There’s no one more heavily scrutinized and criticized in a football town than the offensive coordinator. Any fan with the facility to operate a TV remote thinks he knows as much as the poor OC. The coordinator calls run on first down, half the fan base thinks he should have thrown instead.
From the start of the Bills’ playoff drought in 2000 to its end in 2017, they employed 12 offensive coordinators. We’ll spare you a full list of this dubious dozen. You might have forgotten that Sean McDermott fired his OC, Rick Dennison, despite reaching the playoffs in his first season in ’17.
Enter Brian Daboll, who groomed Josh Allen to superstar status and led a Buffalo offense that achieved new highs in his four seasons as OC, breaking the franchise passing and scoring records in 2020 and ranking in the top three of the NFL in points and yards gained the past two seasons.
Of course, even Daboll wasn’t spared the slings and arrows of amateur play callers in their man caves. He ran the ball too much. He didn’t run it enough. He didn’t have a good screen game. He didn’t get Gabriel Davis on the field enough. He didn’t call enough designed runs for Josh Allen.
Daboll, allegedly at odds with McDermott but sufficiently capable in the eyes of executives around the NFL, left to be the head coach of the Giants. The Bills turned to Ken Dorsey, who had been the quarterbacks coach the past three seasons, to be Daboll’s successor.
So, at age 41, Dorsey is an NFL offensive coordinator for the first time. All he’s being asked to do is take over an offense that was virtually unstoppable in two playoffs games last season, making the Bills the favorite to win the Super Bowl, and make it even better.
Dorsey has a strong relationship with his quarterback Josh Allen, a top MVP candidate. He has a stable of receiving weapons, led by star wideout Stefon Diggs, tight end Dawson Knox and emerging third-year man Gabriel Davis. There’s a promising backfield with Devin Singletary and rookie James Cook, plus a fairly intact and veteran offensive line.
Of course, things become a lot more challenging when you’re charged with running an entire offense, one of the most potent in the game, instead of simply mentoring the quarterbacks.
“Sometimes, it’s like Talladega Nights, where ‘I don’t know what to do with my hands,'” Dorsey said during training camp. “Sometimes you’re just like, ‘What am I supposed to do right now?’ A lot of times, you end up kind of gravitating back towards the quarterbacks a little bit. But I’ve tried to make a concerted effort this year to be in each (position) room.”
The word around the league is that no coach/QB tandem has a higher bar and pressure this season than Dorsey and Allen. Expectations are soaring in Buffalo. Daboll is a tough act to follow. Fans and media have short memories. Much of the preseason hype around the Bills, while warranted, is based on the two playoff games, forgetting that the passing game actually fell off some from 2020.
“I’ve always kind of taken the mindset for myself that nothing’s really ever been given to me,” Dorsey said. “I’ve had to go out and just fight and scratch and claw to earn everything, because I wasn’t always obviously the most physically gifted quarterback or anything like that, but I had to work at it and put in time and kind of push, push guys and figure out buttons to push on teammates and things like that.”
Dorsey’s basic philosophy is to get the ball to talented playmakers and get out of their way. No one did it better than he did in college at the University of Miami, where he led the Hurricanes to a 38-2 record and a national championship after the 2001 season. Dorsey set 11 school passing records at Miami. He was MVP of the 2002 Rose Bowl and a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist.
He had a remarkable supporting cast with the Hurricanes, including Clinton Portis, Willis McGhee, Andre Johnson and Jeremy Shockey. Dorsey had his physical limitations as a quarterback. He was a seventh-round draft pick in 2003 because of his limited arm strength.
But he was a smart quarterback and estimable leader, one who understood that he had an embarrassment of riches around him and got the ball to the playmakers. And he won.
“Everybody builds from their experiences, and everybody evolves as a coach from past experiences,” he said. “Whether good or bad or indifferent. I think that’s helped me in terms of being able to understand that ‘Hey, when you got great playmakers and you have great talent, how do we get them in space? What are the best ways to get them the ball?’ At times don’t overcomplicate it, let those guys be who they are and do what they do.”
Dorsey played five seasons in the NFL, starting 13 games between the Niners and Browns. He was 2-11 as a starter, with forgettable passing numbers. Cleveland released him early in 2009 and he spent a year with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, holding the clipboard for Cleo Lemon.
Coaching was his football destiny. In 2011, the Carolina Panthers hired Rob Chudzinski as offensive coordinator — the job he’d held at Miami when Dorsey was in college. Chudzinski brought Dorsey to Carolina as a scout.
Dorsey spent two years in the role. But in his first season, he also spent time tutoring a raw but gifted rookie quarterback named Cam Newton.
The Panthers’ offense, which had been last in the NFL in points by a wide margin in 2010, more than doubled its scoring output in 2011. They finished fifth in the league in scoring and set a franchise record for yards, with Newton under center as a rookie. In 2013, Dorsey became the QB coach. Carolina went 12-4 and Newton made the Pro Bowl.
Dorsey has often been at the cutting edge of an evolution in the NFL passing game. Chudzinski brought in new concepts, more diverse package and spread offenses that were fashionable in the college game and Canada — and resisted for years by professional coaches who were stuck in the past.
The Bills attempted the fewest passes in the NFL over a 15-year period before Daboll and Allen dragged them into the modern era. Dorsey was right in the middle of it, schooling Allen, attacking defenses with the pass and making them adjust to the Bills rather than vice versa.
So, you could make a case that Dorsey is the natural successor to Daboll, an offensive innovator whose approach to the passing game meshes perfectly with Allen. Sure, the pressure is immense. Maybe he’s the modern football intellect who was meant to step into this situation.
“He’s smart as heck, man,” said backup quarterback Case Keenum, who is working with his eighth coaching staff in his 10-year NFL career. His call sheet, it’s like A Beautiful Mind.”
Allen said he counts his blessings every day that the Bills promoted Dorsey to be the coordinator. He said he has “supreme, supreme trust and faith” in him.
“He’s going to be nails for us,” Allen said. “First time calling plays, though, there’s going to be bumps in the road. For me, for him, just the camaraderie that we have. Obviously, I’ve said it before but hearing a new voice in my head. I’ve had the same voice in my head for the last four years. So that’s a little switch up.
“But I think Dorsey is going to do everything in his power to be the best OC that he can be. He’s gonna have a lot of faith in his guys. If you brought a guy from the outside in, that trust factor might not be there, knowing the likes and dislikes of myself, of Diggs, of Gabe, of what our O-line is good at and what they aren’t good at.
“He’s got a step above what anybody else would have coming into this position,” Allen said.
“The most important thing is, I’m not going to try to be anybody I’m not,” said Dorsey, a native Californian. “I think (Allen) respects that. I’m gonna be me, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent in comparison to what has been here in the past. I think he respects that. I think the communication is critical, and the constant back and forth of, ‘what did you see, why do you see it?’ So, we’re always on the same page.
“We’ve got a core of what our philosophy is that’s worked for us, but at the same time, you’ve got to be able to evolve in this game. You’ve got to be able to do some different things to keep defenses off balance and force them to react to you and not you reacting to them.”
The Bills were far from perfect last year, at least in the regular season. Allen’s quarterback rating dropped by 15 points, from 107.2 to 92.2. His yards per pass attempt slipped from 8.5 to 6.9. The Bills were last in the NFL in yards after catch. The Bengals’ Joe Burrow attempted 126 fewer passes than Allen and threw for more yards. Granted, bad weather conditions limited what the offense could do at times. But Allen has admitted he needs to do a better job of ball placement to improve YAC.
The Bills had a dynamic offense, one that mixed personnel groups and formations to a greater degree as the season wore on. The performance in the playoffs, when Allen had nine touchdown passes and no interceptions — and the Bills played a statistically perfect game against the Patriots — suggested an offense that was continuing to evolve.
It’s Dorsey’s job to keep that offense going, and to take it to even higher level. General manager Brandon Beane admitted the team needed to make more big plays in the passing game. Allen has more weapons, and the expectation is that the offensive production will return to 2020 levels. The Bills will face a far more formidable slate of opposing offenses this season, so they might need to win some shootouts.
Allen says having Dorsey as his OC is a blessing. They are similar characters. As a player, Dorsey was the antithesis of Allen, who came into the NFL with a big, inaccurate arm and a raw football IQ. But Allen has been a willing, self-critical student and risen above his perceived limitations.
Combine Dorsey’s encyclopedic knowledge of quarterbacking with Allen’s sheer physical talent and evolving intellect for the position, and you’ve got a pretty potent player at the sport’s most vital position. What you have is a coach who has long been obsessed with getting the ball to his playmakers in space, and a star QB who can do that, while terrorizing defenses with his legs when the situation demands it.
“I think the thing that helps is obviously, one, we’re both extremely competitive,” Dorsey said, “And we have kind of a similar philosophy in terms of, we both want to do whatever it takes to help our team win. And I think that’s the thing I love about Josh is like he’s got that mentality of he wants to do whatever he can do it for this team to be successful.”
There’s no telling what they could achieve with this team. The public expects nothing less, with expectations for the Bills soaring higher than they have in three decades. Dorsey has the quarterback. He also has a legion of armchair quarterbacks, ready as always for a chance to mutter, ‘What is this guy thinking?’