So the saying goes, ‘If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours…’.
Brian Daboll chiselled away at the blemishes of a raw and reckless young quarterback to unveil a once-unthinkable future and maybe even present MVP contender in Josh Allen, whose astounding rise with the Buffalo Bills has in turn blown the dust from his offensive coordinator’s head coaching resume.
Post-Draft narrative dictated the NFL should have been long shot of ‘Josh Allen the starting quarterback’ by now, and certainly not billboarding his involvement in a blockbuster Divisional Round round match-up with the Baltimore Ravens this weekend.
Between Daboll and Allen they have refuted expectations this season and, boy, has it been fun.
Delve into the rookie and sophomore year game film and you might grimace at the deficiencies of a new NFL student who stared down wide receivers, overthrew open targets under zero pressure and severely lacked the touch of a top 10 quarterback in-waiting. Allen bordered on gimmick at times with his plucky runs, gentle giant demeanour and the external ‘fun to watch’ reviews that often disguised glaring technical limitations as opposed to accentuating his easy-to-root-for grittiness.
Awkward mechanics, accuracy issues dating back to college and an unconvincing post-snap thought-process had paired with his robust physique in depicting a clumsy, over-drafted gadget quarterback to-be, whose only weapons were admittedly top-tier arm strength and modern mobility on the ground.
It has been a completely different story this season.
The Bills organisation excelled in surrounding 2018’s sixth overall pick with talent, Allen helped himself with staggering progression under center in regards to both decision-making and execution, head coach Sean McDermott cultivated a winning team and Daboll’s system consistently put its figurehead in a position to succeed.
All four are stories in their own right, but it’s the latter who has warranted added intrigue of late amid the annual hunt for new head coaches.
Daboll’s offenses of the past haven’t particularly leapt off the page. His unit with the Cleveland Browns ranked 32nd in 2009 and 29th in 2010, his 2011 Miami Dolphins offense finished 20th in 2011 and the Kansas City Chiefs were dead-last with Daboll as coordinator in 2012.
His arrival in Buffalo in 2018 coincided with Allen’s early struggles in seeing the Bills rank 30th on offense, before rising to 23rd last season.
Josh Allen’s NFL statistics
|Year||Comp/Att (Passing)||Passing Yards||Passing TDs||Interceptions||Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Rushing TDs|
Last week, the Bills entered their Wild Card victory over the Indianapolis Colts having boasted the No 2 ranked offense in the league, second only to defending Super Bowl-champion Chiefs.
From the off this season Daboll employed a heavy use of 11 personnel with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers, while also incorporating four-wide receiver sets in 10 personnel packages (one running back, four wide receivers), luring defenses into playing the man coverage that the Bills proceeded to feast on all year.
He nullified defensive assignments with east-to-west pre-snap motion from wide receivers and running backs to disguise in extra blockers on play-action and when faking the inside zone, tempted opposition units to slide while opening up the deep-ball on the opposite side of the field, and exploited the depth of his receiver room with spread formations.
On top of that, Allen’s threat from quarterback design runs came with the bonus of often warranting a linebacker spy, thereby exposing man coverage defenses to an even greater extent.
Daboll used 11 personnel on 71 per cent of the Bills’ plays in the regular season and 10 personnel on 14 per cent, playing to Allen’s success on crossing routes and his ability to extend plays outside the pocket as well as regularly offering him a reliable target underneath in Cole Beasley.
It deserves to be credited as a collaborative effort after the organisation armed him with the route-running mastery of Stefon Diggs and Beasley’s aforementioned dominance in the slot, while seemingly striking gold with fourth-round receiver Gabriel Davis as additional firepower alongside last season’s team leader in receiving yards John Brown.
But it also still required Daboll’s ability to identify the scheme that would work around Allen, underlining the value of marrying a system to a quarterback as opposed to the other way around. Part of the frustration surrounding Tua Tagovailoa’s very gradual progress in 2020 was unflattering play-calling from then-offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, while Jason Garrett was guilty of similar with Daniel Jones and the New York Giants offense in stages.
The regularity of the spread formations assisted Allen in ranking first against the blitz from a league-high 244 situations against all-out pressure. This weekend he meets a Ravens defense with the highest blitz rate in the NFL – dare they build on that trend?
Besides giving his quarterback a prominent voice in the play-calling, Daboll has also invited his receivers to inject their own improvisation, the success from which has been testament to how efficiently he has knitted his offense together since a COVID-disrupted offseason.
“I do have a lot of routes that I have a lot of freedom with and those things take time no matter who your quarterback is,” said Beasley ahead of the Bills’ win over the Colts. “When you have freedom in your routes like Daboll gives us sometimes it’s going to take time. Josh has done a good job. He has actually picked it up really fast in my opinion. Last year within about five or six games he started to trust me and really know what I was doing, and it took off from there.”
The Bills tied a league-record with 13 different players recording a touchdown reception. That included Allen, as well as valuable supporting performances from the likes of Isaiah McKenzie and tight ends Tyler Kroft and Dawson Knox.
In benefiting from the scheme and the personnel at his disposal, Allen finished the season with a franchise-record 4,544 yards passing and 37 touchdowns, having extended his career red zone efficiency to 41 touchdown passes to zero interceptions.
Three of his red-zone strikes came in Week Three when he went 24-of-33 passing for 311 yards, four touchdowns and an interception in a 35-32 over the Los Angeles Rams and the NFL’s best defense.
He meanwhile thrived on play-action with a second-most 1,501 passing yards (behind only Ryan Tannehill), along with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions.
While Daboll’s approach suited him perfectly, Allen held up his end of the bargain by taking enormous strides when it came to ball placement, precision, going through his progressions, ball security and making mature decisions.
Buffalo’s Wild Card win over the Colts delivered the latest insight into Allen’s development as both he and Daboll showed necessary patience against Matt Eberflus’ Tampa 2 defense.
Allen had been 22nd in passer rating against zone coverage during the regular season, and the Colts looked to target that by holding him to short gains and challenging the Bills to settle for long drives in the hope it would draw a loose ‘hero play’ moment out of frustration.
But he rarely showed signs of biting. And when the opportunity to exploit a one-on-one match-up for Diggs downfield finally presented itself in the fourth quarter, Allen had the poise, the arm and the touch to drop it into his favourite target’s hands for a 35-yard touchdown.
Earlier in the game he might have been tempted to force a risky pass into end zone traffic on first-and-goal from the 10, but instead went through his reads before landing at the wiser decision to connect with Zack Moss at the three, setting up a strike to Knox on the ensuing play.
The coaching and mentoring aside for a moment, Allen’s ascent in all departments this season has been phenomenal and a glowing reflection of the work he has put in behind the scenes. The confidence he is playing with has also, though, come courtesy of a setup designed for him to thrive in.
And the best bit is that the ‘wow’ moments are still able to exist, whether it be an audition for Kyle Brandt’s Angry Runs or a bomb to Diggs over the top.
How the Ravens approach stopping Allen and Daboll’s offense will be fascinating, with Don Martindale’s defense ranking third in man coverage and first in blitz percentage this season – two of the areas, as discussed earlier, the Bills have been exceptional against.
The head coaching job might come this offseason, it also might not. Regardless, the Bills will have no interest in having to consider the prospect of losing Daboll at some point down the line.
But for his influence on Allen, it’s easy to see why that has become the likely outcome.
Watch the Baltimore Ravens take on the Buffalo Bills in their AFC Divisional Round matchup live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.15am in the early hours of Sunday morning.