Brian Daboll will fill a head coaching vacancy in the NFL. Could be next year, could be the year after, could be any point in the next five years. When the time comes, it might/should/will be the reward for his role in nourishing and unlocking the talent of Josh Allen.
The league’s top ball-slinging platoons are built on communicative and collaborative quarterback-offensive coordinator marriages. Daboll stepped into his post with the Buffalo Bills carrying a mediocre track record – his previous units in Cleveland, Miami and Kansas City ranking no higher than 20th in the league – but will eventually depart with an MVP-challenging franchise quarterback to show for his diligence.
Early NFL Josh Allen, untidy Josh Allen, promised more with his half-back-likened bang and bustle than he did with a sling-shot arm void of touch, that lacked accuracy and was hindered by slow post-snap thought-processing and the occasional staring down of receivers. Daboll saw a diamond in the rough in possession of a canon, with modern pocket mobility and technical impediments that could be amended.
In came three and four wide receiver sets, fake inside zone concepts, spread formations, eye-veering pre-snap motion to forces defenses to check, expose the man coverage Buffalo flourished against, force time-consuming communication among opponents and disguise in blockers. Allen was put in a position of authority, while he and his receivers were granted the freedom to implement their own play designs.
A ‘look here, run there’ offense amounted to 13 different players scoring a receiving touchdown as Allen underwent one of the most drastic transformations the league witnessed all year. It was the marriage others envied.
Though the immediacy of Lamar Jackson’s eruption means he never required a leap as momentous as that of Allen, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback has relished the guidance of Greg Roman. And need it not be reminded the influence Eric Bieniemy has had in shaping the Kansas City Chiefs’ showpiece offense alongside Patrick Mahomes.
From the supremacy of Josh McDaniels and Tom Brady to Nathaniel Hackett’s ability to extract the best of Blake Bortles in 2016, the quarterback-offensive coordinator relationship remains essential. And there are several around the league that could benefit from a Daboll/Allen-type bond…
Ben Roethlisberger/Matt Canada – Pittsburgh Steelers
Talking of Daboll deception, Steelers fans are about to see, or not see, their own torrential subterfuge under newly-promoted offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who takes over from Randy Fitchner having served as quarterbacks coach last season.
It is a marriage with creases to be ironed out and compromises to be made, but one that offers rich benefits to both parties. Ben Roethlisberger favours shot-gun, a clear picture in front of him, limited pre-snap complexity and full responsibility to make things happen with ball in hand in a scheme he has executed successfully for years. Canada is the opposite: his system thrives on tonnes of pre-snap motion, unbalanced formations, unique receiver looks, spread offense, all of which is sometimes merely incorporated to tee up a five to 10-yard gain. The Steelers were among the least-regular uses of pre-snap movement in 2020 – that will change.
Canada is the modern injection the Steelers offense required as the franchise contemplates life beyond Big Ben, whose stuttering end to last season demanded a change-up in keeping to the NFL’s offensive advance that would allow Pittsburgh to find out how much further he could take them.
Jacoby Brissett starred in Canada’s NC State offense, Nathan Peterman earned results in Canada’s Pittsburgh offense, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and James White were the firing squad for Canada’s power scheme at Wisconsin and the shortage of recognised talent at Maryland saw Canada’s invention come into its own. He finds a way to accentuate the strengths. Whether Roethlisberger becomes his latest beneficiary or Canada is restricted to the preferences of the veteran quarterback, we will find out.
Russell Wilson/Shane Waldron – Seattle Seahawks
Here’s a biggie. It was not too long ago during the offseason that Russell Wilson was again nudging the Seahawks over his desire to have more of an influence in both personnel decisions and how Seattle’s offense is run. The latter should come to fruition this year following the appointment of Shane Waldron as offensive coordinator to replace Brian Schottenheimer.
Waldron spent the last four seasons overseeing the Los Angeles Rams passing game with a West Coast offense that functions on yards-after-catch, play-action and the quick, simple passes that massaged the strengths of Jared Goff. The up-tempo, ‘let Russ cook’ approach can distance the Seahawks from Peter Carroll’s ‘establish-the-run’ insistence, which has lingered across a three-year period in which Seattle’s offense has at times been deemed a blend of Schottenheimer and predecessor Darrell Bevell. As with the Steelers under Canada, it is time to move forward.
The Rams utilised play-action on a league-high 31.8 per cent of dropbacks over the last four years in comparison to the Seahawks’ 25.5 per cent, while they have ranked third with 5.94 yards after catch per reception in contrast to Seattle’s eighth-fewest 4.88. Second-round receiver D’Wayne Eskridge feels a perfect suitor when it comes to increasing the latter.
Wilson has never denied being given the opportunity to make play-changing decisions under Carroll, but Waldron will offer him even more freedom to take charge throughout the entirety of the game as opposed to when the team is chasing down the stretch. The window-dressing to set up short, snappy 10-yard gains will meanwhile ease the burden on him to conjure the familiar hero plays as he scurries to escape pressure.
And what Waldron didn’t have with Goff is the prettiest and most accurate deep-ball in the NFL, which you might argue belongs to Wilson.
Daniel Jones/Jason Garrett – New York Giants
Of the partnerships around the league, few have as much riding on them as that of Jason Garrett and Daniel Jones when it comes to a quarterback keeping his job. Dave Gettleman dipped into the piggy bank to go bold in surrounding Jones with the tools required for a make-or-break year, and now Garrett must follow suit by adjusting and expanding the playbook to the strengths of his quarterback.
That means more shots downfield for a player that posted a league-high 134.3 passer rating and fourth-highest completion percentage (48.7) on deep throws (20+ yards) last year having gone 19 of 39 for 636 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. Jones’ 6.6 yards per attempt and 39 deep throw attempts were among the fewest in the league as Garrett employed a quick pass offense designed to protect his play-caller amid a leaky start to the year for a young offensive line, while the Giants used 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TEs) a second-highest 10 per cent of the time and 22 personnel on six per cent of plays as a means of trying to bolster his protection. The new additions and the pressure on Jones warrants a more aggressive approach.
Free agency signing Kenny Golladay arrives with the second-highest contested catch rate of any wide receiver in the NFL since 2018, according to Pro Football Focus, with his 628 yards on deep passes in 2019 ranking second in the league. Between Golladay, Darius Slayton’s proven deep threat and the added arrival of speedster John Ross it is the invitation Garrett needed to occasionally sacrifice the threat of pressure, sacks and turnovers by utilising three/four verticals to keep defenses previously inclined to stack the box honest over the top. The domino effect of that being the room created underneath for the yards-after-catch ability of Kadarius Toney and Sterling Shepard along with tight ends Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph.
The Giants offense ranked second last in 2020. Daniel Jones making a jump comes with improving on the quick read, more creative play-design on Garrett’s part, reliable pass protection, and all of the above. Patrick Graham’s all-action defense will put the ball in his quarterback’s hands; it’s up to Garrett and Jones to make it count.
P.S. More designed quarterback runs needed for a man that hit 20.64mph last year.
Justin Herbert/Joe Lombardi – Los Angeles Chargers
A new challenge awaits for Joe Lombardi, who arrives in Los Angeles tasked with ensuring Justin Herbert builds on a rookie campaign so impressive it drowned out the disappointment of a 7-9 finish for the Chargers in 2020.
Lombardi spent 12 combined seasons working with Sean Payton and Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Drew Brees in two spells with the New Orleans Saints either side of his unsuccessful stint as a first-time offensive coordinator with the Detroit Lions from 2014-2015. Over a decade of assisting Brees, Payton and Peter Carmichael does not go without its transferrable lessons, while Teddy Bridgewater’s unbeaten record in an injured Brees’ absence in 2019 is among one of Lombardi’s more recent successes.
One of the biggest lessons he will have taken away with him in Detroit was the need to adapt his scheme to the players around him rather than imposing a Saints-style offense, his Lions unit ranking 19th overall and 22nd in scoring in his one full season with the likes of Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Since coming to Los Angeles he and the Chargers have set out to construct an entirely new offense specifically-suited to Herbert, who himself proved how adaptable he could be as he hit the ground running coming away from a shot-gun offense lacking clear-cut talent in Oregon.
The luxury of having head coach Brandon Staley’s defensive brain to pick will also add detail to a relationship the Chargers have aspirations of becoming a blossoming long-term union.
Jalen Hurts/Shane Steichen – Philadelphia Eagles
It seems fair to say Chargers fans were divided on Shane Steichen by the time he left to take over as Eagles offensive coordinator at the end of last season. Certain sections applauded his role in calling the plays that paved the way for Justin Herbert’s Offensive Rookie of the Year-winning campaign, some chose to direct praise towards quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton as the true accessory to Herbert’s immediate impact, others criticised his persistence in running the ball on early downs as opposed to putting it in his quarterback’s hands.
The occasional run-first segment to his offense may or may not have been in keeping to the ideology of head coach Anthony Lynn, while it should be recognised Steichen accommodated Herbert’s desire and ability to take shots and be aggressive downfield. Among those that did want to pay credit to Steichen was the most important person of all in Herbert himself.
His career path is a fun one, from coaching Philip Rivers to overseeing Herbert’s transition to the NFL and now assisting Jalen Hurts in his own bid to become a franchise quarterback.
Since arriving Steichen and head coach Nick Sirianni have sought to install base passing plays likely to hold similarities to that of the offense run through Rivers in San Diego in order to supplement Hurts’ known rushing threat. The zone reads, RPOs and bootlegs will all play their part with the help of a healthy offensive line and a committee backfield that makes for lots of moving parts at the line of scrimmage, but they believe he can be more than that and there appears to be enough faith in his deep ball to suggest this offense will be anything but conservative.
Play-action worked successfully for Herbert with a run game far less efficient than that expected of the Eagles, and within that Steichen was able to create favourable receiver matchups that should translate to help open up DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor.
Jameis Winston/Peter Carmichael – New Orleans Saints
It was alongside Peter Carmichael that Drew Brees obliterated the doubts that clouded him upon his departure in San Diego and put himself on the road to Canton. Though two different quarterbacks with two different stories, Jameis Winston will now have aspirations of resurrecting his own career with the help of Sean Payton and Carmichael, whose offense has ranked top nine in all 13 seasons he has been Saints offensive coordinator.
Preseason is infamous for inciting conclusion-jumping, but Winston’s near-flawless display against the Jacksonville Jaguars was a glimmer of hope that the Saints are steering him in the right direction. In the direction of a more clinical, not so turnover-littered Jameis Winston.
The former No. 1 pick finished his last full campaign as a starter in 2019 ranked first in the NFL for both passing yards (5,109) and interceptions (33) as the first player in history to record at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a single-season. His turnovers notably came in an aggressive deep-ball scheme that saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers passing offense rank No. 1 in the league. The erratic errors and shortage of signs that he would snap out of them, in addition to the rather untimely availability of Tom Brady, left him out of favour under Bruce Arians. Knowing Brees was closing in on retirement, the Saints subsequently took a chance on Winston as a potential successor.
The Saints are fortunate enough to still possess the roster talent to mount a playoff pursuit while also taking the year to assess where they are at under center. The job on the hands of Payton and Carmichael is to harness the arm strength capable of injecting the explosive downfield play lacking under Brees last year, while cutting out the rash decision-making. You wouldn’t like to bet against them making it work, either.