A less-than-stellar offense for the Buffalo Bills during the 2017 season led to a tremendous amount of finger pointing. The first domino of offseason change officially fell last week with the dismissal of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Was this move justified? Let’s take a Bills-centric look at Dennison’s work to see what kind of shape his one season portfolio puts him in.
A logical place to look is of course the outcome of the offense’s primary goal; scoring points. For this dive, we’ll keep things familiar and focus on Bills teams from 2002 to the present.
This handy chart should help us sort through the outcome (aka “points scored”) by year and place things in context such as staff, QB and record. Immediately we see that Dennison’s team had the lowest scoring output since...
Chan Gailey’s 4-12 squad. That’s not good. Thoroughly mediocre teams hit the field between that year and this one. All managed to put more points on the board than the 2017 Bills. Rex Ryan’s teams did so quite handily. A closer look reveals that a Dick Jauron-led team with Trent Edwards at the helm outperformed this year’s group.
None of the teams from 2002 through 2016 were considered good enough, with many of these failures blamed on inadequate to awful offense. The 2017 Bills fit right in with those teams.
To a large degree, points are dependent on the number of opportunities a team has . It wouldn’t be fair to completely call it without taking into account how many chances these teams had. This data covers 2011 (Gailey’s best year) through the 2017 season. It shows yards gained at the top, with the blue line indicating the number of offensive plays in the regular season. The last bit is yards per play.
Oddly enough, the last four years have had nearly identical in total offensive snaps. The only comparable squad to this year was Marrone and Hackett’s Year one. And this example is only comparable in average yards per play. That team focused on speed and getting more snaps. With roughly 10% more plays than this year, that means the 2013 team had greater overall production.
Things become more damning when looking at the other years. Marrone Year two and Rex’s years had similar snap totals but drastically higher production. Gailey slowed things down a bit and still managed to handily outpace the latest version of the Bills offense.
Let’s hone in on the 2015 and 2016 seasons. These squads featured similar personnel to this year’s group. In points and yards gained however, there’s little comparison. Let’s word it this way, with many of the same pieces at his disposal, Dennison’s team had 800-900 yards less than Roman/Lynn’s teams in the same number of tries.
Similar personnel: Exhibit A
A good deal of fluctuation in skill positions did occur between the Roman/Lynn offenses and the Dennison one, which creates a chicken and egg scenario when assigning blame. This stands as the largest mitigating factor for the performance of the offense. We’ll use one case study to start a dialogue about this aspect of the conversation.
To begin, the starting QB remained the same for all three years. Significant pieces of the offensive line remained static in these years as well, and additional players were available to McDermott and Dennison had they elected to keep the line intact or mostly so. The premise that follows is that the primary difference is in skill positions. The top tight end(s) remained mostly the same as well as the starting running back.
To that end, we look toward Mike Gillislee. The fan favorite left for the Patriots following the 2016 season and is often cited as a primary reason for sustained offensive success for the last two seasons. Gillislee came to the Bills as a bit of a gamble, with only 6 rushes to his name and averaging 3.5 yards per carry. With the Bills, he managed to increase his workload while maintaining a 5.7 yards per attempt line over his two seasons. It has been argued that his talent allowed Buffalo to keep defenses honest by creating a threat behind LeSean McCoy.
In New England, Gillislee has one of the best QBs to ever play the game. This was often cited as a reason he would continue to be successful in New England. However, Gillislee fell to earth hard and managed only 3.7 yards per attempt. In efficiency, he is the fourth best RB for the Patriots this season. While not conclusive, it provides compelling evidence that Gillislee was a product of the system in Buffalo rather than the other way around. Fans should also recall that in the Ryan years, Buffalo garnered a reputation of being able to plug in scrap heap backs and sustain their success.
Regarding receivers, it’s easily argued that Roman and Lynn had more to work with. However, all three seasons had significant numbers of injuries and rotating players at these positions suggesting defenses would key in on the running game first. It is acknowledged still that the receiver group was likely a contributing factor in the drop off in production.
Why Dennison first?
We can’t speak for One Bills Drive, but we can make some educated guesses. Comparing again to other teams since 2002, we can make a reasonable guess about talent. Looking through that lineup, there’s no shortage of teams with similar or worse talent on the offensive side of the ball than what Dennison had. Many of these teams still managed to put up better measures of success than this year’s. This becomes an indicator of scheme and coaching, and therefore an indictment toward Dennison.
Further, despite clear limitations created by key cogs on the roster, Dennison’s playcalling and tendencies left a lot to be desired. An inability to adjust after halftime is supported by the dearth of second half points toward the end of the season. Buffalo scored only 21 second half points in the last 6 games of the regular season. Midway through the season we noted a tendency to start a high percentage of games with a play action pass. When looking at other trends, odd decisions will peek out. For example, the Bills threw more deep right passes than just about everyone (third in passes attempted). This is despite horrendous execution toward this part of the field.
With such glaring problems, change of some kind was certainly necessary to build on this year’s surprising level of success. Rick Dennison is as good a place to start as any. However, fans should not expect this to be the end. Dennison’s sins were clear, but he’s far from the only opportunity for improvement.