Roughly a month ago, we examined the Buffalo Bills' trip through the AFC East during the 2008 season and pinpointed the not-so-difficult-to-surmise reasons that the Bills managed to win zero of their six most important games. The verdict? Besides the obvious - scoring points and controlling the ground game on each side of the ball, to start - a general lack of big plays was the big reason that the team was not only 0-6 in the division, but 2-8 overall in the final ten games of the season.
It's not as if we needed yet another piece of evidence to further hammer home the "Bills need more playmakers" argument, but when Football Outsiders puts forth such excellent summaries as their drive stats analysis... well, let's just say that it re-opens some old wounds.
If you're not familiar with Football Outsiders, take a moment or two to get to know them. Trust us - it's worth it. If you're a novice, just take a quick glance at the explanation of their drive stats and you'll know enough to be getting on with. What follows will likely be the least surprising article you have or ever will read here; it's also further proof that, on some teams as starved for playmakers as the Bills are, signing a player as divisive as WR Terrell Owens is well worth the risk - despite what the Tom Currans of the world would have you believe.
Offense: turnovers with zero scoring balance
Let's start with Buffalo's offense, which came in at No. 16 in overall drive stat ranking - to call the offense "middle of the pack" would be an understatement in that sense. The offense ranked out well in average drive start (32.42 yard line), a feat that they can thank the special teams and kick returner Leodis McKelvin for. They also did well in punts per drive, with the seventh-lowest total in the league at .339 punts per drive - or one punt roughly every three drives. Normally, one would believe that that low total would be beneficial to Buffalo's offensive attack; in reality, it just means that the Bills were finding different ways to get rid of the ball. After all, their No. 20 ranking in points per drive (1.75) was hardly stellar considering the schedule the team played.
The low point was Buffalo's runner-up status for the league's worst fumbles per drive rate (.082); they weren't great with interceptions, either (No. 21 ranking). The Bills were No. 27 in the NFL in turnovers per drive, turning the ball over roughly once every six drives. That doesn't help you score points, clearly, and more importantly, it puts your team in a bad spot.
Defense: not enough turnovers, little help
We've been screaming for more big plays from Buffalo's defense here for quite some time, and with good reason: we're right. Buffalo was No. 27 in the league in defensive interceptions per drive (.059), and despite a relatively high fumble rate (.059, No. 11), the Bills were a highly pedestrian No. 22 in forced turnovers per drive (.118). Despite all of this, Buffalo's defense was No. 16 overall in drive stats ranking, thanks to solid rankings in touchdowns surrendered per drive and yards surrendered per drive.
Still, we've touched on the lack of offensive help already, and Buffalo's special teams had a helping hand as well. The aforementioned turnover issues offensively clearly didn't help the cause, but the kick and punt coverage units had their hand in the Bills' unspectacular No. 23 ranking in average opponent drive start, which just happened to be the 31-yard line. Given the lack of help, Buffalo's defense actually did well to rank as highly overall as they did - and yet, given the schedule, more turnovers and a higher ranking would have been nice.
Playmakers can bring about the needed change
With a re-tooled offensive line blocking for a still-green (and streaky) quarterback in Trent Edwards, it would be naive to expect the Bills to get much better in the turnover department offensively. Mistakes are going to be made. The only way to counterbalance mistakes is to have quick-strike firepower; in short, you need playmakers to play the role of equalizer. Enter Owens. He's here for that reason as well as a multitude of others - he levels the playing field for the Bills' re-shuffled and still-maturing offense.
Despite the 16 rankings offensively and defensively, the Bills dropped to No. 23 in the NFL in net drive stat ranking (net is essentially offense minus defense in each category, to calculate an overall average drive trend for the team on the season). The Bills were one of ten NFL teams to finish in negative figures in net ranking; of those ten teams, none picked lower than No. 18 overall in this past April's NFL Draft - and the Bears were the exception, not the rule. That ought to tell you something right there.
The bottom line is this: we can harp all we want about line play and quarterback play, because those things are clearly important to fielding a successful football team. But when Bills GM Russ Brandon spoke after the Bills' signing of Owens, he spoke a truth: you need playmakers to win in this league. Teams with playmakers can overcome "basic" football deficiencies such as line play - just ask the Arizona Cardinals. So while you're worrying about Edwards or the re-tooled offensive line, don't forget that dramatic improvements in those areas mean diddly squat if the team can't make the big plays to capitalize on their (hopefully) solid foundation.