How Brian Daboll Went From Patriots Assistant To Hot Head Coach Candidate

Brian Daboll could get a head coaching job before Josh McDaniels


Dec 28, 2020

As Brian Daboll and Josh McDaniels’ offenses get set to take turns driving down the Gillette Stadium game field Monday night when the Buffalo Bills are hosted by the New England Patriots, the mentee might have surpassed the mentor in the eyes of NFL decision-makers.

Daboll, the Bills’ offensive coordinator and a former longtime Patriots assistant, is one of the league’s hottest head coaching candidates while McDaniels, the Patriots’ OC, seems like an afterthought for a potential promotion.

The NFL is the ultimate “what have you done for me lately” business and Daboll runs one of the league’s highest-powered units. The Patriots’ offense, meanwhile, has struggled this season as Cam Newton has taken over quarterback duties from Tom Brady.

Four years ago, with the Patriots on their way to Super Bowl LI, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that McDaniels would leave New England for a head-coaching gig elsewhere. Daboll was projected to fill his post as offensive coordinator, but McDaniels stuck around. McDaniels’ protege left New England to join Alabama’s staff as offensive coordinator for a year and won a national championship in the process.

McDaniels nearly took the Indianapolis Colts’ head-coaching position after the 2017 season but ultimately stayed put while Daboll was hired away by the Bills to fill their offensive coordinator vacancy.

McDaniels was a candidate for head coaching gigs after the 2018 and 2019 seasons, as well, but has stayed in New England. Now, Daboll, who interviewed with the Cleveland Browns last season, might actually earn one of the 32 most coveted jobs before McDaniels gets another shot (the Patriots’ OC was the Denver Broncos’ head coach in 2009 and 2010).

Daboll, 45, and McDaniels, 44, have known each other since they were both graduate assistants under Nick Saban at Michigan State in 1999. It’s true that getting your foot in the door as an NFL head coach is mostly about who you know.

Daboll actually came to the Patriots before McDaniels in 2000 as a defensive coaching assistant. He moved up the ranks to wide receivers coach from 2002 to 2006 before leaving for the Jets in 2007 to become New York’s quarterbacks coach. He was offensive coordinator with the Browns (2009-2010), Miami Dolphins (2011) and Kansas City Chiefs (2012) before returning to the Patriots as an offensive assistant in 2013. Daboll was tight ends coach for the Patriots from 2014 to 2016 before moving on.

McDaniels, meanwhile, came to the Patriots as a personnel assistant in 2001 on recommendation from Daboll, moved to defensive assistant from 2002 to 2003 and was elevated to quarterbacks coach in 2004. He leapfrogged Daboll to become offensive coordinator in 2006 before leaving for the Broncos in 2009. He returned as an offensive assistant in 2011 and retook his spot as offensive coordinator in 2012. He’s held the job ever since.

McDaniels oversaw Daboll in 2006 and from 2013 to 2016.

So, what happened and why has Daboll suddenly become a hotter head-coaching candidate than McDaniels? Pit Daboll and McDaniels’ past achievements against each other, and it’s no contest who has been the better offensive coordinator.

The Bills’ offense is playing better than the Patriots’, however, and Buffalo won the AFC East. Successful coaches will earn recognition, past resume be damned.

NFL teams also know they’ll only go as far as their quarterback can take them. And Daboll has done a hell of a job helping to develop quarterback Josh Allen, whose passer rating has climbed from 67.9 to 85.3 to 104.2 in his three-career career. Allen’s adjusted completion rate — a PFF metric — has improved from 64.7 percent to 71.7 percent to 78.6 percent, a mark that ranks ninth among 29 qualified quarterbacks. Allen ranked last as a rookie and 22nd in 2019.

Allen’s biggest perceived weakness coming out of Wyoming was his accuracy. He had the arm and the mobility. It’s shocking to see him rank as one of the NFL’s most precise passers this season, and Daboll deserves a lot of the credit. McDaniels certainly seems to have done a good job coaching up quarterbacks like Matt Cassel, Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett in New England, but he’s never been able to develop and then consistently start a young quarterback in his time with the Patriots. McDaniels didn’t start grooming Brady as an offensive coordinator until the QB had already won three Super Bowls.

So, for a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars or New York Jets, who should be looking for a new head coach and quarterback this offseason, Daboll could be an appealing candidate because of his work with Allen. The Los Angeles Chargers already have their QB in Justin Herbert. Perhaps they also could be looking for a new head coach to further develop the young QB, and Daboll seems to be a prime choice.

Daboll also put his own spin on the Erhardt-Perkins offense that he took from the Patriots.

“I think there’s a carry over from what we’ve done, what they do, but he certainly has his own mark on it,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said this week. “The players change it because of their skills and what they can do, and he does a good job of utilizing that. Brian’s a good, creative coach. He has his plays that try to take advantage of weaknesses that he sees on the other side of the ball. That’s always been something that he’s done a good job of. I’m sure he’ll continue to do that. That’s part of it too, game-planning.”

The Erhardt-Perkins system requires memorization of offensive concepts. Some of the more complex elements of the Patriots’ system can take time to learn, but it helps that Buffalo committed to Daboll and let the Bills go through some growing pains in the offense. The Dolphins didn’t give former wide receivers coach Chad O’Shea that same kind of leeway when he tried to install the Patriots’ system in Miami last year, and they fired him as offensive coordinator after one season. The Bills’ offense has continued improving under Daboll.

The Western New York-native also grabbed some elements from the college game during his season with the Crimson Tide and has heavily incorporated run-pass option (RPO) concepts into the Bills’ offense. The Bills have run the fifth-most RPOs this season behind the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles. The Bills have run 32 more RPOs than the Patriots this season.

“I think you’ve got to put your own signature on things,” Bills head coach Sean McDermott said this week. “We all come from a family tree, if you will. Brian has a great history with Coach Belichick and Coach Saban to name a few, but it’s important that wherever you go when you get an opportunity that you do what you believe in and use the foundation but also put your own signature on it. He’s been able to do that.”

NFL teams are actually able to interview head coaching candidates before the regular season is complete this season, but there are restrictions involved, including a two-hour time limit. So, we might not know if McDaniels or Daboll are leaving for promotions until the postseason.

Four years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine Daboll taking on a head coaching position before McDaniels. But it’s hard to argue with Daboll’s recent success no matter how the Bills’ season ends.

Thumbnail photo via Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports Images
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