate knowledge of Chudzinski's system was invaluable for Anderson.
"He was a great resource for me because I was getting information from him about things, he had done in the past in that system that worked for him, or something he and Rob talked about in passing," said Anderson. "He was always a great source for me just to lean on. When I was playing my best, he was a guy in the room most of the time with me watching tape and bouncing things off me. He was helping me and was a huge factor in 2007 when I had my best season."
Utilizing the chess pieces to seize control of a game is often easier when you're the primary decision maker pulling the trigger at quarterback, but as a backup Dorsey's approach had to be different. It was laying the groundwork for how he would need to prepare a quarterback for a game as a coach.
Anderson and Dorsey would cross paths again in Carolina. Anderson's career was winding down and Dorsey's coaching career was on the upswing. Serving as the team's quarterbacks coach, Dorsey was a big help to Cam Newton, who would win league MVP honors under Dorsey's tutelage in 2015.
"He understands the game at an elite level," said Anderson. "He relates well with players in the room. He helped Cam (Newton) a ton. That's where I saw him grow as a coach. He came in Cam's third year and the way he ran our meetings and the way we learned in our room. That was cool for me to watch. He just added new ways for Cam to learn. You don't just sit in there listening to him preach about a play or scheme. It's very player involved. He asks questions, you give responses. There are competitions in the meeting rooms. It's designed to push your thinking to go forward."
Dorsey served under head coach Ron Rivera during his five-year tenure as Panthers' quarterbacks coach. Rivera was always impressed with his mastery of scheme and the ability to present it in a digestible way.
"He has a feel and understanding for the game. The flow of the game and how things go during the game, and he'll be able to share that," Rivera said. "He's very bright, very knowledgeable. He's going to have the ability to use that knowledge and make sure whatever he chooses to coach and teach it'll be to the benefit of the player and the team. I've got a lot of faith in him."
After a year at Florida International as assistant athletic director, Dorsey landed the Bills quarterbacks coaching position in 2019 where he'd be working with his second pro quarterback with elite physical traits in Josh Allen. While former Bills OC Brian Daboll gets a great deal of credit for developing Allen's game, Dorsey has been a key component as well over the last three seasons in making Allen a top tier quarterback in the game.
"I trusted Daboll with my life and I think I'd be willing to say the same thing for Dorsey," Allen said. "That's only going to continue to grow. He's been in the room with me for the last three years, so that trust and that faith that I have in him, and him in me is already through the roof and it's only going to grow as time goes on. He knows my likes and my dislikes, just by being in the room with me. I couldn't be happier. Just knowing the verbiage, the terminology, the competitive spirit that he and I share. It's a very, very good fit and I'm excited for him to call live plays for us."
Whether you know Ken Dorsey well or you've only been exposed to him in small doses, it doesn't take long to recognize his competitive fire. As a quarterbacks coach on the sidelines the last three seasons with Buffalo, that fire has boiled over at times.
"He's a brilliant football coach, but he's just so competitive," said center Mitch Morse. "The best way you can describe it is the Holy Spirit can come out of him and you don't know when it's going to come out. You don't want to be on the other end of that because it can be ruthless."
As Dorsey worked through his decision on whether to call plays from the coaches' booth upstairs or on the sidelines during game days this fall, his players were mandating that they make the decision for him.
"Dorsey has a huge personality," said Davis. "He gets fired up quick, so he's going to have to be in the box. We'll decide that. We'll make sure he's in the box."
"I like to think I'm not too much of a psychopath," said Dorsey chuckling. "Look, it's a passionate game and it's football, you know what I mean? So, I get it. It's just going to be one of those things I want to do what's best for the team and what's best for me calling it. It probably wouldn't hurt to be up in the box."
To challenge Dorsey to stay focused during games, head coach Sean McDermott will throw adversity at Dorsey and his unit during their 'call it' periods in practice when the coordinators call plays. The aim is to force Dorsey to go to every corner of his call sheet knowing that could easily happen in a game that matters.
"It's not just what the result is but it's situationally did we like what we called? As coaches we'll go back evaluate ourselves," said McDermott. "With Ken Dorsey, he went through a stretch in one practice where things weren't going the way we wanted them to go or we had scripted out. But he also came through in the end for his offense and put together a couple game-winning drives. As coaches that's how we continue to learn."
There's a reason that McDermott has challenged Dorsey as well as fellow new coordinator Matthew Smiley, who will be running special teams. There are no guarantees that past performance will guarantee future results when an assistant is named to a coordinator post for the first time.
"This is the hardest thing you do in the roles I was in when I was in the NFL," said former front office executive Joe Banner. "It's projecting the development and advancement of coaches. Coaches generally know their business very well. They're very passionate and that often comes through in an interview. Separating the passion and the intensity you get from somebody to really break down and project who can take a step up and make you as strong or stronger than you were is not easy.
"My answer on Ken is everything we've seen up to this point leads me to believe that he'll be able to take the next step and do it effectively. But projecting that is extremely hard. Batting 50 percent on that kind of prediction is actually doing great. I'm hopeful and optimistic, but I know the risk of that kind of projection."
McDermott has insulated Dorsey with a bounty of offensive assistants who have been coordinators themselves. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, quarterbacks coach Joe Brady, and Senior Offensive Assistant Mike Shula are all new additions to the staff. All three have been coordinators at the NFL level as well as tight ends coach Rob Boras. There will be a strong contingent of support.
So, what's to be expected from this first-time play caller? Polling the majority of the offensive players there was a one-word description that was most popular.
"Aggressive," said Gabe Davis along with a handful of others. "Dorsey just wants to attack every single play. He doesn't want to let up on anything and that's the biggest thing. I'm happy that he's going to give us a lot of opportunities to go out there and make big plays. He played the quarterback position. He's been through the fire. He's been on great teams and played with great people. He understands what us as players want. And that's a lot of fun to have a guy like that."
But beyond just a desire to go for the throat, Dorsey is keen enough to recognize there must be a plan to capably put teams away and post victories.
"He's smart as heck," said QB Case Keenum. "His call sheet, man. It's like 'A Beautiful Mind.' He's got it up there and we're still trying to see it the same way, but he does a great job getting guys lined up for not only the best play possible but the best matchup possible. Going forward I'm excited to see what comes out of the pipe."
What Dorsey intends to continue with Buffalo's high-powered offense is creating endless variety without adding much in the way of volume for his players. Pre-snap motion and shifts, tempo changes and different personnel groupings to expand the play calling options have been parts of the offensive approach. Dorsey is expected to make use of those as well, but his preferences will be different.
"I think we kind of have our identity with Josh (Allen) and the skill we have," said QB Matt Barkley. "We have a good grasp on knowing what we're going to be best at going into each week, but the good part is that we can change that up and kind of morph into whatever we need to be depending on what personnel we're playing that week or what we're expecting. So, it's pretty fluid and it seems like we can pretty much do whatever we want."
And Dorsey's former college head coach is convinced that the Bills offensive play caller will go to whatever lengths necessary to put his team in a weekly position for checkmate.
"He is going to turn over every single rock to try to find a way to win every single game and get the ball in the hands of his guys and cut out all the bad things that can lose you games like protections and turnovers and those kinds of things," said Butch Davis. "I'm telling you Kenny is going to do great things for that offense."
Take a look at your favorite Bills players as the start of the 2022 NFL season approaches. The gallery is presented by St. Bonaventure.