The Buffalo Bills reaching the playoffs in a year where many predicted maximum tanking was a pleasant surprise. A flurry of takeaways from the defense helped spur many of Buffalo’s victories and is often cited as a catalyst in the playoff season. Some trepidation stems from this though, as the idea that interception and fumble rates will come back down to Earth permeates. Without the takeaways, success will be much harder. Should we expect takeaways to fall off a cliff?
The 2017 Season
The first thing we should look toward is the data from 2017. How good were the Bills at taking the football away from their opponent? If they were in the clouds, drop off should be expected. Here’s some quick facts (all data courtesy of the NFL):
- The Buffalo Bills had 18 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries for a total of 25 takeaways.
- Buffalo’s 25 tied the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints for ninth place.
- The range of takeaways saw 13 as the low and 34 as the high. The upper-third (where Buffalo was) and the lower-third of the league is separated by 5 takeaways (20-25).
The conclusion is that while the Buffalo Bills did well to land in the upper-third of the league, there’s not much difference between their number and league average. Based off of 2017 data alone, there should be no expectation of a major drop off. If they were to strictly normalize, the team should expect around 22 takeaways next season.
Stability of takeaways
So the initial data suggests that normalizing wouldn’t represent a drastic difference in takeaways. There remains a concern that takeaways can be volatile in nature, with wild swings possible from year to year.
The Buffalo Bills should represent a decent case study for this exercise when examining takeaways over the last decade. This decade includes five head coaches (seven if you count interim). Quarterbacks run the gamut of gunslingers such as Ryan Fitzpatrick, risk averse Tyrod Taylor and everything in between (Trent Edwards, J.P. Losman, EJ Manuel, Kyle Orton). We’ve had good defenses under Schwartz and Pettine. We’ve had terrible defenses under the Ryan brothers and Wannstedt. It’s been a bit of a rough ten years. Here’s the trendline to cheer you up.
The red line is set at the 2017 league average. We’ll correct this soon enough, but for now it’s there to help give a baseline for context in the decade of Bills data. The Bills have overall defied expectations, remaining around league average or better for a decade with the exception of one Rex year.
For coach-by-coach analysis, the Jauron and Gailey areas show a good amount of volatility, but never fell into “bad territory” from this chart (see below). Marrone’s two years were stable and above average. Ryan’s teams declined both years.
For the 2018 Bills, there might be reason for optimism. The Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier combination returns for their second year. This staff has entirely turned over personnel in the secondary. The new additions of Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Tre’Davious White all deserve credit for the upswing. With 14 interceptions and 3 fumble recoveries, these three players account for 68% of the team’s takeaways. If coaching stability and player stability matter, the Bills might be in really good hands for the foreseeable future.
The Bills don’t live in a vacuum, and the league itself might give us an indication of what to expect. Here we have the same chart as above, but rather than extrapolating the 2017 league average across the entire decade, we have the actual league averages set up as a trendline.
The Bills’ line is identical to before. The red line is now actual league averages across the decade and the black line is the league trendline, which is also extended by one year to give us a hypothetical 2018 based on existing data.
This chart changes a few things. The league has been steadily declining in takeaways for the last decade. In fact, this trend holds up going back to 1999 (this is as far back as the system takes us). In 2017 there were a total of 706 takeaways during the regular season. In 1999 there were 951. That’s a pretty big difference. In less than 20 years the number of takeaways per team has declined by seven.
As a result of this significant change it gives a different outlook on the history of the Bills in the last decade. The Jauron and Gailey years make great spokespersons for volatility. With the full data in, we can see that they both had seasons that fell below league norms. Marrone’s teams make the case for stability and offer the best hope that McDermott and Frazier will build off of success.
The data suggests that a good swing in the wrong direction is certainly possible. Taking an educated guess based on Jauron and Gailey volatility, the team could fall under 20 takeaways. Using league trends, a decline of one or two takeaways is probable. The good news is this trend would apply to all teams and therefore be negated in the form of less giveaways than expected (which is a topic for another day).
The stability of major players involved and the Marrone data indicates there’s no guarantee of a drop off. More importantly, the Bills weren’t really all that great at takeaways last year. They barely clawed their way into the upper third of the league. There’s not even a cliff to fall off of unless they fall all the way to the bottom of the league. There’s nothing that suggests we should anticipate such a drastic change. It’s a good guess that the Bills will remain in striking distance of this year’s results with plenty of room to actually improve in this important metric.