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Giants’ Brian Daboll made right call handing off play-calling

Nobody has any earthly idea if Brian Daboll will be a good NFL head coach. Even the people who hired him cannot say with any certainty that Daboll will fare better with the Giants than the previous three men who held his job, all voted off the island by the end of Season 2. 

Co-owner John Mara called the naming of a head coach “the most difficult decision by far that you ever make in this business, because you just don’t know.” It’s a guessing game based on the available evidence, much of it circumstantial, that a candidate can inspire a team and persuade its members to always put the collective goals ahead of the individual’s. 

That candidate also would need to set aside his own personal ambitions in pursuit of the group’s objectives. 

In that context, it’s an encouraging sign that the 47-year-old Daboll decided to hand off play-calling responsibilities to his 35-year-old offensive coordinator, Mike Kafka, the former journeyman NFL backup who got the break of a lifetime from Andy Reid in Kansas City. Kafka became the position coach for Patrick Mahomes II, which would’ve been like being the voice coach for Luciano Pavarotti I. 

Daboll was hired for his offensive expertise, for his development of Josh Allen in Buffalo, and for his play-calling that turned the Bills into the AFC power that ripped the East from Bill Belichick’s death grip. He had earned the right to maintain full control of the Giants’ sorry excuse for an offense, if that’s what he was inclined to do. 

New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll during football practice
No one would have blamed Brian Daboll if he wanted to handle the offensive play calls.
Noah K. Murray

And why not? Daboll called his first head-coaching job a dream come true. He had been an assistant for a quarter century, starting as a volunteer staffer at William & Mary, and then as a grad assistant at Nick Saban’s Michigan State before Belichick hired him in New England and launched his NFL career more than two decades ago. “So it’s not like I was a coach for five years and got on a hot swing,” Daboll said over the summer. “This is 25 years in the making.” 

Twenty-five years of winning and losing, of heart-stopping victories and heartbreaking defeats, of landing some jobs and losing some others. Daboll was part of five Super Bowl-winning Patriots staffs, and yet it wasn’t all wine and roses in Foxborough. Belichick once picked Josh McDaniels over him to be his offensive coordinator, even though Daboll had effectively brought McDaniels into the organization. 

Daboll would leave New England for the Jets’ quarterbacks job under Eric Mangini, and yet Belichick valued his work enough to forgive that mortal sin and rehire his former assistant years later. In between, Daboll struggled to find his footing as an offensive coordinator in Cleveland, Miami and Kansas City, for teams that went a combined 18-46. His second job with Belichick preceded a second job with Saban at Alabama before Daboll ultimately found the right place at the right time with the right player, Allen, and went 40-25 plus three playoff trips as a coordinator in Buffalo. 

The Giants saw enough to believe he could fix the broken Daniel Jones. And one of Daboll’s first significant moves was to give away something precious to a less-experienced hand, Kafka, who likely wouldn’t have accepted the offer without it. 

“It was a part of the interview process where [Daboll] wanted his offensive coordinator to call the plays,” Kafka said. “But he also reserved the right to take the reins on that as well, and I respect that. … I think the opportunity to work with Dabs was very appealing.” 

New York Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka talks to receivers
Mike Kafka knows he has plenty to learn from Daboll.
Noah K. Murray

Kafka cited his boss’s Super Bowl pedigree and seen-it-all NFL life as one reason for the opening’s appeal. “He’s been through the highest highs and lowest lows,” Kafka said. “He’s been through a lot as a coach … that you can definitely pull from.” 

Before making his decision on calling the plays, Daboll consulted with retired NFL coaches. He has reached out to distinguished leaders inside and outside of pro football in the past. He has come to understand that as a first-time CEO, he can’t be consumed by one part of the operation. If Daboll is buried in his play menu on the sideline, and forever spending most of his practice time with the more aesthetically pleasing side of the ball, what message does that send to the defense, not to mention special teams? 

So as much as the rookie head coach might have been tempted to assume the role of control freak, Daboll embraced a selfless, big-picture approach. 

“We all work together,” he said Wednesday, “but there’s going to be one person calling [the plays], and that will be Mike.” 

The players surely noticed. Giants veterans have been vocal privately, and even publicly, about how much they prefer Daboll’s more collaborative, user-friendly style to Joe Judge’s, with one organizational source saying the players “are not making any attempt to hide that.” 

Of course, none of that will matter if the Giants don’t find the end zone Sunday at Tennessee. But if nothing else, with one smart and selfless move, Brian Daboll just gave his first team its best chance to score.

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