Quarterbacks fail in the NFL, sure. But more often they are failed. This was the epiphany Bills general manager Brandon Beane had while studying quarterbacks prior to the 2018 draft. Beane scrutinized the careers of former top prospects who made it, along with ones who didn’t, and found that, overwhelmingly, those in stable organizations with more continuity were more successful. “We’d look at ‘Why did this guy fail?’ Well, three head coaches, or two GMs, it’s crazy,” Beane said this week. “Constant turnover, different coordinators every year.”
There is probably a chicken-and-egg conundrum here, in which a bad young passer might get a staff fired and create his own turnover. But even considering that, the evidence was clear: Give a young quarterback the runway to improve, and he usually will. So Beane’s goal ahead of the 2018 draft was simple: Build a steady foundation, then select a quarterback who was good enough to grow on it. Turnover would come eventually, Beane found in his research, but only once the team had won enough that other franchises wanted a piece.
It is obvious now that the Bills accomplished their GM’s objective. Four years later, they are the model for building an organization where a quarterback can thrive. They drafted Josh Allen seventh overall in 2018, constructed an offensive line and skill group capable of supporting him, and gave him a coach who could propel him forward. Brian Daboll, the team’s longtime offensive coordinator, was in Buffalo for the first four years of Allen’s professional career, and together they developed a relationship between play caller and quarterback that was among the best in the NFL—and formed the backbone of one of the great turnarounds in recent NFL history.
All of those pieces allowed Allen, a quarterback as physically gifted as any in the league, to improve more than nearly anyone outside Buffalo thought possible. But now, after Daboll departed for the Giants’ head coaching job last winter, comes the hard part: Replacing part of the foundation that made the franchise a Super Bowl contender and helped Allen become an MVP candidate. It’s one of the most important jobs in football in 2022, and it falls to Ken Dorsey. I went to Western New York last week to find out what happens next.
Seven months ago, the Bills played the first perfect offensive game in the history of professional football. They scored a touchdown on every single possession, not counting final-drive kneeldowns; had no field goals, punts or turnovers; and they did it against the Patriots, who are coached by the best defensive mind in the history of the game. It’s reductive to say it looked like Madden because there were no glitches, but it did seem like a video game.
A week after that, the Bills had similar success against the Chiefs in one of the most electric games in the history of football, a 42-36 overtime loss in the AFC divisional round. The phrase “13 seconds” is still said with deep sighs around the Bills organization, a reference to the amount of time the Chiefs had to force overtime at the end of regulation. The loss was devastating, but Allen finished the playoffs with nine touchdowns and zero interceptions.
That level of play was made possible by Allen’s cannon arm and quick legs, but also by his relationship with Daboll, which evolved more than probably any other quarterback-OC pairing in the last decade. My colleague Steven Ruiz wrote last year about the adjustments Daboll and Allen made to stay ahead of defenses that were trying to take away their best stuff: Adding a fullback on plays and controlling the middle of the field, or spreading receivers out and stretching defenses. When defenses took away the deep crossing routes they liked so much, their solution was to go deeper. Daboll became a completely different coach by the end of his tenure in Buffalo, going wide open and changing his run scheme style. And Allen became a completely different schematic quarterback.
The job of keeping that machine rolling now falls to Dorsey, the Bills’ former quarterback coach and a college football hero who’s had a unique football education—one that has touched on nearly every trend over the last decade. Because Dorsey has played in or coached so many different schemes and concepts, I asked everyone I could in Buffalo what his unit will look like this season. The answer was that it will look like everything you can do on a football field: as many personnel packages as the roster allows; spread concepts mixed with old-school physical running.
Because of this broad brush, I asked Allen what his favorite thing is to do while playing. “My favorite thing to do on a football field is score touchdowns,” Allen said with a smile. Then he corrected himself: “Actually, celebrating with my teammates after scoring touchdowns.”
Continuity is important to the Bills—that’s part of why Dorsey was promoted from quarterbacks coach to OC. But this spring and summer, Allen has already changed one thing. “I rested a lot more during the first part of the offseason,” he said. Why? “My body. I go through quite a toll throughout the season, the way I play, this last year, a couple of bumps and bruises here and there. But when I came back for OTAs, I don’t know if I’ve felt that good in a very long time.”
Allen still woke up at 6 a.m. because his body is wired to train in the offseason. “But you just find ways to relax, get my mind off football, play some golf. For the most part I’m down in Orange County and southern California. The weather’s really good, so just do some outdoor activities, hanging with my girlfriend and my dog and try to stay away from it for a bit. But when it’s back to business, it’s back to business, and it’s back to business now.”
I ask Allen if, given that he needed extra rest this offseason, he’d think about changing the way he plays, heavy on runs and physicality. “No,” he said quickly. “I love the way I play because I have fun doing it. I consider myself a guy that does what needs to be done when the situation calls upon it. So obviously, I want to be better in my decision making, putting the ball where it needs to go, allowing our guys to catch and run. But in terms of [putting my] body on the line and doing what needs to be done, that’s part of me.”
Beane said he was proud of the way Allen preserved his body last year. “He did a better job of taking less hits. That’s really the onus that I’ve put on him,” Beane said. “I don’t ever get on him for an interception. But I’ll get on him for taking an unnecessary hit. I commend him after games when we’re talking about hits or not hits. I commend him for his maturity. In 2020, he tried to run over Kyle Van Noy and somebody else. Don’t do that.”
Quarterback running will, of course, always be a feature of an Allen offense. But when I ask Allen what he wants the scheme to look like under Dorsey, his answer is broad—because he wants the offense to be wide in scope. “Late in the fourth quarter, you got to be able to run the ball when they know you’re running the ball,” Allen said. “Timing and spacing in zone [defense] and guys that can win in man, and I think that’s obviously very broad in terms of what it can look like. But we want to be a multiple offense where you’re not sure if we’re actually handing the ball off, or it could be a play-action shot, it could be a quarterback run. We want to be so multiple that the defense has to think about so many different things. And that comes with reps … it comes with execution and mentality in the run game and in the pass game. I definitely think we have the pieces in place to do it.”
The ability to do anything at any time has been a feature of the Bills throughout the Allen era and will be a guidepost for the Dorsey offense—which must evolve to keep pace in a top-heavy AFC. But to fully understand how Dorsey is building his playbook, you first need to know how he got here.
The first thing Ken Dorsey learned as quarterback at the University of Miami was to get the ball to players who do special things. “It’s not even Xs and Os,” his college coach Butch Davis said. “It’s, ‘How do you make sure high-profile guys get the ball?’ We had Andre Johnson, Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne, a ton of guys. And he was so smart, and he just made sure those guys were getting the ball.”
The key, Dorsey said on a cool Rochester, New York, morning before one of his first practices as a play caller, is not to overthink it. This is not much of a surprise. Dorsey overlapped with the greatest groups of skill players in college football history. Over four seasons, he shared a field with Jeremy Shockey, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, Bubba Franks, Kellen Winslow II, and the aforementioned Johnson, Wayne, and Moss. And his superpower was finding people more talented than him in open space and letting them do the winning. Davis said Dorsey earned his star teammates’ trust with his work ethic and ability to find them at all times on the field. And together, those teams won one national title and came close to two others. Dorsey finished his Hurricane career with a 38-2 record.
“He wasn’t the most talented guy—he didn’t have a big arm, he didn’t have the size or mobility [and wasn’t] a guy who was gonna beat you with his feet,” Dorsey’s college offensive coordinator and former boss Rob Chudzinski said. “But he could process faster, and he was going to get the ball out and make the right decisions. He was going to get it to the right guys.”
Dorsey’s favorite concept at Miami was to find a (extremely common) mismatch with a tight end and let them “push up and run a 10-yard out on a linebacker. There was never anything wrong with that.” And that concept is one of the ways he found common ground with Allen.
Talking to Allen about his offensive philosophy, he sounds remarkably similar to his new OC. “We’ve got a lot of juice,” Allen said. “So it’s finding ways to put the ball in the hands of our playmakers, getting the right people on the field at the right time. Whether that’s 11, 12, 13, zero [personnel], 10, whatever,” Allen said, referencing the shorthand used by NFL teams for the number of running backs and tight ends on the field (12 personnel, for instance, is one running back and two tight ends). He mentioned new additions like veteran tight end O.J. Howard, rookie running back James Cook, and new receiver Jamison Crowder as helping to expand the number of packages they can use. So the Bills offense will have a few forces working together: an offensive coordinator who’s been obsessed with finding weapons in space for two decades, and a quarterback who can find them (or create his own space).
Dorsey’s time at Miami kicked off a nearly unmatched 20 years of football education. He went from a pro-style quarterback surrounded by NFL talent to a coach who has dabbled in nearly every innovation in the sport. In between he played in Canada, learning zone read concepts for the first time. (With liberal offensive rules north of the border, his Toronto team could use run-pass options off the zone reads, giving him a crash course of what was to come for him in the next few years.) And in 2011, he reunited with Chudzinski, who was then the offensive coordinator for the Panthers.
Chudzinski hired Dorsey to be an advance scout for quarterbacks. So while Chudzinski developed the game plan, Dorsey would spend Mondays and Tuesdays watching tape with rookie Cam Newton. “He was on the front line of the evolution of football,” Chudzinski, now an assistant at Boston College, said. The offense the staff was putting together “was completely new. It was things that traditionalists said you couldn’t do in the NFL, and we had to kind of fight all that in the decision [to draft Newton].”
You have to understand that, in 2011, college-influenced offenses were unheard of. The NFL, full of closed minds and listless schemes, had decided college systems would never work in the big leagues. The Patriots incorporated some Florida spread. The Dolphins borrowed heavily from the SEC to get the wildcat offense going. But full-scale college-style concepts like those the Panthers were trying in September of 2011 were rare.
Dorsey’s job was clear: Newton hadn’t even thrown the ball 300 times in his college career, so he needed to watch film with the rookie, tell him what to expect every Sunday, and introduce him to some of the common NFL defensive concepts and new offensive principles. Chudzinski mentions that the staff was trying on the fly to figure out how much running Newton could—or should—be doing in the NFL, or how vertical run-pass options could work against NFL defenses. By the way, 2011 was a lockout year and there was virtually no offseason in which to prepare Newton or the Panthers for any of this. But even so, Newton set a rookie passing yards record that year and an NFL record for quarterback rushing touchdowns.
Mike Shula, who worked as both QB coach and offensive coordinator for the Panthers and is now a Buffalo assistant, said Dorsey was instrumental in empowering Newton’s voice in the quarterback room. “He was flexible enough to say, ‘Hey, we got a guy here where it’s a little bit of unchartered waters. Let’s see how far we can take this,’” Shula explained. “He pushed the idea of, ‘Hey, let’s listen more to Cam, he’s got a lot of good ideas and it’s not what we’re used to.’ We went back into some of his stuff at Auburn. … The more we listened and the more we put that stuff in, the better we got.”
When Shula was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2013 after Chudzinski left to become the Browns’ head coach, Dorsey was the obvious fit for quarterback coach. Initially, Shula felt it was necessary for coordinators to go into position meetings to make sure everything was going well. But 10 minutes into the first Dorsey-Newton meeting, Shula left and never returned, knowing things would run smoothly.
Dorsey said Newton “forced me to evaluate and research and do other things to expand your scope of what you can do as an offense.” And Beane and Bills head coach Sean McDermott, who were both in the Panthers organization during the Newton era, saw that innovation daily.
Dorsey and Shula were fired by Carolina following a playoff loss in 2017, so Dorsey went to work for Davis at Florida International University. He then briefly took a job at Appalachian State, but he left two months later to join many of his former Panthers coworkers in Buffalo. I ask him if it’s strange to have climbed the ranks again so quickly. “It’s wild,” he said. “You just never know, and I think, at the same time, it’s great because it creates a little chip on your shoulder. … I think that’s why I fit in so well with these guys that are here. Because we’ve got a lot of guys like that.”
All of this—the idea of innovating alongside your quarterback and getting the ball into the hands of playmakers—dovetails nicely with a general manager who is trying to get as many weapons as he can, and has already built a receiving corps that features Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis and Isaiah McKenzie.
Beane said he’s learned that giving Allen a wide variety of options is the best thing for the offense, so that’s how he approached the offseason. “I don’t go in[to the offseason] saying we need receivers, tight ends, or running backs. We need weapons. And then it’s up to Dorsey and his staff to utilize it, whether that’s going two tight ends, five wide, whatever it is. Some of these teams have players that get the ball in their hands and make a big play, and we didn’t have as much as we’d like,” Beane said. He mentions Cook, who has the ability and instincts to play receiver as well as running back. “If you give Josh the weapons, here’s what I’ve learned,” Beane said. “He won’t try to do too much. He will do anything to win a play. Not even just the game—he doesn’t want to lose one play. And sometimes the best place to throw the ball is away, and that’s part of his growth. Part of that is on me and my staff to give him the weapons to not feel like he’s got to take the whole team on his back. Because if you look at most of his mistakes other than tipped balls, it’s when he’s tried to do too much. A lot of those times I go, ‘Well, he didn’t have anything open’ and that comes back to me, giving him a weapon.”
Beane, knowing what Dorsey and Allen are scheming up this season, said he spent the offseason trying to give his offensive staff as many possible packages as he can: two tight ends or two running backs, and spreading out wide receivers. He said that as Dawson Knox developed last year they were able to go three wide with a tight end, and now they can add Howard to that mix. The goal is to give enough roster flexibility that Dorsey can stretch defenses to the brink.
I asked around to see if the Dorsey-Allen relationship will include more input from Allen as he enters his fifth year. Allen said that more input “kind of comes with the territory of promoting a quarterback coach, because we’ve had those conversations of what we like. I had, and have, a great relationship with Dabes and was able to tell him what I like and what I want to take out or put in. And Dorse was there through it all, so it’s a blessing to be able to promote him, keep the same verbiage, the same mindset and the same concepts. It’s kind of second nature.”
Backup QB Matt Barkley said that Dorsey’s adaptable coaching style is helpful for Allen. Dorsey is not, Barkley said, the type of offensive coach who gets mad if the quarterback doesn’t hit the planned target, and he isn’t married to his own ideas. “Especially with Josh, who is kind of a loosey-goosey type player and can react to anything and can make any throw, it’s not always going to be by the book, and Kenny gets that.”
Dorsey said Allen picks things up so quickly that his teaching style has had to change—he said he has to be a teacher instead of a presenter to Allen, who wants to know the whys and the nuances behind every concept.
“Josh has been around the league long enough to understand how the league works on and off the field,” McDermott said when I asked him about Allen having more input. “When you’ve been through, now, his second contract and experienced that, there’s a transition. We want him involved in a number of things, and he wants to be involved in a number of things.”
Beane said Allen has “earned that right” when it comes to having input at different levels of the organization. For instance, when the Bills signed quarterback Mitchell Trubisky last year, Beane said he called Allen beforehand to make sure he was good with it. He thinks Daboll did a nice job of incorporating Allen’s likes and dislikes into the offense, and that Dorsey will do the same. Trubisky, now with the Steelers, told me this week that Dorsey never tries to change you as a player, and that he coaches well enough that Trubisky felt his processing and trust of his reads sped up over their time together.
“Sometimes as a coach, it’s like ‘Oh there are so many great ideas out there,’” Dorsey said. “And sometimes the best ideas are your base concepts and your base ideas. And I think that’s what this offense has been predicated on for a long time. [Against] zones, working through progressions, finding the right read with good ball location to maximize those guys’ opportunities for [run after catch]. In man, it’s just matchups, creating those matchups and finding ways to win one-on-ones.”
There are very few new pairings in football with more riding on them this year than Dorsey and Allen. Very few bars are set higher, and very few coaches are under more pressure to keep the ball rolling. But the former college hero is not interested in nostalgia or storytime about his national championship win. He will instead do what he’s always tried to do: let the stars do the winning and get out of the way.