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On Brian Daboll and hope for Daniel Jones, the Giants’ offense

Looking at Daboll’s time in Buffalo and finding hope for the Giants.

Syndication: The Record Kevin R. Wexler-NorthJersey.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last summer, in the wake of witnessing Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen play at an MVP level and lead his team to the conference championship game in his third season, New York Giants fans could only think of one thing.

Daniel Jones delivering a similar third-year leap.

However, that failed to materialize as the Giants struggled in 2021, leading to the firing of offensive coordinator Jason Garrett during the season, and head coach Joe Judge at the end of the campaign.

Now, Giants fans are fanning the flames again for a developmental leap from their quarterback, after seeing some kindling added to those fires. Kindling in the form of their new head coach, Brian Daboll.

After all, whenever the subject of Allen’s development arises, it is Daboll’s influence as his offensive coordinator that is cited most frequently. During Allen’s entire Bills career, Daboll has been at his side, as the only NFL offensive coordinator the quarterback has known. Under his stewardship, Allen has grown from a toolsy project to one of the top passers in the NFL, defying the experts and changing how the position is evaluated.

Trust me, when Malik Willis comes off the board in the first round this spring, Allen’s name is going to be mentioned.

Many boil down the growth from Allen during this time down to one word: Consistency. Consistency in coaching, consistency in schemes, and consistency in concepts. But there is more to do with Allen’s development than just consistency. There is the work the quarterback put in himself away from the bright lights and the practice fields of training camp.

There is also an evolution in how Daboll designed the offense around him.

Take a look at this image, courtesy of RBSDM.com, the informative football data website maintained by Ben Baldwin:

This is a heat map of Allen’s throws in his first two NFL seasons. On the left is Allen’s rookie campaign, the 2018 season, and on the right is his 2019 year, when he and the Bills earned a berth in the Wild-Card round.

As you can see, as a rookie Allen was attacking deeper downfield, and throws tended to focus outside of the numbers. Yet in his second campaign, you saw more of a focus between the numbers, and in the intermediate areas of the field.

Some statistics bear that out. On throws from 10-19 yards downfield as a rookie, Allen completed just 39 of 80 attempts (a 48.8 percent completion rate) for 712 yards and one touchdown, against four interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen’s Adjusted Completion Percentage on such throws clocked in at 55.0 percent, ranking him 35th among qualified passers that season.

Behind names like Brock Osweiler, C.J. Beathard, Blake Bortles and Mitchell Trubisky.

Daboll constructed the offense to attack relatively safer areas of the field, towards the sidelines and deeper downfield, to minimize risk and give his rookie QB as many chances to target singled-up receivers as possible, rather than trying to fight through more difficult throwing lanes in the middle of the field.

During his rookie campaign, Allen would often be tasked with running concepts such as this one, a design that has two routes breaking off the vertical stem, one to each side of the field. Both receivers are working outside of the numbers, and are working against single coverage:

Now returning to that above graphic, you can see how in 2019, the second year of Allen’s career, there was more of an emphasis on attacking between the numbers rather than outside of them. Daboll started to incorporate designs that enabled Allen to target that area of the field, provided he saw the right coverage or did not want to target another option in the progression. Take this play from Week 14 of the 2019 campaign against the Baltimore Ravens:

On this play, Allen opens to the right side of the field, reading out a smoke/fade concept. The boundary receiver, running back Devin Singletary, runs a smoke route while the middle receiver to the trips on that side, tight end Dawson Knox, runs the fade.

Allen, seeing the Ravens drop into zone coverage, comes off that concept and works backside, hitting John Brown on the backside dig route between the numbers.

Daboll also looked to some layered concepts in the middle of the field, such as this design against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13. Brown and Cole Beasley run a pair of dig routes, while tight end Tyler Kroft runs a shallow route underneath them:

The numbers, in a way, spoke for themselves. During the 2019 season Allen posted an Adjusted Completion Percentage of 70.2 percent on throws in that 10-19 yard window. Not only was that a massive jump from his 55.0 percent mark as a rookie, but that placed Allen seventh in the NFL among qualified passers, just behind Drew Brees and Philip Rivers, and just ahead of Matt Ryan and Dak Prescott.

Then came the huge leap, in 2020. The year the Bills made a magical run to the AFC Championship game, and Allen placed second behind Aaron Rodgers in MVP voting.

We can start, as we did with the prior years, with Allen’s heat map from that season:

Daboll had, in a way, done the impossible.

He had taken Allen, a toolsy quarterback with a huge arm built for a downfield passing game, and turned him into a quarterback who could attack the middle of the field with consistency. A weakness had been turned into a strength. Thanks to RBSDM.com we can look at this data in another way:

This graphic puts the two heat maps on top of each other, showing where the 2020 version of Allen (in blue) threw in comparison to the 2018 version of Allen (in red). As you can see, the MVP candidate lived between the numbers and in the short- and intermediate-areas of the field, relative to the rookie version of himself.

Looking at the statistics, Allen during the 2020 campaign completed 79 of 123 passes in that 10-19 yard window for a raw completion percentage of 64.2 percent. He threw for 1,282 yards and 11 touchdowns, against just four interceptions, targeting that area of the field.

His Adjusted Completion Percentage of 70.7 percent — yet another increase over the previous season, albeit a smaller jump — ranked him fifth in the league. He was behind only Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.

Daniel Jones, for reference, placed 14th in the league that year.

A big part of Allen’s success in 2020 attacking those areas of the field? Crossing routes. The Bills relied heavily on those, and during the early part of the season when teams were trying to defend Buffalo with man coverage, Allen made those defenses pay:

Of course, a huge boost to the Buffalo offense that season came in the form of Stefon Diggs. Adding him to the Bills passing game made the unit deadly, particularly when Daboll would call for Diggs to run those crossing routes attacking the middle of the field. Whether it was early in the year, such as this crosser against the Las Vegas Raiders:

Or late in the year against the New England Patriots:

Allen and Diggs were an explosive combination in the middle of the field.

So you can see the growth and development from Allen in the middle of the field, in that 10-19 yard range, over his first few seasons in the league. That enabled Daboll and the Bills offense to stress defenses all over the field. Because Allen could still push the ball to the boundaries, or deep downfield, when the opportunities presented themselves, but now with the confidence — and the complete arsenal of weapons around him — to attack between the numbers, defenses were put in a bind.

Now, Daboll is tasked with personally delivering what Giants fans were hoping for last season. A similar jump in development from Jones.

You can argue that some of the pieces are in place. The Giants have weapons that can attack the middle of the field, such as Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney. Jones, for his part, has not been bad in that area of the field. In 2021 he posted an Adjusted Completion Percentage of 64.6 percent when throwing in that 10-19 yard range, ninth-best in the league and ahead of Allen.

Daboll can craft some layered concepts and designs to give Jones that option, similar to the second season with Allen, while also giving his quarterback the opportunity to take single-coverage throws on the boundary. Such as the examples highlighted earlier. Perhaps designs looking to get Golladay or Darius Slayton singled-up outside, while looking to Toney, Sterling Shepard or even tight end Evan Engram working between the numbers.

(Yes, I know the Giants face some salary cap decisions that could change the names, but the philosophical ideas remain).

But this is the challenge facing Daboll. How best to build around and develop Jones in the year ahead. Perhaps he takes the same tactic he did with Allen, as outlined herein, or perhaps he goes in the opposite direction, evolving the offense into a more vertical passing game, as some have theorized caters best to what Jones excels at as a passer.

For Giants fans, however, the development we have seen from Allen coupled with the evolution of Daboll as a player caller should bring hope. Hope that whether path Daboll chooses, it will unlock the best version of Jones possible. Having seen Daboll evolve as a play designer once, there is no reason to doubt that he can make such an evolution again, bringing out the best we can hope for from Jones himself.

Yet that is also a critical variable to the equation.

Because lost in all the discussion about the elements to Allen’s development as a passer, one variable that is often overlooked is the work Allen himself put in during the offseason, working with Jordan Palmer and refining his mechanics and honing his craft. As we have outlined, Daboll certainly did things schematically to uncover the best version of the QB, the Bills added pieces around him and the consistency in scheme helped as well.

But the quarterback himself put in the work.

The fruits of success in the fall are born from seeds planted in the spring, and for Jones, that work must be underway now.