EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Dabs' Digest, an exclusive weekly interview with Giants head coach Brian Daboll:
Q: The more things change, the more things stay the same. The Giants open the season Sunday in Tennessee and this is your fifth straight year playing the Titans and fourth year in a row playing in Nashville (previously with the Buffalo Bills). Does that familiarity help you at all?
Daboll: "Not really, just because it's a new season. We've played against the Titans and coach (Mike) Vrabel. But every year is a new year. I'm part of a different team, different players, different schemes. So, it's a coincidence that I have been there."
Q: No one shows anything in the preseason. As a coach, do you have a sense going into the opening game how your team is going to play? Is it a mystery until they get out there and play?
Daboll: "You'd like to think you're as prepared as possible and that you've conditioned them the right way, that you've worked on your systems enough throughout training camp. But the opening week, really the early part of the season, is you're getting a feel for your team. You might think they do something well in practice, and then it turns out in a game you've got to adjust it. I'd say there's a lot of adjustments going on in the first few weeks of the season, regardless of where I've been."
Q: Are there more in-game adjustments in an opener than a normal week?
Daboll: "Sometimes. Again, the thing that we try to do is if we haven't really done it in training camp or we haven't really installed it, to sit here and come up with a bunch of new schemes because you think they're going to do something, our focus is obviously understanding our opponent and the strengths and the weaknesses of their players. But we're really focusing on our execution, our fundamentals, our techniques, and our communication."
Q: In your time in the league, you've won a lot of openers. You've also – like last year – lost unexpectedly. And you were in New England for the 31-0 debacle in Buffalo in 2003.
Daboll: "Was it 38 or 31?"
Q: It was 31.
Daboll: "Was it? It was the same exact score at the end of the year, too."
Q: Do you take anything away from the wins and the losses in terms of what you need to do to get your team ready to play a first game?
Daboll: "No. I think you stay consistent and coach the guys. It's 17 one-week seasons. And one game doesn't define you whether you win or whether you lose. There are times where you do everything right and still come up short; there's times when you don't do everything right and win. Ideally, you'd like to do everything right and win. But you can't get too high or too low really on any week during the season. And it's easy to do. You put a lot of effort, energy, time commitment into each game – the coaches and the players and the support staff. And when you lose, it's pretty tough. And you have to figure out a way to move past that, correct the things you can correct, and move on to the next week. So, I don't think you let one game – whether it's the first game of the year, middle game – define you as a team."
Q: Does it take a few games to establish a team's identity in terms of figuring out what you do well, how teams are attacking you and how you respond to that?
Daboll: "Usually. The years that I've been in it, no matter if it's been teams that we won the Super Bowl with or teams we weren't as good or we thought we were better, you're trying to continually look at yourself and make sure you're doing the right stuff. And things you've done in training camp may look good against the team you're practicing against, which is your own team for a while. And you say, 'You know what. That's not what we need to do. We need to switch this.' Early in the season, in particular, I think I've been part of teams that were 1-3, 2-2 and won the Super Bowl. You've really got to focus on the fact that it's a players' game. And the fundamentals really need to stand out: the tackling, the catching, the decision making, the blocking, all the things you teach in individual meetings and the coordinator meetings. Those are really what's going to win or lose you the game."
Q: This game will be played on the 21st anniversary of 9/11. Last year, there were commemorative ceremonies for the 20th. You were a young coach in New England. What are your personal recollections of 9/11?
Daboll: "Very vivid. I was breaking down some tape; we were getting ready to play Carolina. I was in a small office. Very, very small. And (former Patriots assistant coach) Eric Mangini, who had a big office behind mine, said, 'Put on the television.' And I remember sitting there with the rest of the coaching staff just in disbelief at what was happening. I mean, you didn't really know. And then you started hearing things, but you saw the images, which when you see that it's something that sticks with you the rest of your life. We hung out there for a little while and then everybody went home. It was a terrible feeling."
Q: After many years as an offensive coordinator studying the opponent's defense, are you now also looking at the offense and special teams?
Daboll: "Yes, sir. That's the different thing. I'm looking at as much tape - I have it segmented in a routine during the week of how I do things. But getting ready for a game and looking at all the special teams units and their offense and their defense, and how I do it, it takes a while. It's just like you're used to being a coordinator after the game and you're grading 65 plays or whatever it may be. Now there's close to 180 plays that I didn't think about until the first preseason game. I'm like, 'Phew. This is a lot of tape.' So, I spend a good deal of my time in the early part of the morning for a few hours each day, certain things from each side of the ball. It's been good. I think you learn things when you're watching some of their stuff that they do on offense, that you come from an offensive system and say, 'Boy this is pretty interesting, how they attack.' And then you get a different feel for the kicking game of athleticism, quickness, strength."
Q: This will be your first time to speak to the team the night before a regular season game and speak to the team in the locker room. You've seen a lot of great coaches address their teams. Do you think you're going to focus on strategy or address mental or emotional factors?
Daboll: "I do that during the week a lot in my team meetings. I think the closer you get to the game, the less the coach really needs to talk. I think you give it to them on Wednesday, on Thursday, on Friday. And you have a particular message that you've been reinforcing throughout the week, but it's fairly short. Even when I was a coordinator, again it's a players' game. And you know I played a long time ago at a small D-3 school (University of Rochester). And if you're not ready to go the night before the game, then we probably have the wrong guys. There are certain reminders. Each game is a little bit different in terms of if it's strategic, if it's mental – whatever it may be. You get a feel during the week where your guys are. And you've got to keep it short and sweet and let them go play."
Q: Depending on who is healthy and active, you could have several rookies on the field on Sunday. In one sense, they're doing what they've been doing for their whole lives – playing football. But an NFL regular season game is a whole different animal. Do you have to get that point across to them during the week?
Daboll: "I don't stress it too much with those guys. I think each of the individual coaches – again, you can get too hyped for a game too early on. The big thing for me is just focus on doing your job and making sure that the guy next to you can trust you and go out there and let it rip. Play free. Look, I'm certain it will be exciting for those guys. It always is. Just like in their first practice, they're a little bit wide-eyed. And their first preseason game. This is the next step. I think we've done a good job of selecting mature young players. I think the vets handle that on our team."
Q: When you're an offensive coordinator, the quarterback is an extension of you on the field. Do you still feel that way with Daniel (Jones) even though Mike (Kafka, the Giants' coordinator) is the guy who will talk to him more during the game?
Daboll: "Yes, absolutely. There are always things you can tell a quarterback and remind him when you're on the headset. That will be a little different. But I have a lot of conversations with Daniel throughout the week. It's important to see the game through the play-caller's eyes. The play caller and quarterback have to be in lockstep. Having been on the offensive side of the ball, I understand how important that it. So, I'll let that relationship develop. But Daniel also has a good feel for my expectations and the way I see things being done from a bigger picture viewpoint than just a particular play."
Q: Since (defensive coordinator) Wink (Martindale) arrived, we've heard so much about his defense being predicated on pressure. There's a chance two of your top pressure guys (Azeez Ojulari and Kayvon Thibodeaux) will not play. Do you rely on your experience and Wink's experience to execute what you want to do on defense without some key components?
Daboll: "That's when you put together a team. You're not really relying much on the coaches as much as you are on the players. The guys that play that position – whether or not they play or don't play – they always have to be ready to play as if they're the starter. That's what we tell all the backup players. It's the same thing with the quarterback or the running back. Your job is to prepare like you're playing 70 plays a game, and if you do that, we'll give ourselves a chance."
Q: (Kicker) Graham Gano is someone you inherited. Is he someone you've come to trust very quickly?
Daboll: "Yes. He's a pro. Doing his job. He's a good teammate. His job is to score points for us, and he's been pretty good at it. Hopefully, he's kicking extra points."
Q: The NFL has become such a passing league. Now you're playing the league's best running back, Derrick Henry. Does the defense have to change its first priority, or is it always stopping the run?
Daboll: "Well, I think it depends on the team you play. There's been years where I've called games where we were very, very run heavy, and we anticipated that. There are other years that we were very, very pass heavy. So, if a team was coming in saying, 'We've got to stop the run,' it was probably the same thing. Vice versa – pass. That's where some of the strategy comes in. But I think each week, you look at who their best players are; you better take care of those guys first."
Q: And now that you've watched Tennessee offensive tape, what stands out about Derrick Henry as you watch him? You have faced him before.
Daboll: "He's really good at everything. He's hard to tackle. He's got good vision. He's got good quickness for a big man. Powerful. He can catch. Breaks tackles. I mean he's the total package as a running back."
Q: Defensively, (tackle Jeffery) Simmons is very good. (Safety Kevin) Byard was All-Pro last year. Are those the two guys that stand out to you as you study their defense?
Daboll: "Yeah. (Outside linebacker Bud) Dupree is pretty good. (Linebacker Zach) Cunningham's been in the system. He's really good. Both safeties, (Amani) Hooker and Byard, are really good. They're strong pretty much in every area. That's why they were the number one seed (in the AFC) last year. But the safeties in the back part of the field are tough to read. They disguise well. They can cover. They can play zone. They can play man. They're good players. And then the front is a problem."
Q: You spoke in your news conference about Mike Vrabel. When he arrived in New England in '01, you were in your second year on the staff as a defensive assistant. Have you coached players throughout your career about whom you said, "I think that he'll be a good coach someday"
Daboll: "It's not because he is, but you definitely thought Vrabel was. I've been fortunate to be around a lot of sharp players. A guy like (former Patriots wide receiver) Troy Brown comes to mind. I had him as a receiver. He taught me as much as I taught him, probably more. And he's coaching at New England. I thought (former Patriots running back) Kevin Faulk, I was always impressed with him. He was here for an internship throughout camp. The more you can surround yourself with smart people, not just on a coaching staff but players, the better off you usually are. And then those players that are talented and smart and love the game, if they choose that path, it's a little bit different in terms of time commitment and family life and things like that. I've certainly been around a bunch that I've seen play and been around in meeting rooms that I thought would be great coaches."
Q: I know you don't want to personalize this, but Sunday is a big day in your life. It's your first day as an NFL head coach. It's been a long journey since you were cutting up tape at William & Mary.
Daboll: "Yeah, 26 years."
Q: Will you take a moment at some point to reflect on that?
Daboll: "I haven't thought about it. I'm sure when the national anthem hits, it will probably hit me. You're just so focused. You don't have time to think about it, and it's not a generic response by all means. When I'm sitting here studying tape for however many hours, I'm not sitting there thinking 'Boy. I can't believe I'm doing this.' I'm just trying to study and do what I can do to make these notecards and go down there and talk to T-Mac (special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey) or Wink or Kafka and make sure that we're all seeing it through the same set of eyes - how we think the game needs to be played with the offense, with the defense, with the kicking game. That's important, and it all works together."
View photos from the life and career of Brian Daboll, who has 20 years of NFL coaching experience.