Evans (left), receivers more productive in '08 (buffalobills.com)
In 2007, the Buffalo Bills fielded one of their worst offensive units in team history. En route to a 7-9 record, the Bills shuffled quarterbacks and scored just 20 touchdowns in what was, statistically, a mediocre season on just about every level.
Fast forward to 2008. Trent Edwards has settled the Bills' instability at quarterback by emerging as a legitimate NFL starter with tons of potential. But that's been the only major change. Even with very little personnel turnover (rookie WR James Hardy was the only significant off-season import for the unit), the turnaround that Buffalo's offense has made has been surprising - and even more surprising, the biggest strides have come in the passing department.
The Bills have improved in just about every major statistical category offensively, most importantly in points scored (the Bills are averaging 25.2 points per game this season, up from 15.8 in 2007). Yet despite the significant strides made, there's still room for improvement.
Quarterbacks making each play count
We're all aware of how well Edwards has played. He's the most exciting Bills player in quite some time, at least in terms of the excitement he engenders for future prospects of the organization. But even J.P. Losman, filling in for Edwards for a game, has jumped in on the statistical prowess.
A quarterback's effectiveness is best measured in yards per attempt. In 2007, Bills passing plays averaged 6.39 yards per passing attempt - a mediocre number that reflects the team's inability to make big plays through the air. That number has skyrocketed to 8.24 yards per attempt in 2008, as the Bills have made more plays downfield and have gotten much more from their receivers in run-after-catch yardage.
Bills quarterbacks - yes, even Losman - are distributing the ball effectively and letting their receivers make plays. It's not an elite development, but it's clearly a step in the right direction. (Get well soon, Trent.)
|2008 - Trent Edwards||5||93.9||81||122||66.4||948||189.6||7.8||4||2||9||15||3.0||1.7||0||11||79|
Receiver production up
The Bills took some heat when their only significant upgrade to a mediocre receiving corps was the rookie Hardy, whose impact has been minimal through the first five games of his inaugural season. Effective quarterback play, however, has turned this "mediocre" receiving corps into a bunch of playmakers.
In 2007, the Bills' top four receivers (basically, swap Peerless Price for Hardy) combined for 148 receptions, 1,847 yards and just six scores. The touchdowns were most concerning, but 2008 is different - Bills receivers have already nabbed four scores this season, and more are on the horizon. If statistical trends continue for the remainder of this season, Bills receivers will see increases in receptions (projected 157), yards (2,483) and touchdowns (13).
Lee Evans and Josh Reed have been the go-to guys. Evans is currently averaging 27 yards per reception, second in the league for players with 10 or more receptions. Reed's production has been a bit more surprising; in line for a career year, Reed has become the go-to-guy on third down. 14 of Reed's team-leading 21 receptions (67%) have created first downs; Evans has added 14 more on his 16 receptions (87.5%).
Running backs getting involved, too
One of the more noticeable differences between 2007 and 2008 has been the involvement of running backs in the passing game. Offensive Coordinator Turk Schonert promised to emphasize the talents of Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson as receivers, and he's delivered in a big way.
In 2007, Bills running backs caught 55 passes - and that total includes the 15 hauled in by the now-departed Anthony Thomas. Lynch and Jackson have already hit the half-way point of that total this season, as they've combined to catch 29 balls. That puts the duo on pace to catch 93 passes this season, a very high number for any running back duo in today's NFL.
Where to improve: tight ends and pass protection
It's been great that Buffalo's running backs have been playing the role of safety valve, because the Bills have seen a drop-off in production from the tight end position. Sure, Robert Royal has increased his production (he's on pace to outstrip his 2007 reception total by 17), but the position has dropped off as a whole. Bills tight ends caught 56 passes in 2007; they've got just 15 this season. The return of rookie Derek Fine from injury likely won't help balloon those stats. Lynch and Jackson have picked up the slack, but the lack of a threat down the seam still hinders this team.
The biggest hindrance, however, has been pass protection. The Bills aren't throwing much more than they did in 2007, surprisingly, yet the excellent pass protection that Bills quarterbacks enjoyed last season has been MIA. Bills quarterbacks were sacked 26 times in '07, or less than twice per game. In just five games this season, Bills quarterbacks have been sacked 16 times; if that pace continues, the Bills will likely surrender double their '07 sack total (52). That's not good news for Edwards and his concussion, nor for the still-highly-unreliable Losman.
Even considering these issues, there's far more promise to Buffalo's aerial attack this year than we saw in 2007. The difference has been night and day, and it's been reflected in the team's overall performance. Don't expect the tight ends to produce more than their current clip; we can be a bit more optimistic about the pass protection given the bye week. In the end, it all comes down to the quarterback, however; the emergence of Edwards, with an assist from Schonert, has turned an awful Bills passing game into, in reality, an excellent one.