New York Giants safety Xavier McKinney knew something was different early in Brian Daboll’s tenure as head coach.
Soon after new general manager Joe Schoen hired Daboll, McKinney and the rest of the Giants' veteran leaders met to discuss what changes they’d like to see around the team. The players took their suggestions to Daboll and the rest of his staff and were surprised with the reception they received.
“They were all in on it,” McKinney told Yahoo Sports. “Coach Dabes wanted to do what was best for us. And he wanted us to be able to tell him whatever it was that we needed, he wanted to make sure that he provided it for us.
“So once that happened, everything was super smooth. We kind of knew from the jump: All right, we know what type of guy he is that made us have a lot of trust in him.”
There appeared to be quite a mess to clean up after the departures of former general manager Dave Gettleman and former head coach Joe Judge, but the bond between Daboll and his new team quickly translated to wins. The Giants currently hold one of the best records in the NFL at 6-1 and trail only the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East. Fourth-year quarterback Daniel Jones is completing almost 68 percent of his passes and is on pace for a career season. Saquon Barkley ranks second in the league in rushing. The defense ranks sixth in points allowed.
Even sideshow distractions, like big-money wide receiver Kenny Golladay voicing frustrations and the sporadic availability of 2021 first-round pick Kadarius Toney (who was traded Thursday to the Kansas City Chiefs), haven't derailed the Giants thus far under Daboll.
“He just makes it fun, man,” McKinney said. “I can't even really explain how enjoyable it has been compared to the last two years that I was here. It’s just been a huge turnaround.”
Brian Daboll has built genuine relationships with Giants
Daboll’s offensive prowess, having spent 11 seasons on Bill Belichick's staff in New England and 2018-2021 as coordinator for the Buffalo Bills, played a big role in his rise up the coaching ranks and his recent success. His humanity is another aspect of how he galvanized the Giants.
As soon as he joined the team, Daboll made it a point to try and foster personal connections with players. This included frequent FaceTime calls, Daboll’s preferred method of communication. The players weren’t just numbers. They were people with personalities, families and lives outside of football.
“You could tell that building authentic, genuine relationships was important to him,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “I think that made an impression on a lot of guys and since then he's been that way the whole time. I mean, he's been authentic and he is the same every day.”
Daboll did this frequently during his tenure with the Bills, according to former players Patrick DiMarco and Emmanuel Sanders. He’d usually call from a golf course or his swimming pool with a cigar pinned to one corner of his mouth. The conversations would range from game plan ideas to catch-ups to “Say hi to my kids!”
“He’s the ultimate player’s coach,” Sanders, who played one year with Daboll in Buffalo, told Yahoo Sports. “He’s as real as they come.”
Team meetings with Daboll are a dialogue between players and coaches. It's not just one man standing up in front of everyone. Daboll would ask and answer questions to find the perfect blend of his plays and philosophies with the players’ comfort with the game plan.
“He made a point to ask questions about things that I liked, things I had comfort with in the past and how I saw certain situations, too,” Jones said. “I'm trying to learn his system, but you appreciate him also kind of wanting to see your point of view and kind of working together through that.”
In Buffalo, Daboll empowered quarterback Josh Allen to lead the team’s install meetings and adjust certain schemes as needed. Former Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley even added five plays of his own to the playbook that the team used throughout his time with the Bills.
Former Alabama Crimson Tide co-offensive coordinator Mike Locksley noticed something similar when the two worked together in Tuscaloosa under Nick Saban in 2017. Daboll constantly asked the offensive players their opinions on plays — what they liked, how they wanted to line up, where they wanted to be on the field when the ball was thrown, etc. This included a roster chock-full of NFL talent including quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, running backs Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris and Damien Harris, and wide receivers Calvin Ridley, DeVonta Smith and Jerry Jeudy.
“It’s not surprising that he's commanding a player-led program there in New York because he didn't walk and talk in the front of the room as if he was better than better or bigger than that side of the ball at Alabama,” Locksley, now the head coach at Maryland, told Yahoo Sports. “He took everybody's thoughts and ideas and then he put them into motion and did a tremendous job leading this to a national championship that year.”
Learning from experiences
Daboll’s first job in the NFL came three years after he entered the coaching ranks. Following a one-year stint as a graduate assistant under Saban at Michigan State in 1999, Belichick hired Daboll as a defensive assistant in his first year with the Patriots in 2000.
Daboll came highly recommended by Saban as a “smart, tough mentally, emotionally resilient and hard-working coach,” according to former Patriots executive Scott Pioli. The Patriots also gave Daboll a psychological profile test — something Pioli said they did with all entry-level positions — to determine if he could withstand the rigors of the Patriots’ work culture.
He passed with flying colors and “thrived in that environment,” Pioli told Yahoo Sports. After two seasons, Daboll became the Patriots’ wide receivers coach from 2002-2006, during which the Patriots won back-to-back Super Bowls in 2004 and 2005.
In New England, Daboll began to cultivate the culture he would bring with him throughout the rest of his coaching stops. He built solid connections with players but learned to balance friendship with being in a position of power. He didn’t take himself too seriously either, Pioli said, which helped take the edge off situations.
“He's got this swagger, but then he'll clown himself and be genuinely self-deprecating. It's at times disarming because it's so honest,” Pioli said. “He understands himself as a person and his past. And he understands that he's not perfect and flawed, but not in a disingenuous way.”
Things didn’t always go smoothly early in Daboll’s coaching career. Pioli wouldn’t go into specifics, but he recalled an instance when Daboll “disappointed a number of people” in his handling of an undisclosed situation in New England. But Daboll’s response to his actions earned a lot of respect from Pioli and others within the Patriots organization.
“It was an emotional response … and when he realized it, he owned it,” Pioli said. “And he was genuine with apologies and he tried to make things better. It’s part of why I love Brian Daboll. I think it's one of the gifts of his leadership is that when he leads and makes a mistake or fails, he owns up to it.”
Years later, when he was the offensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns in 2011, Daboll reportedly berated then-rookie quarterback Colt McCoy to an extreme level, according to teammates at the time. Pioli believes Daboll also learned and matured from those experiences.
“A lot of young coaches will be irrational and emotional like that and don't evolve,” Pioli said, referring to the McCoy story. “We all make mistakes. Not everyone acknowledges their mistakes and owns them and truly owns them outwardly and asks for grace and forgiveness. He does that and he has done that.”
That idea found its way into the Giants' locker room, too. McKinney recognized quickly that Daboll isn’t egregiously upset when players make mistakes or don’t know the answers to questions. That feeling of relief relaxed the team to the point where the players felt comfortable in their own skin.
“We can be ourselves. Like, everybody can have their own personality, their own character, and bring that to the team and everything works out,” McKinney said. “A lot of guys, when they feel comfortable like that it's easier to go out there and play. It's easier to just be in the building and walk around and have conversations with everybody. Just knowing that you’re not uptight or anything, you can just relax and be who you wanna be.”
What comes next for Daboll and the Giants remains to be seen. A 6-1 record is nice just seven games into Daboll’s first head coaching job, but perhaps it's early to tell how the rest of the season will go for the upstart Giants.
Those questions haven’t appeared to infiltrate Daboll or the Giants. Whenever he’s asked about the team’s perception or legitimacy as an NFL contender, Daboll shrugs it off.
“We don't focus on that,” Daboll said prior to the Giants’ win over the Jaguars. “We focus on what we can do each day to get better.”
It’s part of the reason why the team has four fourth-quarter comebacks where they’ve outscored opponents’ offenses 46-7.
“He's in our corner,” McKinney said. “He works with us, we work with him and that's how it gets done. He trusts us so we don't want to let him down in any way and we trust him and he doesn't wanna let us down."