EAST RUTHERFORD - The coaching light went on for Mike Kafka three days into his stint as a graduate assistant at Northwestern, his alma mater.
He was coached there by Pat Fitzgerald, and learned at the side of Andy Reid, one of the game's offensive masterminds, before joining Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator of the New York Giants six months ago.
Kafka's audition as a play caller is ongoing this summer, and things kick into high gear Thursday night at Gillette Stadium when the Giants face the Patriots in the preseason opener in Foxborough, Mass. He is invested in what Daboll is trying to build here, and the two have taken on the challenge of morphing what worked for the Bills and what worked for the Chiefs by finding the proper blend for what the Giants have in place.
For Kafka, the journey from player to coach was not necessarily a long and winding road. The opposite, in fact.
"So, first week [on Fitzgerald's staff at Northwestern] – pretty much within the first three days really – I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do. Loved every minute of it," Kafka said. "You kind of see behind the curtain a little bit what the coaches have to go through to get ready for just a practice: scripting and carding and putting together the practice plans, and practice installs. And for me as a player, like being the third, second and third quarterback for most of my career – all of my career – that was something that was easy for me."
At 35, Kafka considers this a big opportunity in his ascension as a coach, tasked with matching wits against defensive coordinator Wink Martindale's schemes and approach every day in practice while adhering to Daboll's philosophy, given that he is one of the more innovative offensive designers in the NFL - not to mention, he's also his boss.
Striking that balance between Daboll's desire and Kafka's quest to develop his own sense of worth is important.
"We talk all the time about those type of things and how we want to run things," Kafka said. "But when you’re in a training camp mode, it’s evaluation. You’re evaluating the players; you’re evaluating the scheme. So, there’s a balance of that, but again, me and Dabs talk all the time about how we want to attack certain defenses, how we want to attack certain teams, how we want to use our players. So, that’s been an open conversation since the day I got here."
The Chiefs have been one of the league’s most creative and successful offenses, and while Patrick Mahomes is the engine, it's Reid's influence on Kafka that is certainly appealing for this job. Blending Kafka's familiarity with Kansas City's schematic approach with what Daboll has brought from the Bills and his previous stops sets up an intriguing scenario for a franchise searching for answers on that side of the ball.
Kafka has been viewed as an OC-in-waiting of sorts behind Bieniemy, whose departure for a head coaching opportunity has not happened in recent seasons despite his being a top name in the interview cycle.
NFL Network reported in 2020 that then-Eagles coach Doug Pederson wanted to hire Kafka to be his offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, but the team knew Reid was prepared to block the move, so a request was never submitted.
So now Kafka and joined with Daboll, and the Giants are still showing the signs of growing pains on the offensive side of the ball with Daniel Jones and Co. working through the anticipated struggles of learning an entirely new system, even more against an aggressive Martindale scheme that offers no let up in its pressure and blitz packages day to day.
The planned evolution of the Giants' offense is in motion, literally and figuratively, and there are stops and starts, to be sure. To truly understand what is taking place under the direction of Daboll and Kafka, there needs to be appreciation for the complete picture: before and after the snap.
Previous regimes talked about modernizing the Giants' offense schematically, but the reality on game days never matched the promise of what was mapped out in the meeting rooms and the playbook installs.
Pre-snap motion has changed the ways in which offensive and defensive football is played, and the Giants, despite insistence under former coaches Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur and Joe Judge - with Jason Garrett as the OC - that the concepts were in their plans, seriously lagged behind the league when it came down to implementation and execution.
Pre-snap motion also creates specific advantages in the run game, which is appealing to the skill set of Saquon Barkley, who spent as much time lined up in the slot early in camp as he has in the backfield.
Daboll and Kafka aren't just talking about it - these Giants are following through on the promise, and everyone is taking notice. Finding personnel mismatches has become a mission statement, not a preaching point, and the Giants are eager to see how things play out against another team beginning Thursday night.
The new Giants' system doesn't necessarily give receivers freedom to choose what to do at the top of their routes, rather it gives them options, much like Kevin Gilbride's offense once did under Tom Coughlin. That's all about reading keys - the same keys Daniel Jones and the rest of the quarterbacks are reading - and all involved have to know what they're seeing, and it takes time to develop that level of understanding of the concepts.
"Every day you’re going to evaluate," Kafka said. "I mean, throughout the entire season, today’s no different, and when we get to the preseason game, it amps up another level. And you’re playing against not the same guys that you’ve been seeing for the last few months. So, it’s definitely a different level of intensity."
Practice boils over, skirmish ensues
The moment Saquon Barkley lowered his shoulder and bowled over cornerback Aaron Robinson, the fuse was lit.
It was only a matter of time before the heat and physicality stretching the span of two practices resulted in a skirmish, as if the Giants had "ignite" written on Daboll's play call sheet for the second to last team period of Monday's session.
Tae Crowder tackled running back Antonio Williams two plays later. Then, Jon Feliciano appeared to deck Crowder on the next one, setting off a scrum that eventually included Cam Brown dragging Feliciano from the pile. There was pushing and shoving, and offensive line coach Bobby Johnson pushed Brown, according to a report from The Athletic.
Feliciano and Brown were both seen throwing a punch before Daboll gathered the team and cooled things down.
"We aren’t going to go out sorry, that’s one thing," Giants safety Julian Love said of the defense before adding later in a post-practice interview: "It gets intense and things happen and we’re going to respond. They can expect that, we can expect that from them. We don’t take it personally or at heart. Everybody is in there in the locker room right now just going on as normal. You defend your guys – that’s what it comes down to."
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Mike Kafka: NY Giants offensive coordinator ready to call shots