Subtle adjustments, creativity help Brian Daboll evolve Buffalo's offense for the stretch run

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Brian Daboll Josh Allen (17) Buffalo Bills at New Orleans Saints at Caesers Dome, November 25, 2021. Photo by Brett Carlsen

Some outside observers might call Buffalo's offensive performance in last Sunday's pivotal game against the Patriots as close to complete since their Week 5 win over the Chiefs. Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll would chalk it up to great execution.

"Give all the credit to the players," he said Monday. "It's a players' game."

While Daboll is correct knowing the players are the ones on the field turning play calls into plays, Daboll has been an integral part of lifting Buffalo's offense to the upper echelon of the league for a second consecutive season.

But what is the method behind Daboll's ability to not only craft successful game plans, but also make the in-game adjustments necessary to shift gears and stay a step ahead of his opponents?

That creativity is rooted in a relentless pursuit of anything that's fresh and inventive. His players often joke that 'Dabes,' as they call him, has never seen a play that he's roundly dismissed. Always open to any kind of play concept, Daboll will listen to any idea a player or coach might have. It is this willingness to be collaborative that has often kept Buffalo's offensive play caller ahead of the defensive coordinators seeking to neutralize his weekly game plans.

"I think he just continues to find ways to explore different types of plays," said Josh Allen. "He's constantly watching film from college, other NFL games and even sometimes high school games. He's got a knack for it of just finding good play calls. He'll switch things up where teams maybe lose focus on one guy and then bring him in or focus too much on the other guy. He continues just to watch a lot of film and he's very open minded for different plays from everybody on the team. It doesn't matter what position you play, he's willing to take a look at it."

Cole Beasley brought him a play from his college days at SMU during joint practices with Carolina in the summer of 2019 that he thought could work well with their personnel. The next day at practice Daboll put it in and they ran it. Beasley was surprised and appreciative all at once that his play concept wasn't only considered but attempted in a joint practice in the span of 24 hours. It wound up in Buffalo's playbook come the regular season.

That creativity frequently keeps Buffalo's offense in the realm of the unpredictable, which is where most play callers want to be at the highest level of football. But Daboll always comes back to how it looks on the field.

"You could have the best play call ever, but if you can't execute it then it won't mean much," he said.

Daboll trusts his players implicitly. Josh Allen most of all. He puts enormous faith in the 11 he puts on the field to adjust week to week, during the week and at times the night before a game when he's still tinkering with the game plan.

When asked how often Daboll will change plays late in a game week, Stefon Diggs answered quickly.

"Every day and twice on game day," he said with a smirk. "He harps on it all week. He says we have smart players that can handle it and we always say, 'Yeah, Dabes, we're smart but it is a lot of information.' It is a give and take relationship. He trusts us out there and you know Josh is pretty smart as well. He'll figure it out and move all the pieces in the right spot. When you do have smart players, especially at your quarterback position, you're never really too concerned because they'll figure it out."

The benefits of working with the same quarterback in Allen and having most of the top 15 offensive players on board for the last two or three seasons provides Daboll with the latitude to change things on the fly. It's all geared toward staying ahead of his counterparts on the other sideline.

"I know Brian really well and I respect him a ton," said former NFL front office executive for the Chiefs, Falcons and Patriots, Scott Pioli. "He knows offense to the core. He comes from a family of coaching that's founded in discipline, detail and the basics and fundamentals of the game. Brian was also in a lot of places where there was an emphasis put on accentuating the positive and limiting the negatives. He knows that their best football player is Josh Allen, and everything has to try to be centered around him and his strengths."

Buffalo's offensive coordinator believes in being multi-dimensional. However, if no one can seem to stop what you do best, Daboll won't hesitate to lean on that strength heavily. That's what happened last season when the Bills' passing attack was downright lethal. Josh Allen and his receiving targets carried the offense with the run game serving as a minor complement. The result was an offense that ran three and four wide sets on 95 percent of their offensive plays. Allen smashed team passing records and the Bills set a franchise single-season scoring mark with 501 points.

But in a league that is always changing, sometimes from one week to the next, Daboll knew his offense had to morph and change too heading into 2021. Some aspects of his offense have remained the same. Their most popular personnel grouping (11 – 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) has been used even more with the emergence of TE Dawson Knox. But if you ask the players who were here in 2020, they'll confirm their offense has changed.

"I feel like we're kind of the jack of all trades a little bit," said Diggs of their offense. "I feel like we can throw the ball, we can run the ball. We're not as one-dimensional as we were last year. Last year we were just chucking the ball around. This year, we can mix it up. I feel like we've got a lot of depth, a lot of guys who can do different things. We've got some playmakers. We got some guys in the backfield. We got a quarterback that can run. Having a mobile quarterback really adds an element to your team, because you've got to account for your quarterback as well, taking off on foot."

Though their pass game still appears to set up the run, the ground game seemed take a step forward when rookie third-round pick Spencer Brown entered the lineup at right tackle, moving veteran Daryl Williams inside to right guard come Week 4. It provided Buffalo's front with drive blocking power on the right side as well as a mobile big man in Brown, who can get out in front of a screen or an outside zone play. He also brought a physical edge to the group, which was most recently witnessed in Week 10 against the Jets.

Brown obliterated defenders with regularity as Buffalo gained what at the time was a season high 5.8 yards per carry. Daboll dressed up run plays with different formations and personnel groupings. He found a purpose for RB Matt Breida, who provided the run game and the screen game with a spark for a stretch from Week 10 to 12.

"He did a great job of putting the players in position, run-pass-wise, pass-run wise, different styles of passes, different styles of runs," said head coach Sean McDermott. "I think the multiplicity overall was great for us and you saw it right the on the scoreboard. I liked the variation in his play." 

"From an offensive standpoint, the tweaks that they've made to the right side of the offensive line has strengthened the running game where Brian Daboll can be confident in saying if it's one of the situations where we want to line up two tight ends, one wide and put a fullback in the game and just pound you with Devin (Singletary) and Zack (Moss) we'll do that," said ESPN Monday Night Football color analyst Louis Riddick. "But that's not really who we are per se. They like to spread you out and throw the football. That's a great addition and demonstrates how multiple this offense can be. The best offenses are doing that. They're the type of offense where depending on what teams want to take away, they'll just go the other way."

Many coordinators will put together an opening script of up to 15 plays with some offshoot variations knowing no NFL game ever goes according to plan. But Daboll isn't a subscriber to this approach when it comes to crafting the game plan.

"We collectively do it as a group, offensively," said Daboll of the offensive staff. "What you've practiced during the week, what looked good, what you think you want to start out with, working on helping the offensive line, getting the quarterback going, you kind of put everything together. But to go one to 15 on plays, I think that's tough to do because there's so just many different situations that are going to come out of the beginning of the game. I think there are some openers that you like. In terms of just putting them down in an order and just sticking to that, that's not what we subscribe to."

Daboll does have a good idea of plays that they'd like to run early in a game but prefers to choose what's best for that situation in that moment and to have good communication with the quarterback as those situations arise in real time.

"Dabes has been around the league long enough to know how to handle certain situations," said Allen. "He does a good job of letting me be me and dialing up some plays for us, trying to get me into a rhythm. Everybody knows the rapport that we have is really good and it's only going to get better as the season goes on." 

During an up and down stretch through the middle two months of the season, Daboll, the offensive staff, and the players have worked to smooth things out throughout the course of games knowing there's a difference between adjusting versus knee-jerk type changes when there might be a slow start or a lull in their play.

"We try to adjust in between every series," Daboll said. "The first thing we do is we look at our problem plays, what happened, because you never know when you're getting the ball back. It could be a quick turnaround with our defense. Try to get those fixed, and corrected, and make sure everyone's aligned and on the same page. Then we talk about the next upcoming series, things we're doing.

"Early on in the game, the game hasn't really declared itself until the first few series anyway. Like, 'Oh my gosh, they're doing all this!' And then the next few series they come out of it. So, you've got to be careful on that, too, jumping the gun. But we're constantly evaluating and communicating in between series. There's never really a time where we're going to say, 'Look, let's just wait until we get here.' Because sometimes, that's too late. But the game has to declare itself. So, try to keep a level head, be consistent, and do the best job that we can."

Making adjustments while having patience in Week 8 against Miami, for example, proved virtuous. After going one for five on third down in the first half of a 3-3 game, Daboll and company made some necessary shifts in their approach and converted five of their last seven third down situations en route to a 26-11 victory.

And though the consistent results didn't completely come together week over week in the games that followed, the group does have confidence that their offensive coordinator has prepared them to turn to whatever aspect of their offensive scheme they might need in any given moment of a game.

"For me I feel like we've learned how to play left-handed, especially when people want to take away the first things you like to do, or things that you pretty much do pretty well," said Diggs. "Being able to play left-handed and doing some other things, it gives people a different look. It's hard to catch a pig. So, I can't really give you too much on our identity, since I think we can do a little bit of everything."

Daboll considers himself a wiser play caller now than he was 13 years ago when he was hired for his first coordinator post in Cleveland in 2009. He views that as positive change. What has never changed for him in this role is his commitment to being a problem solver, especially when things don't go well.

"When I was a first-time coordinator, I was probably a lot different than I am now," he said. "I think experience helps, maturity helps and sharing those experience with your players, helps too. You're going to have bad games. You're going to have bad calls, bad plays, turnovers. Things like that that happen.

"It's easy to have brain energy when you're executing well. How do you get that when you're not? How do you stay positive when things aren't going great, or you have a loss? I think that's what leaders have to do. You must believe in your process, believe in your methods, knowing the results aren't always going to be what you want them to be. But you can always fall back on the things you believe in, and again, have some conversations.

"`Can we change something?' It's not a wholesale change. You're just trying to look to get better at the things you need to do. But to go in and switch a whole bunch of stuff with the players, no. We have a process we're committed to. We have a system. We believe in it. So, you've really got to do the best you can staying focused on the things that are happening, being honest and believing in how you go about doing things is the right way to do it while also tweaking some of the process as you go. That's the nature of the business that we're in. How you handle that goes a long way."

And the Bills might be finding their groove offensively at just the right time after stacking wins in back-to-back 30-plus point performances in Weeks 15 and 16 against the second and third-ranked defenses in the league.

Sure execution is the most important component, but so too is Daboll's willingness to keep searching for solutions. When asked about how creative he allows himself to be, Daboll pushes that description to the side. For Buffalo's offensive play caller, being resourceful seems to carry more weight with him.

But if you ask any player, coach, or executive in the league where Daboll rates on the creativity meter, he's right at the top.

"I'd give him a 10. Full disclosure I love Brian," said Riddick. "He's someone who I don't know how much longer people can wait to hire him as a head coach. It's getting ridiculous for a lot of guys, but he is a guy who should be a head coach running his own program. He has been around the best coaches that this game has to offer at the pro and the college level. He has seen it all. He has done it all. He has schemed against it all. He has been on both sides of the ball. He gets the game, and he gets that it's about efficiency and doing whatever it is that you need to do to be efficient. And being efficient is really about scoring points. I love that his offense is as multiple as any in the NFL. As the year goes on that will prove to be the case."

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