Ken Dorsey’s left hand grasped the play card, while his right hand toggled the headset strapped to his hip.
Pacing just inside the sideline, 30 yards away from the Buffalo Bills offense, Dorsey scanned his list of plays. On almost every down, he would make his choice, turn his back on the huddle and radio his call into Josh Allen’s helmet.
Dorsey then would pivot to watch Buffalo execute what, up until now, have been the most important play calls of his career.
Yes, they were made Tuesday afternoon on the Bills’ practice field. But Dorsey never has called plays before at any level. Now, after three years as their quarterbacks coach, Dorsey is an NFL offensive coordinator – of the Super Bowl favorites.
The Bills chose continuity over experience when replacing play caller Brian Daboll, whose success made him the New York Giants’ head coach. Thus, Dorsey is one of the Bills’ most significant storylines entering the 2022 season.
Bills coach Sean McDermott said Tuesday at minicamp that the offense is “just light years ahead” of where it would be had a newcomer been hired instead of Dorsey, who has carried over most of Daboll’s philosophy, terminology and acquaintance with the roster.
“The minute he got the job,” McDermott said, “it was boom. You don’t want to take that for granted. ”
But what did Buffalo sacrifice by eschewing experience for familiarity? How difficult will the job be for a rookie play caller, learning the ropes at football’s most stressful level?
The Athletic reached out to three former NFL offensive coordinators who also were head coaches for their thoughts on Dorsey’s situation.
They’re all confident he’ll do just fine.
“It’s a somewhat unique situation,” said Dirk Koetter, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and a play caller for three NFL teams. “There’s a learning curve, but it’s not brain surgery either.”
Neurosurgeons don’t perform while surrounded by 70,000 frothing fans each week, nor are they versed in making repeated split-second decisions that factor down, distance, time and score.
Dorsey, however, will operate with a 6-foot-5, 237-pound scalpel named Josh Allen, who can dissect a defense with his arm or legs.
“For that young stud they got in Buffalo, you keep things real familiar when it comes to terminology and philosophy,” said Scott Linehan, former St. Louis Rams coach and four-time NFL offensive coordinator. “You don’t want to stunt that growth with a coaching change.
“I’ve seen guys get their first jobs as coordinators with quarterbacks you’ve never heard of. I think I’d rather have my first chance with that guy. ”
Even so, Dorsey must learn on the fly. At his first news conference two weeks ago, Dorsey said he didn’t even know yet if he wanted to call plays from the sideline or the booth.
The Bills will do whatever they can to replicate game conditions at training camp. All three preseason games will be vital to shaping Dorsey’s play-calling identity, but expecting him to feel totally at ease in the role seems impossible by the Sept. 8 opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Rams at SoFi Stadium.
“I’m not sure you ever get entirely comfortable with it,” Koetter said. “Game pressure adds a lot. Your heart’s beating, for sure. That play clock starts on you right away.
“A lot of it has to do with how your call sheet is organized. You have to get used to finding things on your call sheet and doing it quickly. When you can, you think a play ahead. But when the clock is moving and you’re in a hurry, finding that next play on the sheet can be challenging. ”
The tensest moments, Koetter said, come right before halftime and the end of the game, when offenses must speed up while remaining decisive about how they’re going to control the clock.
Linehan added other circumstances to the list. In addition to two-minute offense, he noted the increased intensity of the red zone, gotta-have-it plays, third downs, two-point conversions and lickety-split decisions whether to punt or go for it on fourth down.
“You don’t get experience until you go out and do it,” Linehan said, “but you’ve really got to practice competitively in OTAs and training camp. You’ve got to put everybody’s feet to the fire, see how they react and then assess it, sit down as a staff and say, ‘What would you do the same? What would you do different? ‘”
Players have already been joking about Dorsey’s volatile temper. Helping him navigate those hot-blooded moments will be assistant wide receivers coach and game management assistant Marc Lubick and senior director of football research Dennis Lock.
Dorsey has always been considered the natural choice to follow Daboll and was Allen’s recommendation for the gig.
“The relationship between the quarterback and himself has to become like Daboll’s relationship with him,” former Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers coach June Jones said. “That’s got to happen again for them to accomplish what they want to do.
“Certainly they’re not going to change the offense a ton because they were one of the most productive offenses in the NFL. Any new coach is going to adapt to what was there before. They’d be crazy to adjust too much. ”
Buffalo’s offensive coaching staff lost a lot of brain power when Daboll exited. He took with him assistant quarterbacks coach Shea Tierney, offensive line coach Bobby Johnson and third quarterback Davis Webb, whom the Bills would have made their quarterbacks coach had he not wanted to keep playing. Backup quarterback Mitchell Trubisky signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That sent Dorsey’s stock sky high inside an organization that values continuity and keeping its franchise quarterback happy. After a year away, quarterback Matt Barkley was summoned back to Buffalo to help Allen again, but free-agent newcomer Case Keenum likely will be the main backup.
Dorsey has play-calling support, too. Three new assistants are former NFL play callers or offensive coordinators: senior offensive assistant Mike Shula with three teams, quarterbacks coach Joe Brady with the Carolina Panthers and offensive line coach Aaron Kromer with the Chicago Bears. Tight ends coach Rob Boras called plays for the Rams; running backs coach Kelly Skipper called them for UCLA.
“The most important thing for any offensive coordinator,” Jones said, “is to have the support of the head coach and the support of the other offensive coaches.
“That trust is important. (McDermott) has made some really good decisions over the past four years with his football team, and they’ve obviously been very competitive. Until I see it on the field, I’d hate to second-guess his decision with Dorsey because I feel he has kept the team together. ”
McDermott and Daboll weren’t always harmonized. McDermott would get prickly after games, barely veiling his frustrations over Daboll’s unwillingness to run more.
Daboll was an established play caller when he hooked up with McDermott in 2018. Daboll did it for the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs and won a national championship with the University of Alabama before joining the Bills.
Whether McDermott gives Dorsey total control will be interesting to monitor, especially if Buffalo starts the season poorly. Dorsey will be in the crosshairs as one of the few new variables on offense.
“Some of Dorsey’s identity is going to be Coach McDermott’s marching orders,” Koetter said, “when it comes to how much he stays with what his predecessor did versus making it his own.”
Koetter explained when the Falcons reached the NFC Championship Game in 2012, coach Mike Smith let him design the whole thing. When Koetter returned in 2019, coach Dan Quinn insisted upon Koetter running the system of previous offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.
If McDermott does want to have more say on offense, Linehan doesn’t foresee any problems.
“Coach McDermott is going to have input to make that transition a lot smoother,” Linehan said. “As a defensive coordinator, he knows what problems his quarterback creates for people. Coach McDermott will have a really positive impact on a first-time play caller. ”
All three veteran play callers interviewed for this story suggested Dorsey feel free to lean on Allen’s play-calling wishes, although the Bills aren’t prone to let their scrambly quarterback run as much as he’d like. The organization hasn’t been comfortable with his tuck-and-run penchant for years.
When asked Tuesday about Dorsey’s offense, Allen sounded pleased with their progress.
“It doesn’t feel like we’ve missed a step,” Allen said. “Obviously, it’s a different voice in the headset, a different mind, calling the plays. The verbiage is still the same. The protections are still the same.
“We’ve switched up a couple things here and there with concepts and thought processes, but we’re able to call the same play and understand our players know this play like the back of their hand, and it’s just our job to go out there and execute. ”
(Top photo: Rich Barnes / USA Today)