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Brian Daboll, Future Head Coach?

A deep dive into Brian Daboll, where he comes from, what he does with the Bills offense, and his prospects as an NFL head coach.

Brian Daboll Bears
Photo: @BestHumanTalent/Twitter

Who is Brian Daboll?

Daboll at University of Roshester
Photo: Provided to Democrat & Chronicle for a story on Daboll

Brian Daboll was born in Ontario, Canada. After being born, Daboll never met his father and his mother moved him to New York to live with her parents. Daboll’s grandparents had a major influence in his life, raising him from a young age. Growing up in Buffalo, he played football for St. Francis High School and earned a reputation as a hard-hitting safety. At St. Francis, his head coach was Jerry Smith, who also coached NFL figures David Caldwell, Chris Polian, Jim Kubiak, Kyle Smith, and Tom Telesco. Daboll played free safety at Division III University of Rochester. But, he suffered a neck injury due to a helmet-to-helmet hit in the final game of his junior season. Daboll graduated from Rochester with a degree in Economics. He is 44 years old, married, and has four children.

Early Coaching Career

Brian Daboll has coached for 24 years at the D1 NCAA or NFL level. He has been an NFL coach in some capacity for 21 years.
Brian Daboll’s coaching experience

On a whim, Daboll made an unannounced visit to Division 1-AA William and Mary to see if any jobs were available on the football coaching staff. He was wearing a t-shirt and cut off shorts. 

Daboll came away from that “meeting” with an unpaid volunteer coaching position. With the support of his grandparents, who sent money to help him when they could, Daboll accepted the position. He also took a part-time job as a towel boy at a golf course as well. 

At that point, Daboll wanted more. He wanted to reach the next level. To achieve this, he wrote letters to the head coach, offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator of every Division 1-A football program. Most of those programs sent him rejection letters, which he still has saved in a binder. The others were kind enough to call him to let them know that they were not interested in his services.

Changing his strategy, Daboll focused in on the top 20 Division 1-A programs. He called the program, asking for the information on the assistant coach in charge of hiring graduate assistants. After reaching out to these coaches, he finally got a call back from Chris Cosh, who was Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at Michigan State.

“Hey buddy, I’ve gotten four of your resumes on my desk in the last week. You’ve got to stop sending me letters.”

– Michigan State Defensive Coordinator Chris Cosh

After getting his foot in the door at Michigan State, Daboll was able to earn Nick Saban’s trust due to his attention to detail. That trust was rewarded in the form of a recommendation from Saban to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. 

“Brian’s an outstanding coach. He’s very industrious and a hard worker. He came up the hard way in this profession by starting out as a Graduate Assistant for us at Michigan State… I see him developing into a very, very good head coach.”

– Nick Saban
Daboll with the Browns
Photo: WKYC Studios

After two seasons as a Patriots defensive assistant, Daboll became the team’s WR coach in 2002. He would stay in this role through 2006.

After the 2006 season, Daboll followed Eric Mangini to the New York Jets. He spent the next two seasons (2007-2008) serving as the Jets QB coach, working with Chad Pennington and Brett Favre. Following the 2008 season, which included a disappointing season from Brett Favre, Mangini was fired by the Jets. 

Quickly picking up the scraps, Mangini was hired as the Browns head coach, and once again Daboll followed. From 2009-2010, Daboll served as the Browns OC. After finding little success in two seasons, both Mangini and Daboll were fired. 

After leaving Cleveland, Daboll went a different route. He was hired by Tony Sparano to be the 2011 Dolphins offensive coordinator. Sparano was entering his third year as Dolphins head coach, and needed results despite the lockout shortened training camp. The offense improved from 30th to 20th in yards under Daboll, but that was not enough to save the coaching staff, as Daboll was left jobless once again.

Entering the 2012 season, Daboll was hired to be the Chiefs offensive coordinator. This reunited him with familiar Patriots names Romeo Crennel, Scott Pioli, and Matt Cassell. The 2012 season was a complete disaster for the Chiefs in every way possible. The team went 2-14 on the season, with the worst rated passing offense and the most turnovers in the NFL. 

They did not lead in any game until their ninth game of the season and lost nine games by 14 points or more. In the most tragic of events, Chiefs linebacker Javon Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, then drove to the Chiefs facility and shot himself in front of Crennel and Pioli.

Return to the Patriots

Needing a change, the entire coaching staff and front office in Kansas City was overhauled. Daboll returned to the Patriots as a tight ends coach for the 2013 season. He remained in that role through 2016, working closely with Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. 

For the 2017 season, Daboll returned to the college ranks. Seeking a higher-ranking role, and being blocked in New England by Josh McDaniels, Daboll turned to Nick Saban. He jumped onto Alabama’s staff as offensive coordinator and QB coach, inheriting six returning starters. The Alabama QB room included Jalen Hurts, Mac Jones, and Tua Tagovailoa. Daboll was involved in recruiting efforts for both Jones and Tua.

“Brian’s a good coach. He’s been a good coach for a long time… (did) a good job when he was here, when he left here, with other teams he’s been with, when he came back here he added a lot to the staff, went down and won a national championship with Coach Saban at Alabama. He’s got 10 new starters on offense from the start of the year last year and they’re playing pretty well. He does a good job. He’s been doing a good job.”

– Bill Belichick

After winning the BCS Championship in 2016, an old friend came calling. Bills head coach Sean McDermott had played for Daboll as a defensive back at William and Mary and was searching for an offensive coordinator to help develop his rookie QB Josh Allen. From 2018 on, Daboll has served as the Bills offensive coordinator.

Brian Daboll’s Offensive Scheme

Coaching Influences: 

  • Jerry Smith
  • Nick Saban
  • Bill Belichick
  • Josh McDaniels
  • Eric Mangini
  • Romeo Crennel
  • Sean McDermott

Personnel Usage

Brian Daboll has used mostly 11 personnel with the Bills, shifting from heaviers sets to more spread concepts in recent years when outside of 11 personnel.
Brian Daboll’s personnel usage with the Bills

In 2020 and 2021, pass and run success rates improved significantly out of 11 personnel. Although, I cannot help but wonder how much the addition of Stefon Diggs played into that improvement. Also, the Bills made a conceptual change to their offense. Notice the increased usage of 10 personnel (four wide receivers). In 2020, the Bills ran a spread style offense (3+ wide receivers) 86% of their offensive snaps. Spreading out the defense allowed them more room to work in both the pass game and the run game. Although, that is easy to say and more difficult to do because you do need the talent at WR to effectively pull this off. Consequently, the Bills decreased their use of both 12 and 21 personnel in 2020. While use of 12 personnel has been similar in 2021, they have added more 21 personnel through the first nine games.  

Passing Offense

Daboll's offense has ranked near the top of the NFL over the past two seasons after r ough first two years.
Bills passing offense under Brian Daboll compared to 2020 NFL averages and the last four years for the Chicago Bears

The graphic shows the Bills passing stats for each of the past four years under Daboll. Additionally, it shows the 2020 NFL leaders, median, and bottom dweller for each category. Finally, it shows where the Bears come in for each season under Matt Nagy. 

With the Bills, Daboll has seen the aerial attack grow from one of the worst in the NFL to one of the best. Over the four-year span, the passing rate has grown every year. Additionally, Daboll has increased his usage of play-action, RPO’s, and screen passes over the past four years. In 2018, he only used those concepts on 34% of all dropbacks. Over the past two years, that rate has been near 45%. Moreover, the Bills passing attack has been above average in every category analyzed for the past season and a half. 

Rushing Offense

The Bills rushing offense has been generally average under Brian Daboll.
Bills rushing offense under Brian Daboll

The graphic shows the Bills rushing stats for each of the past four years under Daboll. Additionally, it shows the 2020 NFL leaders, median, and bottom dweller for each category. Finally, it shows where the Bears come in for each season under Matt Nagy. 

The Bills rushing offense has not varied as drastically under Daboll as the passing offense has. When keeping the ball on the ground, the Bills offense has been generally average over the past two seasons. They show good variety in zone versus gap usage, which is a significant difference from the Bears offense under Matt Nagy. Adjusted Line Yards is an offensive line statistic meant to show how much an offensive line dictates the running backs statistics. Next, power success rate is a measure of how well the rushing offense performs in short yardage situations. Finally, stuff percentage is how often a run is stuffed by the opposing defense. 

QB Development and Offensive Philosophies

Brian Daboll embracing Josh Allen
Photo: Getty Images

Daboll’s claim to success is very heavily tied to Josh Allen’s development as a passer. Considering that Josh Allen came into the NFL as raw arm talent without much polish or high-level experience, his trajectory is very impressive. But, how did that development unravel, and what was Daboll’s role?

At Wyoming, the philosophy was to hammer teams with heavy personnel, lining up in 11 personnel only 38% of snaps. When they did line up in “11”, it was in clear passing situations (70% pass rate). That meant that Allen had little experience running play action or RPO with a slot receiver. Meanwhile at Alabama, Daboll ran out of “11” on 70% of snaps. Additionally, they used play action or RPO’s on 40% of those snaps paired with a healthy run-pass split. 

For Allen’s first two NFL seasons, Daboll adjusted his scheme to replicate 21 and 12 personnel play-action looks that Allen used in college. However, this familiarity did not produce results as Allen tended to extend outside the pocket and hold the ball. 

Entering the 2020 season, Daboll trimmed down the 12 personnel usage, and cut out the 21 personnel usage almost entirely. In order to do so, the Bills invested resources into playing with more wide receivers on the field to spread the defense with three and four WR sets. Paired with improvement in Allen’s accuracy and ability to work through his progressions led to an unpredictable jump in pure drop back efficiency. 

A major part of what has made the Daboll and Josh Allen pairing so successful is Daboll’s willingness to adapt the scheme to Allen’s strengths. In those first two years, the Bills mixed personnel and concepts heavily while featuring frequent pre-snap movement. After some trial and error, they found the concepts and personnel groupings that Allen liked and executed best. 

Brian Daboll Summary

Pros:

  • Shows ability and willingness to adapt his scheme to his quarterback.
  • Willingness to try new things to put his players in positions to succeed.
  • Analytically driven play-caller with willingness to learn and evolve.
  • Development of Josh Allen from a talented but very raw QB to an All-Pro caliber passer.
  • Network to build a competent staff after 21 years of NFL coaching experience across multiple organizations.
  • Understanding of both offense and defense having played safety in college and coached on both sides of the football.
  • Proven himself to be an asset to multiple successful head coaches (Belichick, Saban, McDermott).

Cons:

  • Unproven as a motivator. Can he energize a locker room and navigate his team through adversity?
  • The Bill Belichick coaching tree has not shown a track record of success in the NFL. Has he learned enough when away from Belichick and Saban to not repeat the mistakes of their previous disciples?
  • His first two years in Buffalo were slow to show progress offensively. How long will it take with a new team to see results? Is this due to a complex system, trial and error, or a talent deficit?
  • Daboll had a quick rise through the coaching ranks, got knocked down, and was slow to get back to this point. After becoming a coordinator in 2009 at 32 years old, he bounced around a few spots before returning as a New England assistant. Will he need to fail before he succeeds more than others?

Final Words on Brian Daboll

Brian Daboll in Buffalo in the Winter
Photo: Chargers Wire/USA Today Sports

Daboll is coming off an extremely rough offensive performance against the Jaguars as I am writing this article. Talk about bad timing. 

“Now all of a sudden, what is Brian Daboll doing? Doesn’t he have to sit down with the quarterback and just say ‘Hey, look man, this is what we’re trying to do. This is our plan. You don’t have to do this all yourself.’”

– Boomer Esiason during the BUF vs JAX broadcast

Ultimately, Daboll is a very intriguing head coaching candidate. I would imagine that his temperament and personality in interview will play a big part here. From a strictly numbers-based standpoint there is a lot to like here. In addition, his developmental work with Josh Allen is impossible to deny. Therefore, Brian Daboll would be at the top of my list of coordinators to consider for the top spot. By all accounts, his determination, passion for the game, and relentless attitude are there. Researching him for this article, he is simply the kind of guy you can’t help but root for. Time will tell on him as a head coach, but somebody is going to hire him. While I do think it could take some time, my gut feeling is that they will not regret it. 

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Randy
5 days ago

In the title of the article you said, “A deep dive into Brian Daboll, where he comes from, what he does with the Cowboys offense…” He is the offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, not the Cowboys.

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