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Back to the future: Brian Daboll vs. the Giants, 2019

Hints of Daboll’s evolution on offense when Buffalo visited MetLife to play the Giants

Buffalo Bills v New York Giants
Josh Allen calling a play against the Giants in 2019
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills under the guidance of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll developed a reputation as a pass-first offensive juggernaut in which running the football was sometimes an afterthought. The last time we saw Allen and Daboll on the field was in the unforgettable playoff game that Buffalo lost to Kansas City 42-36 in OT. Buffalo passed 37 times in that game and ran only 24 times (11 of them by Allen himself; the RBs had only 13 carries).

That emphasis on the pass is the way the NFL has been going. And if Joe Schoen is to be believed, it is the way the 2022 Giants will go too. Schoen was on the BLEAV in Giants podcast with Bob Papa and Carl Banks last week, and this is what he had to say:

But was it always that way? Daboll came to the Bills in 2018, when Allen was drafted to be their next quarterback. The first year was rocky, and Allen missed 4 games with an injury in mid-season. By 2019, though, Daboll had placed the ball in Allen’s hands for good. That was the same year Pat Shurmur placed the ball in Daniel Jones’ hands.

2019 Josh Allen and 2019 Daniel Jones were pretty similar QBs. Here are their summary statistics from Tucker Boynton’s NFL Quarterback Cards app:

NFL Quarterback Cards, Tucker Boynton

Most importantly, both Jones’ and Allen’s Expected Points Added (EPA) per play, a metric that evaluates how each play during a game affects a team’s chances of scoring relative to what is expected given position on the field, down, distance, score, time in the game, were just about zero. That means that neither QB was doing much of anything to help his team score points, averaged over the whole season.

Things would change in 2020, though, when Allen exploded and Jones, now under the tutelage of Jason Garrett, stagnated. Here are the number of games for the two QBs each year with negative EPA (hurt the team’s chances of scoring), small positive EPA (contributed to scoring), and large positive EPA (major positive factor in team’s scoring):

Allen vs. Jones EPA/play per game

EPA/play < 0 0.0-0.29 > 0.29
EPA/play < 0 0.0-0.29 > 0.29
Josh Allen
2018 5 6 1
2019 9 5 3
2020 2 10 7
2021 4 7 8
Daniel Jones
2019 8 3 2
2020 7 6 1
2021 4 6 1

By 2020, Josh Allen had become either a minor or major reason why the Bills’ scored above expectation in most games, while Daniel Jones, while decreasing the number of games in which he actively hurt his team’s chances, became stuck in a rut of having only a minor positive effect on his team’s chances of winning in most games. This seems to be the signature of the switch from Shurmur to Garrett: Cut down on the mistakes, but also cut down on the explosive plays that win games.

How did Josh Allen “make the leap”? He did work during the off-season to improve his accuracy, and Buffalo’s trade for Stefon Diggs didn’t hurt. But where was Brian Daboll in all of this?

In 2019, Daboll did not seem to orchestrate games in the same way he does now. According to Sharp Football Stats, in 2018, Allen’s rookie year, Buffalo passed the ball on only 54 percent of the offensive plays, fourth-lowest in the NFL. Green Bay and Pittsburgh passed two-thirds of the time, and the Pat Shurmur-era Giants passed 64 percent of the time. 2019 was hardly any different - Buffalo passed only 55 percent of the time, seventh-lowest in the NFL. So Daboll was far from being at the vanguard of today’s pass-first approach. It wasn’t until 2020 that Buffalo really became a passing team (62 percent of offensive plays, 11th highest in the NFL).

Which was the chicken and which was the egg? Did Daboll read the NFL tea leaves and adapt his philosophy to what he saw other teams doing successfully? That might explain Buffalo’s trade to acquire Diggs before the 2020 season. Did Daboll see Allen improving and decide to have him shoulder more of the load in the passing game? Or did Allen improve because Daboll let Josh cook in 2020? Or some of all of these?

The early 2019 season may provide some clues. The Bills opened the season at MetLife against the Jets. According to the ESPN play-by-play, Daboll opened the game by calling 7 consecutive passing plays, the last of which resulted in a sack and fumble lost. Allen was later intercepted for a pick-6, yet Daboll continued to call strictly passing pays, virtually all from the shotgun, some no-huddle. Finally Daboll called a run up the middle as the first quarter ended.

Thereafter he mixed in a few running plays, but still mostly passes. Eventually Allen fumbled again and was intercepted again, and the Bills found themselves behind 16-0. From that point on, Daboll called a mix of runs and passes (and several designed runs for Allen), Buffalo came back, and they eventually won, 17-16. Perhaps Daboll wanted the Bills to be more of a pass-heavy offense, but he adapted when he saw it not work for Josh Allen against the Jets’ defense.

In Allen’s defense, he worked from the shotgun the entire game, with no deception in the playbook. That may be a surprise for those who watch the Bills today. BlowUpTheGiants has written an excellent Fanpost describing Daboll’s offensive tendencies, noting that Daboll uses plenty of play action and run-pass option (RPO) to fool defenses. These were absent against the Jets.

The next week Buffalo returned to MetLife, this time to face the Giants. This was to be Eli Manning’s last game as a full-time starter. Only three Giants who made the stat sheet for this game are still with the team: Saquon Barkley (who had 18 rushes for 107 yards), Dexter Lawrence (who committed an unnecessary roughness penalty on a 4th-and-3 field goal attempt that allowed Buffalo to score a touchdown instead), and Oshane Ximines. (Sterling Shepard was out with a concussion and Darius Slayton also, with a groin/hamstring.) The more things change...

This time the Buffalo offense looked different. After the Giants opened the game with a long drive and a Barkley rushing TD, Buffalo went three-and-out, with Allen again in the shotgun but with a rush by Frank Gore to start the game. The Giants also went three-and-out, and then Buffalo answered back. Allen, under center this time, ran play action, faking a handoff. The left guard and tackle pulled to sell the run. Cornerback DeAndre Baker (bottom of screen), in his first start, bit on the run (a harbinger of things to come) and Isaiah McKenzie streaked past him (images from NFL.com video):

Meanwhile, Allen rolled out to the right and unloaded downfield to the left numbers:

McKenzie had no defender within 5 yards of him as he made the catch.

Allen eventually scored on a designed run and continued using play action on subsequent drives. Then in the second quarter, on a drive that brought Buffalo to the Giants 14, McKenzie lined up in the slot and ran a jet sweep to the left. Allen threw a short shovel pass to him and faked the handoff to the running back inside:

Ximines bit on the RB, failed to set the edge, as he so often fails to do, and with a downfield block from tight end Dawson Knox, McKenzie reached the end zone:

After that, the Bills never looked back, defeating the Giants 28-14. The final tally was 30 passes, 34 rushes (including seven keepers or scrambles by Allen). According to Pro Football Reference, Allen ran play action 93 times in 2019, then 160 times in 2020, and 178 times in 2021. After the pass-happy but plain vanilla offense that Daboll had Allen run through most of the opener vs. the Jets, the Bills-Giants game was the coming out party for the more creative, deceptive offense that Buffalo runs today - and that fans hope the Giants will run in the future. An offense with run-pass balance, but now with deception designed to get skill players open for explosive plays.

I did not notice any RPOs in the highlights of that game, but the PFR season statistics show a similar evolution in RPO in Daboll’s play calling as for play action: 42 RPOs in 2019, 82 in 2020, and 124 in 2021. Buffalo led the NFL in play action and was fourth in RPOs in 2021.

Brian Daboll is now the head coach, and Mike Kafka the offensive coordinator. It remains to be seen how they will design the offense together, but Daboll and Kafka are likely to be kindred spirits: Kansas City was 5th in the NFL in play action and RPOs in 2021. The Giants in 2021 were middle of the pack in play action and RPOs.

We don’t know why Daboll changed his offensive game plan so much from the Jets game to the Giants game the following week. Maybe it was just the element of surprise he wanted to bring. Maybe he saw weaknesses he could exploit in the Giants defense. Maybe he realized his QB needed more help than he was giving him. Whatever it was, it worked, a little bit in 2019 when Buffalo finished 10-6 and made the wild card round, and much more in 2020 when they finished 13-3 and made it to the AFC Championship game.

Brian Daboll probably doesn’t have a flux capacitor. But unlike Marty McFly, he doesn’t have to change the Giants’ past to make them more successful in the future. He just needs a 1.21 Gigawatt game plan like the one he invented in Buffalo to bring the Giants’ stuck-in-the-past offense into the NFL present.