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Opponent Preview: Miami Dolphins should copy 2018 Bills game plan

What I would do if I were the Dolphins against Buffalo

New York Jets v Miami Dolphins Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images

If you check out the injury reports this week, one thing should stand out: the Miami Dolphins aren’t very healthy. It’s not at all unlikely they’ll be starting their third choice at quarterback, rookie Skylar Thompson.

On paper, the Buffalo Bills should win this matchup at least nine out of ten times. It’s hard to imagine how Miami gets that one shot, though, isn’t it? Maybe not. The Dolphins could pull a page from the “Encyclopedia Buff-tannica” and use “The Barkley Offensive” to pull out a win.

Skare, what are you talking about?

On an unseasonably warm 46º Fahrenheit day in November of 2018, the 2-7 Bills were set to take on the New York Jets with hopes of entering the bye week on a positive note. Then-rookie quarterback Josh Allen was sidelined following a double-whammy, should-have-been-penalties hit to the elbow against the Houston Texans earlier in the year. The Derek Anderson and Nathan Peterman experiments mysteriously hadn’t worked out very well. Enter Matt Barkley.

Buffalo received the opening kickoff, and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll launched his master strategy, “The Barkley Offensive” — a game plan so unusual I wrote an article about it in the immediate aftermath, and something I remember more than four years later. The Bills lined up in a jumbo package, selling the run. The Jets stacked the box. Barkley did what everyone expected, and threw a 47-yard pass to Robert Foster. This pass...

The Jets weren’t reeling yet, and stuck to their gameplan of taking away the run first. Ray-Ray McCloud III went into motion, and the Jets shadowed the motion so as not to be burned again — so much so that LeSean McCoy only needed one Zay Jones block to scoot 28 yards for a touchdown.

The very next drive started out with a deep pass from Barkley. The drive fizzled. On their third drive, Buffalo used a couple high-percentage plays to get a first down, and then they tried a deep pass. It didn’t connect, but it kept the Jets off-balance enough to keep the drive going all the way for a touchdown.

On the following Buffalo drive, Barkey tried not one, but two deep passes to Jones, connecting on one of them for 33 yards. The next drive didn’t see the bombs-away mentality, but did close with a touchdown pass to the sure-handed Dion Dawkins. Yep, they used a trick play to sneak Dawkins out and get another score.

With the Dawkins touchdown, the score was 24-0, all stemming from an incredibly unorthodox game plan intended to mess with the Jets’ defense. While the Jets weren’t exactly in the middle of a dominant season themselves, Buffalo had only scored 20 or more points twice that season, and would only hit that mark six times all year. The Dawkins score came with nearly eight minutes left in the second quarter. The Bills didn’t stop scoring, either, racking up 41 points in total.

Let’s distill “The Barkley Offensive”

The narrative version above is pretty good, but let’s use convenient bullet points to summarize “The Barkley Offensive” used to great effect on November 11, 2018. I’ll add in a few things the narrative missed above.

  • Show heavy personnel to bait the defense into a run package
  • Throw bombs
  • Keep throwing bombs, even though you’re not connecting on them at any great rate
  • Throw in a trick play at a critical time — or two; the Bills also pulled off a fake punt
  • Keep the play book simple; Buffalo used similar looks repeatedly, and also did have a simple set for the newly-acquired Barkley
  • In addition to Barkley, Buffalo had just added Isaiah McKenzie to the roster, and immediately started pulling out jet sweeps with their new speed guy

Can the Dolphins pull this off?

Two quick thoughts, and then we’ll dive into the Dolphins’ chances of pulling this off. First, any team can try this at any time. I’m confident every NFL team has someone who is football-smarter than me, and I was able to figure it out pretty easily. Second thought: if the concept is simple and worked this well before, there has to be a reason this hasn’t become a permanent offensive philosophy.

Miami has some of the key ingredients, starting with a quarterback with limited tape and experience in the system. That could create some hiccups in what to expect. They’re also playing with house money. Like the 2-7 Bills of 2018 lore, the Dolphins aren’t expected to win, which creates less pressure, and allows more room for creativity without repercussions.

They also have one of these...

And one of these...

More specifically, the first play (in case you don’t recall) is a 67-yard touchdown to wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. The second is a 60-yard score to wide receiver Tyreek Hill. The Dolphins have a lot of the same circumstances as Buffalo did back in November 2018, but they have a much higher-caliber roster of skill-position players.

Here’s a list of players with significant playing time who managed to put up 41 points for Buffalo:

  • Matt Barkley
  • Zay Jones
  • Kelvin Benjamin
  • Terrelle Pryor
  • Robert Foster
  • LeSean McCoy
  • Logan Thomas

Oh no! Can the Bills stop “The Barkley Offensive”?

Of course. As foreshadowed above, there are reasons this isn’t an everyday offense. First and foremost, you can only use surprises so many times. It’d be very difficult to change up the offense every week. Now to be fair, to Miami, they only need to change it up this week, which is definitely possible.

Buffalo can negate some of the advantage by expecting a bit of change. How in the world can they anticipate a change if the Dolphins are trying to be wacky and do something new? Well, they can’t try a whole lot of zany ideas. Quarterback limitations exist, and you can’t open up the full realm of new things in this situation. Barkley was given a different offense to run, but it was a simpler one overall.

Similarly, one of the biggest things that worked in Buffalo’s favor was that one of the easiest changes to make — with a reasonable chance of improving your fortune — is to go aggressive. “The Barkley Offensive” can’t be done by “shocking” the world with your glorious new dink-and-dunk approach, or a fantastic new commitment to timing patterns. What I’m getting at is that, in reality, the plan Buffalo used wasn’t necessarily creative in the traditional sense. Yes, there was trickery, but ultimately a lot of the game plan was simply commitment to aggression.

Buffalo will likely already be expecting that for Sunday. The NFL has started to shift in that direction already. Miami was already a bit dependent on aggressive chunk plays, and it’s the playoffs.

The biggest thing Buffalo can do to help neutralize getting a taste of their own medicine is to be disciplined. Yes, the Dolphins can still pull out long plays, and perhaps even a long score. Don’t do what the Jets did and overcompensate. If they get a few chunks in, that’s better than allowing those same chunks and also freaking yourself out to the point where the routine stuff starts becoming viable again.

Is “The Barkley Offensive” a surefire game plan? Decisively, no. If a few of those early plays went haywire, the whole thing would have fallen apart. It’s an incredibly high-risk strategy. It just so happens it might also be the highest-possible-reward strategy for Miami, as well. On paper there’s no beating around the bush. Things look grim for the Dolphins. A few big risks, though, and we could end up seeing an upset for the ages.