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Was the Buffalo Bills’ offense really that bad?

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Looking at efficiency data, is the story on offense as bad as we feared?

Some of us—mostly me—have been skeptical about the Buffalo Bills’ offense, beating the drum that we’d like to see a larger-than-average jump in productivity this coming season. Well I’m not above questioning my own thoughts so I figured I’d dive into efficiency metrics to see how far away the Bills really are from making that jump. Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised.


Why efficiency metrics?

I know many of you have seen me argue this plenty of times, so feel free to skip ahead. Volume metrics are flawed—badly so. Take yards for a quarterback: it doesn’t account for how often he was asked to throw the ball, the typical play call and depth of target and more. Yards per attempt can help correct that issue.

Today I’d like to go beyond Josh Allen and look at team stats and offensive output. Yards and, more importantly, points would be our common measures for success. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Football is a team sport and there’s a chance that the defense has an impact. How so? Opportunity.

A really bad defense like we saw with the Rex Ryan-led teams can result in fewer drives or chances to score. It’s hard to hold the offense accountable for that. Last year I routinely called the Bills’ defense “elite.” So maybe they gave the offense the ball more often than average? By focusing on “per-drive” metrics, we can eliminate the noise from other phases of the game and look at: “You have the ball, what did you do with it on average?”

What did the Bills do with their chances?

Did the Bills get more chances?

Let’s first answer that question from above. All data is courtesy of pro-football-reference.com and can be found here. The Buffalo Bills had 183 offensive drives during the regular season. That’s tied for sixth-best in the league. It’s a bit more complex than that though. It’s only about seven drives more than average. On the other hand, there are a lot of teams clustered near that 183 mark and a lot of teams well below the average of 176. That suggests that even a little over average is relatively tough.

For our purposes, though, all we really need to know is that the Bills were indeed a little above average when it comes to how many drives, aka “scoring opportunities” they had. This is important for later because it’s not guaranteed that the defense will be this dominant in the future. Should that side of the ball decline, it’ll only exacerbate any potential issues on offense.

Offensive efficiency

So let’s dive into things. These are all quite straightforward and from the idea that every drive is a chance to score and per-drive metrics are a better indicator of offensive quality than raw volume. Here are some quick-hitter thoughts:

  • The Bills averaged 5.6 plays per drive. Good for 26th in the league. Average was 5.9. Using my rule of four, Buffalo would be near the fringe of average.
  • We’ve all read that Josh Allen doesn’t check down, though, so there’s no expectation of long drives with lots of short plays. So the last point isn’t a death sentence. When it comes to yards per drive the Bills average 28.6 yards when they have the ball. That’s good for...oh crap. It’s good for 26th in the league.
  • Let’s talk scoring efficiency then. Buffalo scored on 30.6% of their offensive drives. That’s tied for 25th place—with the Miami Dolphins. Average falls at 36% with a range between 23% and 52%.
  • That’s not a death sentence either because that metric counts all scores the same. If the Bills have a better TD:FG ratio than average, or a bad kicker missed a chunk of tries it wouldn’t be the worst news.

One stat to rule them all

There’s one stat that takes into account almost all of the above flaws and it’s called “points per drive.” The only “failing” for this stat is that it’s truly a measurement of the entirety of the offense. You would need to dig deep to assign specific blame. Since our goal is to examine the team, it turns out it’s just about perfect.

The Bills are 24th in the league in this stat with 1.66 points per drive. Using my rule of four they’re the last team in the large cluster of “average.” The perfect average team scored 1.95 points per drive. So you might be thinking that the Bills are pretty close and, arguably, that’s correct. Adding context, in order for the 2019 Bills to have reached perfect average it would have taken another 53 points. that’s roughly seven touchdowns and a field goal more.

And that’s just to reach “perfect average.” The first team in the “good” category using the rule of four (eighth place) scored 2.15 points per drive. That’s the Atlanta Falcons by the way. In order to ever so slightly edge them out, the Bills would have needed 90 more points. That’s about 13 more touchdowns, which is drawing very close to one more per game.


Conclusion

Unfortunately this isn’t very good news. I’m not saying that the Bills CAN’T make the jump necessary. What is abundantly clear, however, is that they really need to in order to be a good offense. It’s fair to say based on my own words and analysis that the Bills had an “average” offense when it comes to points per drive. It’s also safe to say that being there by the skin of their teeth is not a place of comfort.

Per-game numbers are often the best way to discuss change so let’s put it in those terms. Last year in order to be “perfect” average rather than “fringe” average, the Bills would have needed 3.3 more points per game. If you’re thinking that a better kicker could change that almost single-handed I have bad news.

Stephen Hauschka only missed six kicks last year. While you could counter and discuss how many they didn’t dare to try with him, it would take 12 more attempts that were never tried. That would lead to 40 attempts, which is more than he’s ever been asked to kick in a season. Kicking will help, but there’s more to the problem.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to settle for average. Not even high average. I want a great offense and I’ll settle for a good one. Using the Falcons’ bar from above, that requires 5.6 more points per game.

And all that assumes they maintain a similar number of drives. If the defense declines or offensive drives start taking longer it will only place a higher burden on the need for efficiency.

I’m hopeful that another year and some key changes like the addition of wide receiver Stefon Diggs make this a moot discussion. The reality of the situation is that the Buffalo Bills have some work to do on offense.