Led by a rookie quarterback in Trent Edwards and missing a veteran starter at wide receiver (Peerless Price), the passing attack of the Buffalo Bills is coming off of one of the franchise's worst season-long performances in team history. We've heard all of the paltry stats - an NFL rank of 30 in team receptions (263), 31 in receiving yards (2,842) and tied for second worst in receiving touchdowns (12). How much of this (lack of) production, however, can be attributed to the team's wide receivers?
In order to get a more accurate view of the ineptitude of Buffalo's receiving corps (or lack thereof... bear with me), we're going to take a look at some different stats: yards after catch (YAC), yards per catch, drops, big catches (25+ yard gains), and first down percentage. These numbers may, in fact, shed a different light on the situation.
Crunching the Bonus Numbers
Here are the rankings, very briefly, I'll use in building my case that Buffalo's receivers - though woefully thin and need of an injection of talent - were actually better than they're given credit for last year:
- Big Catch (25+) Ranking: #30 in NFL, 15 big catches
- Drops Ranking: #4 in NFL with just 17 drops
- Yards per Catch Rank: #22 in NFL, 10.8 YPC
- 100-Yard Games Rank: T-10 in NFL, 2 100-yard games
- First Down % Rank: #21 in NFL, 53.6% of all receptions were first downs
- First Downs Rank: #29 in NFL, 141 receiving first downs
These were, at least in my view, some surprising statistics. Let me reiterate: this is not an exoneration of Buffalo's receiving corps. Clearly, the unit is flawed, and I fully expect the position to be heavily addressed in the draft. But these stats tell us that there was much more to the passing game struggles than the receivers themselves.
It All Goes Back to Play-Calling, Disposition
We're all aware of how putrid Buffalo's play-calling was last season. But taking a look at some of the rankings above, you begin to see how that play-calling was hampering even our mediocre receiving corps. We had a middle-of-the-road ranking in YAC - something I've knocked our receivers for all off-season - and the 1,466 YAC yards is shocking. That's more than half of the team's receiving output on the season. Let's take it a step further: the Bills averaged almost 11 yards per catch (again, a middle ranking); figure in that half of that catch was YAC, and you realize that the Bills' receivers were catching the football 5-6 yards past the line of scrimmage. Conservative? I think yes.
That conservatism is bolstered by the team's poor ranking in the Big Catch department. We have one of the best deep threats in the league in Lee Evans,, and yet we're bottom-feeders in terms of making plays on the long ball. 100-Yard Games also speaks to the brutal conservatism of the play-calling, as two 100-yard receiving games in an entire 16-game season is downright pitiful.
The drops tell the real story, though - 17 drops in a season is a ridiculously low number. And that's with our starting quarterback completing only 56% of his passes. One drop per game is not close to being the cause of the passing game problems; it even shows reliability on the part of the receivers. They even had a respectable percentage of their receptions go for first downs (and again, they did more than half of that work on their own); the fact that the team ranked so low in actual number of receiving first downs once again speaks to coaching decisions.
The Thought Process Needs to Change
Again, none of these rankings - even the respectable ones that landed the Bills' receivers in the middle of the pack - are close to enough to completely remove all blame from this unit. Clearly, their collective lack of size needs to be addressed, and depth is a serious concern as well. But even if we drafted the next Jerry Rice, adding one player can no longer be considered a fix to Buffalo's receiving problems.
It starts with the bigger guns. There is a lot of pressure on new offensive coordinator Turk Schonert this year, because even with his current wideouts, he has a group that can make plays. It's on Schonert to let Trent Edwards... you know... throw the football. Because a simple addition at wideout isn't going to solve the passing game problem. I'd even posit that it will make Schonert's job harder. No, this fix is on Schonert and Dick Jauron. It's time to lose at least part of the conservative offensive attitude, fellas. Let your kid quarterback toss the rock.