With 1 minute, 6 seconds remaining in his first game as coach of the New York Giants, Brian Daboll made a decision that could have awoken the vultures in the nation’s largest and most vociferous media market.
He went for two.
The Giants had battled out of a 13-0 halftime hole on the road against the Tennessee Titans. Quarterback Daniel Jones capped a 73-yard touchdown drive with a 1-yard pass to fullback Chris Myarick, pulling the Giants within 20-19 with just more than a minute remaining.
Now it was go time.
Eleven plays earlier, Daboll had instructed offensive coordinator Mike Kafka to ready a play for the 2-point conversion. Daboll also gathered a handful of defensive players and offensive substitutes on the sideline when that possession began and told them his intentions.
“I said, ‘Hey, if we score, I’m going for two. You guys good with that?’ And they said, ‘F yeah!’ ” Daboll said.
The potential lurked for high-profile disappointment and subsequent public backlash. But Daboll didn’t give that much thought. He had spent the previous five months assuring players that as long as they gave him their trust, focus and full investment, he would believe in them in the biggest moments with little fear of failure.
The NFL, he told them time and again, is a players game. The coaches are tasked with creating the best possible situations to succeed. But when games are on the line, players must rise and determine the result.
Thus, Daboll dismissed the thought of playing for overtime and activated the green light. Kafka sent in a call for a shotgun shovel pass to running back Saquon Barkley.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Jones said.
Truth be told, the play didn’t really work. Titans linebackers Dylan Cole and David Long Jr. had it sniffed out, infiltrating the Giants backfield within two seconds of the snap. But Barkley did, well, Saquon Barkley things, cutting to his right around Cole and Long, then barreling through a trio of defenders at the goal line for the go-ahead score.
The Giants won Daboll’s debut 21-20 and had, at the very least, one day’s evidence that a team’s belief and aggressive mentality could produce the ultimate game-day adrenaline rush.
“It’s a new era,” Barkley proclaimed after the win.
Added Daboll: “We’re going to be aggressive. … That’s the mindset I want our players to have. If it didn’t work, I could live with it.”
As one of 10 new head coaches this season — and one of five without NFL head coaching experience — Daboll remains in the early stages of building his program, articulating his vision and resetting the Giants’ culture.
Like his coaching opponent this weekend, Matt Eberflus of the Chicago Bears, Daboll is aware the 2022 season will require substantial patience and a surplus of resolve as a rebuilding team low on talent experiences the inevitable performance dips and mental funks that accompany the big-win highs.
But Daboll remains confident his plan for returning the Giants to prominence will work. He pitched a similar plan to the Bears in mid-January, when he was one of 11 candidates to interview for the head coaching vacancy at Halas Hall. The sides, though, ultimately steered in different directions.
The big-picture ripple effect? Hard to say. But just as the Bears’ decision to draft Mitch Trubisky in 2017 was always destined to be compared against the quarterbacks they passed over — namely Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson — the franchise’s 2022 reboot will require similar scrutiny for years.
Daboll will be part of that assessment and will cross paths with the Bears again this weekend.
The popular candidate
Eight-plus months after the Bears began their coaching search, a large segment of the fan base hasn’t forgotten that Daboll was the most popular candidate for the opening, an offensive maestro in the middle of a well-timed professional hot streak when the job came open and an appealing prospect for an organization eager to unlock the full potential of quarterback Justin Fields.
A day before that initial Zoom conversation with the Bears, Daboll propelled the Bills offense to a near-perfect game in an eye-opening 47-17 playoff thrashing of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. The Bills scored touchdowns on their first seven possessions and finished the game with three “victory formation” kneel-downs.
Josh Allen threw for 308 yards and five touchdowns, punctuating a regular season in which the Bills averaged an AFC-best 28.4 points and 381.9 yards.
It’s presumed Daboll referenced that fireworks show in his sales pitch to the Bears committee. A week later, in what became an epic divisional-round clash at Arrowhead Stadium, he turned his offense loose in front of the man whom the Bears eventually hired as general manager: Kansas City Chiefs executive director of player personnel Ryan Poles.
In a game that intoxicated the NFL audience, the Chiefs outlasted the Bills 42-36 by winning the overtime coin flip and scoring right away, making sure Daboll and Allen didn’t get a final say. But that was after the Bills rolled up 422 total yards and Allen led five touchdown drives, throwing two go-ahead TD passes in the final two minutes of regulation.
Poles was present to see it all and form his own conclusions.
Daboll was asked Wednesday about his bid for the Bears job last winter and what he remembered about his Jan. 16 Zoom conversation with the team’s five-person search committee before Poles was hired. His recollection was vague and he offered little detail of how he tried to win over search leader Bill Polian and Bears Chairman George McCaskey.
“That’s a long time ago,” Daboll said. “I’ve interviewed at a lot of different places. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. McCaskey and the people who were on that call. Each interview is always a little bit different. But you’re honored, you’re privileged, you’re humbled when you get those opportunities with any one of the teams. And I certainly was.”
To many around the league, aggressively pursuing Daboll — no matter who the GM was — was the Bears’ most logical move, given the work he did over four seasons transforming Allen from a flawed and inconsistent quarterback into a championship-level MVP candidate.
As one league source put it, with the Bears urgently trying to do the same with Fields, Daboll “almost made too much sense.”
“He was a leader at the forefront of developing one of the great quarterbacks and great offenses in football,” the source said. “He took a guy (in Allen) who was packing cantaloupes on his family’s farm near Fresno not all that long ago and who everyone said was overdrafted and never going to make it when he got into the league, and he turned him into a potential multiyear MVP candidate.”
The potential of linking Fields with that kind of developmental experience seemed intriguing.
Enhancing Daboll’s resume was his experience within championship programs. He was part of five Super Bowl championship teams during two stints with Belichick and the Patriots (2000-06 and 2013-16). In 2017, he worked as Nick Saban’s offensive coordinator at Alabama, helping oversee quarterbacks Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoaand Mac Jones during the Crimson Tide’s march to the national title.
The last four seasons, with the awakening of the Bills offense, might have been the most impressive.
“He was a big part of one of the great turnarounds in football,” the league source said. “That organization in Buffalo was dead for 17, 18 years. The Bills went from being (dead on arrival) when that staff got there to now being a Super Bowl contender. His fingerprints were on that.”
It was no surprise Daboll found himself in high demand in January. At one point, the buzz within several league circles suggested he was likely to become the Miami Dolphins coach. That didn’t come to fruition. And for whatever reason, his connection with the Bears never fully clicked either. At Halas Hall, Daboll became merely the 11th name on a log of 25 coach and GM interviews the Bears conducted over 13 days.
After they hired Poles as their GM on Jan. 26, Daboll wasn’t part of the two-day, three-candidate interview process in Lake Forest, with Poles only diving deeper with Eberflus, Jim Caldwell and Dan Quinn.
A day after Poles hired Eberflus to lead the Bears, Daboll rejoined new Giants GM Joe Schoen — the former Bills assistant GM who also interviewed with the Bears that month — as the new coach in New York.
A study in contrast
At this stage, it’s a gigantic leap to presume a Bears-Daboll union would have instantly vanquished the franchise’s quarterback demons, turned Fields into a standout and made the Bears a regular championship contender.
Heck, it’s far too early even to forecast that Daboll will be coaching the Giants by 2024. None of their three previous head coaches — Joe Judge, Pat Shurmur and Ben McAdoo — made it to a third season.
After opening with two wins, the Giants faltered Monday night in a 23-16 home loss to the Dallas Cowboys and head into Sunday’s game against the Bears with an offense ranked 21st in total yards and 18th in scoring under Daboll. There has yet to be a magic breakthrough for fourth-year quarterback Jones. And there’s growing belief around the league that Schoen and Daboll will push to select their quarterback of the future in April.
Four or five years from now, it might turn out that Eberflus emerges as the cream of the coaching crop among the 10 men who were hired this year and the five others the Bears interviewed.
But at the very least, folks in Chicago will keep Daboll’s performance in New York in their peripheral vision. The sideways glances will only increase if the pronounced struggles Fields has experienced over the first three games continue deeper into the season.
On Sunday, Bears fans will watch Daboll’s team play its fourth game with the kind of concentration and aggressive mentality he asks for. That will also provide a chance to size up the retooling Giants program against the one Eberflus is solidifying in Chicago.
Few would be shocked if the Bears snagged a road victory for an attention-grabbing 3-1 start. In gritty September wins over the San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans, Eberflus was proud of the way his players adhered to his much-publicized HITS principle and how the Bears quickly became a team that runs the ball well and stops the run reliably on defense.
Equally significant, Eberflus loves how hard his players have worked to increase their stamina and fortitude. “That’s our foundational piece,” he said Wednesday. “We want to have that mental and physical toughness in the second half. If you’re in shape and you have good stamina — both physical and mental stamina — you’re able to execute a little bit better and finish plays a little bit better.”
Poles — who, it’s worth noting, was also a top candidate for the Giants GM opening in January before the Bears hired him — hasn’t hidden his feelings about Eberflus. When Poles hired Eberflus, he was drawn to the coach’s discipline and poise and loved his vision for the kind of team he wanted to mold.
By early September, the first-time GM offered a four-word reinforcement of his first and biggest hire: “I love that dude.”
At that point, Poles had seen the results of the Bears’ offseason program, the way new work habits were established and unwavering standards were set. Now, after the first three weeks of the season, Poles also has seen Eberflus’ ability to steady and direct a team during games.
Much like the Giants’ 2-point conversion in Week 1 offered a jolt of energy, the Bears’ focus and perseverance through excessively wet conditions at Soldier Field in their season-opening win offered a glimpse of the identity Eberflus is trying to shape.
Daboll and Eberflus once coached together as Cleveland Browns assistants under Eric Mangini in 2009 and 2010. On Sunday, they will reunite at MetLife Stadium, both on a quest to improve to 3-1 and accelerate their belief-building process.
At his introductory news conference in January, Daboll promised to remain authentic and accountable, clear in communicating expectations and intent on building strong relationships throughout the Giants building.
He was certain his two-plus decades of coaching experience had served him well, broadening his perspective on how to unite an organization. He stopped short of saying his marriage with the Giants came at the perfect time.
“I don’t know that there’s ever a perfect time,” he said. “Do I feel prepared? Yes. Do I know there will be some obstacles and challenges? Of course. That’s this league.”
It’s also a league of comparisons. That figures to be evident again Sunday.