All eyes on Ken Dorsey's counterpunch
New insight into the Bills' offense is revealed. More jabs, more nuance is a must. In Green Bay? Joe Barry now has eight first-rounders. These four coordinators could decide the 2023 NFL season.
The events of Jan. 22 have befuddled locals for five months. A Buffalo Bills offense that did whatever it pleased for most of three years earned a home playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals and, with a trip to the AFC Championship Game at stake, here’s how the unit performed:
Seventeen incomplete passes.
Thirty-eight rushing yards from running backs.
Not the work of a juggernaut. It was strange. Exactly one year removed from an all-time fireworks display at Arrowhead Stadium in the same divisional round, scoring any points at all became an exercise in futility. Maybe the Bills were exhausted from a surreal season. The Tops shooting, two historic blizzards and Damar Hamlin nearly dying on the field unquestionably affected the team. PTSD could’ve lingered on the individual level. Still, several players have refused to cite the scary scene Jan. 2 in Cincy as The reason for their dud 20 days later. Captain Taiwan Jones told us the Bills lacked urgency. “We were deer in the headlights,” he said. “We were all waiting for someone to make a play that never came.”
More than likely, there’s a tangible explanation.
And when it boils down to nitty-gritty details — What happened? — Isaiah McKenzie supplies a deeper explanation.
He agrees with Jones… explains why… and everything starts to make sense.
At first blush, it may sound silly.
During our Happy Hour last week, McKenzie began by staring into the camera and saying: “I’ll tell you this: That snow had a lot to do with it.” Put on any Buffalo game and the ball’s being thrown 45, 50 times. While it’s true the Bengals were playing in the same conditions, Joe Burrow is a different quarterback than Allen operating in a much different offense…
“Josh has a cannon and that’s how he throws the football,” said McKenzie, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. “Josh wants to sling the football. That was tough for him getting the balls in the right spots and receivers getting open because of the routes we run. And the Bengals ran simple routes. Maybe we should’ve done that. Ran basic routes. Out routes. Go balls. Instead of running routes where we have to be going lateral or coming back to the football or turning and running curls. Things like that.
“That snow had a lot to do with it. If we were in a dome, it would’ve been a totally different game. Or if it was like the first Bengals game, it would’ve been a totally different game. Once we got down 14, everybody was kind of ‘Ahh.’”
This was a standard winter afternoon in Western New York. Nothing like the catastrophic whiteouts that turned the team’s in-season traveling into a real-life sequel of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. This snowfall didn’t even require us to bust out our wife’s hair dryer to melt the ice clogging our snow-blowers. And yet while the Bengals offense operated with ease — to the tune of 30 first downs, 27 points and 412 yards — the Bills appeared to be playing on a different planet. Crazy as it sounds for a team positioned on the shores of Lake Erie, it’s true that the precipitation affected this Bills offense as constructed last season.
Nobody uttered a negative word when Dorsey assumed OC duties last year — justifiably so. With Brian Daboll off to coach the New York Giants, maintaining continuity for star quarterback Josh Allen was the logical course of action. If you were to stare at the raw statistics of 2021 vs. 2022, you’d wonder what all of the fuss was about, too.
Yet as McKenzie revealed, their two passing schemes were distinctly different and it caught up to Buffalo vs. Cincy.
Even though, uh, the Bills live in these conditions every day.
Told that snow shouldn’t exactly sneak up on anybody here, McKenzie threw his hands up and then referenced all the playoff losses.
Rosters across the NFL are mostly set. OTAs now begin, followed by minicamp, followed by training camp.
Many teams should be feeling confident — starting with these Bills.
This contender was forced to work the financial fringes and still managed to load up — the wise course of action on offense. This bang for buck is unheard of in a sagging economy: A hungry chains-mover in Trent Sherfield, a burner in Deonte Harty, a bull in Damien Harris and, of course, a potential game-changer at tight end in Dalton Kincaid who (in theory) will kill defenses from the slot. The team’s best move might’ve been that midseason trade last season. Unleashing Nyheim Hines (in theory) will also dizzy defenses.
The Packers now have eight first-round picks on defense.
A Vikings team weighed down by a defense that ranked 31st in total yards and 28th in points, yet still found a way to win 13 games, now replaces Ed Donatell with Brian Flores at defensive coordinator. Welcome back, Lamar Jackson. Not only did the Baltimore Ravens sign Odell Beckham Jr. and draft Zay Flowers. Out is Greg Roman and his lack of vision in the passing game. In is Todd Monken.
All of us expend so much energy figuring out which players will alter the balance of powers in the NFL when, in truth, these assistant coaches are the ones who may decide the 2023 season. Talent accrued in the offseason only takes a team so far. That playcaller going ballistic after a loss to Miami up in the box needs to manipulate his chess pieces in fresh, new ways for the Bills to maximize a Super Bowl window. The ice beneath Joe Barry’s feet seemed to crack after the Philadelphia Eagles steamrolled the Packers for 363 rushing yards, and Green Bay won four straight. He’ll need to bottle up whatever worked and make it stick for a full season.
As Barry said himself this week, “We don’t have time to waste 10 weeks.”
Especially with Iowa edge rusher Lukas Van Ness now entering the equation. It’s true the expectations wouldn’t change in Green Bay if the starting lineup was full of seventh-rounders but the Packers defense is loaded with premium draft capital.
“It starts with me,” Barry said at his press conference. “I have to do better. In order for this group to play better, I have to do better.”
This is the eerie calm before the storm. Right now is when all coordinators spend hours studying their 2023 opponents, on a relentless manhunt for the smallest of small tips that could tilt the odds in their favor. Once September hits, there’s no looking back. The chess pieces must be perfectly aligned in May and June and July to produce when the games begin.
The most important person in the Bills organization may be the former Miami Hurricanes quarterback.
In retrospect, assuming a Dorsey offense would mimic a Daboll offense to a “T,” was foolish. Every coach will bring his own fresh ideas. As he should. Who doesn’t dream of calling plays, let alone one quarterbacked by Josh Allen?
This version was explosive, yet restless.
In theory, it makes sense. This is a big-play league. But the Bills became overly reliant on the deep ball. This scheme lost its rhythmic flow. Under Daboll, the Bills could string together drives of six-, and 11- and four- and 16-yard gains in their sleep. A cat toying with a mouse. This short passing game, fueled by Cole Beasley, was essentially the Bills’ rushing attack. Beasley gobbled up 100+ targets in three straight seasons, asserting himself as the best pure slot in the NFL in 2020.
Last summer, Buffalo moved on from the aging vet and staged a competition between McKenzie and Jameson Crowder for the job.
McKenzie was the victor.
The season did not go as planned.
McKenzie gave himself a “C-plus” after catching 42 balls on 65 targets for 423 yards with five total touchdowns. Pro Football Reference credited McKenzie for six drops. Looking back, McKenzie admits he should not have returned from his Oct. 2 concussion against Baltimore so quickly. (Remember, he “couldn’t move.”) After sitting out one game, McKenzie returned for Buffalo’s 24-20 win at Kansas City on Oct. 16 and had one of the worst games of his pro career. (“A bad game for me. I admit it. One hundred percent.”) Sitting out would’ve given McKenzie’s brain nearly a full month to heal since the Bills then had a bye week. They didn’t play until Oct. 30 vs. Green Bay.
Not that it would’ve mattered. The slot receiver in this offense wasn’t used like the slot in Daboll’s offense — a surprise to No. 6.
McKenzie expected to feast on option routes. Like Beasley. A common sight at training camp was McKenzie schooling younger receivers on how to react vs. man or zone on option routes. That is, run to the second level of a defense and turn left or right based on the coverage. He dominated camp himself.
Yet, on gamedays, McKenzie was more often told to run deep and clear routes up for Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis.
“It wasn’t the same offense from when Beasley was there to when I was there,” said McKenzie on our Happy Hour. “It was more, ‘Isaiah, take the top off. Be a decoy. We’ll get you in where you fit in. I was like, ‘OK, that’s not really working for me. Because I’m just clearing the top off for Gabe.’ Every now and then, you’ll throw a ball deep here or there. But I’m not really getting this ball like Cole Beasley was. I’m not really running the option routes. I’m not really running the return routes. I’m not really running read routes. I’m not really running the plays that you guys had for Cole Beasley.
“And I understand that we’re two different guys. Cole is quick and very lateral. I’m more vertical. But I felt like I could do those things. I just never got the opportunity. I probably got a chance here and there, but that’s not enough. Because you’ve got to let a guy go through their hiccups.”
He isn’t blameless. Perhaps the Bills were still worried about his fumbles seasons past and wanted to play the odds. Feeding McKenzie 100+ targets, in their calculation, might’ve increased the odds of turnovers. But it’s also true that Dorsey essentially siphoned the exclusive slot receiver out of the offense. Those layups weren’t emphasized. When the Bills did call option routes for an inside receiver, McKenzie added, Diggs took his spot and he was told to clear DBs with his speed.
Confusing after thinking he won the slot job in camp.
The Bills clearly lacked trust in him, and that was a theme. Running back Nyheim Hines, a true dual-threat in Indianapolis, had 13 touches in 11 games. Rookie James Cook averaged five carries per game despite averaging 5.7 yards per attempt. One could argue Buffalo had the talent to win the Super Bowl last season but the talent wasn’t used correctly.
McKenzie took much less money to stay in Buffalo, yet insists he never clamored for the ball. It’s hard to say much when the team is 13-3 in the regular season.
Whenever this offense short-circuited, though, the fan favorite became a go-to scapegoat.
“I wasn’t the most consistent,” McKenzie said. “But I felt like as things went on that I’d get better. If we were to call the plays differently and not try to take shots every time or give me the ball in different ways — underneath, over the top, in the backfield — it works. It worked in years past. But I can’t say it’s Buffalo’s fault. Some of it’s mine. Some of it’s playcalling. A little bit of everybody’s. But I felt like I was the guy who was going to get bounced around if anything. They felt like, ‘I can do this with Isaiah and he’s going to accept it,’ because that’s the type of guy I am. You’re going to bench me? OK, I’ve got to accept that. You’re not going to play me this game? OK, I’ve got to accept that. You want me to go out there and do this? OK, I’ve got to accept that. I had to accept whatever they wanted me to do and they thought, ‘He won’t mind. Let’s just get him out of here.’
“I just do my job and whatever you see or whatever you don’t see, do what you want with it. I’m not going to sit here and beg you to give me more money or beg you to give me the ball or beg you to start running these types of plays or beg you to… I don’t know. I’m not a begger.”
The long ball is why Buffalo survived a scare in the wild card vs. Miami.
The next week, not so much.
Conversely, Joe Burrow completed passes to seven different receivers in the first quarter alone. Snow or not, death by a million papercuts typically trumps the knockout haymaker in the postseason. That’s why Tom Brady reached 14 conference championship games and won seven Super Bowls. Coverages tighten. Defensive coordinators dust off their best stuff. It pays to be patient underneath and then strike deep when the time’s right. Brady was always more Floyd Mayweather than Mike Tyson, methodically making opposing defenses pay for any schematic sin. No matter how minuscule. And whereas Joe Mixon ran for 105 yards, the Bills got nothing out of their ground game. Even pass-first operations need a rushing attack in their back pocket. Between Cook and Hines and Harris and Latavius Murray, the OC will have options in 2023.
And, of course, the Bills selected Kincaid as their new weapon in the middle of the field.
What a grand new experiment. Beasley and McKenzie are both 5 foot 8. And here comes a 6-foot-4, 246-pound tight end who caught 70 passes for 890 yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games at Utah last season. Dorsey can dream of utilizing two tight ends in ways Bill Belichick once did in New England. As far back at 1995, Belichick understood the impact of two pass-catching options at tight end. In “Blood and Guts,” former Cleveland Browns assistant Kirk Ferentz recalled seeing Belichick visibly nervous ahead of their game against the Green Bay Packers because of Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson — even the game’s best defensive mind struggled planning for these two body types on the same play.
Kincaid and Dawson Knox should pose a major problem.
Harty is one of the fastest receivers in the NFL.
Diggs remains entrenched as the No. 1. Davis, the No. 2.
Weaponry is not the problem in Buffalo. There’s enough here to win a championship. Dorsey now must devise a way to maximize this all.
The boom-or-bust ethos doesn’t work long term. Which makes this time of year important at One Bills Drive. Obviously, Dorsey and Allen have a strong relationship — the team’s $258 Million Dollar Man advocated for the promotion. However, last season hinted that Daboll might’ve had a Mike Holmgren-like effect on the quarterback. Three decades ago, the former Green Bay Packers head coach masterfully reined in Brett Favre. A quarterback on the cusp of getting benched in the early 90s proceeded to win three straight MVPs. Holmgren departed. Favre remained very good with Ray Rhodes, Mike Sherman and Mike McCarthy but never got back to the Super Bowl.
Part of it’s X’s and O’s. Part of it’s personality. Daboll, like Holmgren, is brilliant when it comes to play design. But he’s also a fiery figure capable of harnessing a quarterback’s powerful right arm. Can Dorsey?
Tis the season for networks declaring this a “prove-it” season for particular players on a fancy graphic.
For Ken Dorsey, this is as prove-it as it gets. If he succeeds, the Bills will be in the Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers boldly (and correctly) made the switch at quarterback. The Jordan Love Era is here. Yet, we cannot forget the expectations bestowed upon this Packers defense one year ago. With this healthy mix of vets and youth, it was fair to expect the defense to join the NFL’s elite. The fact that Green Bay boasted stars at each level — Kenny Clark, De’Vondre Campbell, Jaire Alexander — is why I picked them to win the NFC. Whoops. Instead, it took until December for Barry’s crew to complete the Rubik’s Cube.
The best way to make Love’s life easier as the starter is to get more stops. That makes Barry just as important in Green Bay as Dorsey is in Buffalo. GM Brian Gutekunst made a point to note the team’s heavy investment in the defense after the draft, punctuating with “there are expectations there.”
Barry plainly stated that the Packers were too inconsistent last season.
Week to week, it was hard to tell which Green Bay defense would show up.
The team’s DC didn’t want to say the team “simplified” its scheme down the stretch, choosing the words “always evolving.” Either way, players did seem to play faster in wins over Chicago (28-19), the Los Angeles Rams (24-12), Miami Dolphins (26-20) and Minnesota Vikings (41-17). The less thinking players need to do on the field is often for the best — it’s a fast game played by fast people. Maybe the coordinator did hit his groove. Holding Detroit to 20 points should’ve been enough to win in Week 18, too.
“We evolved last year into what worked for us,” Barry said. “But the key thing is you’ve got to do that early. You’ve got to do that now.”
Barry is right to point out that most games in the NFL are close, that four or five plays typically decide games. After reviewing every play from 2022 with a “fine-toothed comb,” he saw that the Packers struggled in situational football. Miss a tackle on a crucial third and long and, chances are, you’re losing that game.
Dom Capers did plenty of good through his run as Green Bay’s coordinator. His group finished No. 1 in total defense in Year 1 (2009) and won a Super Bowl in Year 2 (2010), yet the Packers never got back to this level his next seven seasons. While it’s unfair to pin the blame on Capers alone — he probably would’ve loved a free-agent signing or two — his scheme obviously didn’t evolve enough to get the Packers over the hump in January.
Thus, Barry’s charge now. To evolve.
Gutekunst drafted him the horses to win and, unlike his mentor, this GM is active in free agency. On paper, it’s another enticing group. Linebacker Quay Walker, last year’s 22nd overall pick, has All-Pro potential. Defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt, the 28th pick, improved down the stretch. December was far from murderer’s row but linebacker Isaiah McDuffie was also encouraged by the unit’s surge. He also pointed out the reality that three or four plays are always the difference.
A late bye week helped the Packers refresh.
“No one just wrote the season off,” said McDuffie in our chat earlier this offseason. “Especially our leaders. We rallied together and believed we still had a chance in this thing. It's not over until it's absolutely over.
“We have leaders in every position group. We have leaders who are the voice of the defense. We have leaders who are the voice of the offense. There are so many great personalities. That’s another reason why I feel like we are able to do something late in the season because everyone was able to buy in. Everyone was able to be like, ‘We're not out of this thing. We can get better. We want to get better. We want to make the playoffs.’ Again, we fell short. But I felt like there was a lot of positivity that did come out of the season.”
It doesn’t take many unreasonable if’s to talk yourself into the Packers contending within a wide-open NFC. The young nucleus on offense has been growing together behind the scenes. This quarterback will be executing Matt LaFleur’s offense verbatim — receivers and backs are thrilled to all finally speak the same language. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon remain one of the best 1-2 punches at running back.
And, hey, how easily we forget the Minnesota Vikings won the division last season.
They’d love to enter this conversation.
Kirk Cousins is the second-best quarterback in the NFC. Justin Jefferson is arguably the most talented non-QB in the NFL. K.J. Osborn and Jordan Addison and T.J. Hockenson round out a deep offense. No, Brian Flores did not work out as a head coach. Those in Miami do not have kind things to say about how he handled quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. As for as his defensive acumen? Flores’ resume is sound. Minnesota is still choosing to go for it while making hard, calculated decisions on vets (Adam Thielen, Eric Kendricks, etc.). As linebacker Ben Leber said, even a slight jump in total defense can net big results.
Simply run the tape back on what Flores did to a quarterback like Lamar Jackson in 2021.
And in Baltimore? Everyone’s eager to see what Todd Monken can do with Jackson and the Ravens’ passing game. It’s foolish to zap this QB’s magic as a runner, but more creativity down the field is sorely needed. Such a stale scheme is why veteran wide receivers didn’t want to play in Baltimore. Monken will bring innovation. Jackson signing his new deal in April, as opposed to August, is huge. Everyone has a full offseason to sync up.
Expect to see more Ravens receivers wide open down the field because the threat of Jackson — as a runner — still looms. He should have 1-on-1 matchups all over the field now that the poor coaching has been addressed.
This is a player’s game. Always.
But the sport doesn’t come to a screeching halt the first week of February and pick back up in September. Dorsey and Barry and Flores and Monken and coordinators all over the NFL are likely putting on a pot of coffee at midnight this spring.
Nothing’s ever personal. On the Happy Hour, one of our subscribers asked McKenzie—point blank—what players think of Dorsey. And McKenzie made it clear guys love him.
They’re just hoping he’ll counter.
“That last year, was it his best coaching year?” McKenzie said. “Some people would say ‘no.’ Some people would say he’s going to get better. For me, he was doing what he was trying to do. He was trying to take shots. That’s the way Dorsey plays football. You’ve got to respect it. His style of coaching. Now, will he learn from last season and grow from that and say, ‘What should I get better at?’ Is he going to get better at it? I think so. Everything’s going to work out for ‘Dorse.’ I love ‘Dorse.’ Daboll was a little different. He had time with Josh and he understood what needed to be done. He understood the offense’s weaknesses and strengths and he used those things—the stats and analytics—and really applied it to the game. For years, we didn’t have a run game. So guess what? He threw the ball to Beasley. He gave me a jet sweep to make up for the run game we didn’t have. He didn’t take many shots. He said, ‘Look, I’m going to put the ball in my playmakers hands and they’re going to run for it. Dorsey is more of a shot guy. He’s going to take his shots. Dorsey loves his shots.
“You have to respect him for it. You have to love him for it. That’s his style of coaching. There was nothing wrong with it. Maybe it got us into trouble sometimes. Maybe it was too much. With those shot decisions, next year he’ll probably make less choices like that and go more toward the short game.
“He’s going to grow from last year and be a better coach this year. I love ‘Dorse.’ I love ‘Dabes.’ Two different styles of coaching. ‘Dabes’ is on a roll right now. ‘Dorse’ will get to that level. He’s going to learn and grow.”
Micromanagement. The Dallas model.