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Would it be crazy if the Buffalo Bills have a top-ten offense in 2020?

Data and stuff to look at the chances this happens

If you haven’t checked out the Buffalo Rumblings Q and A features make sure you do that. Here’s the latest one. They’re a great way to get answers to what matters most to you and your fellow Rumblers. Once in a while a question deserves a little extra time. Like the one in the headline. Shoutout to Anthony Paternostro for asking the question and to Matt Warren for kicking it my way for the deeper dive. Here’s a preliminary answer via Twitter with my dive after the jump.


On the surface

First a disclaimer. Many of you likely know I don’t like top-ten lists for NFL teams as they include an entire third of the league, which isn’t especially meaningful. The Buffalo Bills were ranked in the mid-20s for most offensive categories though. That means “top ten” would be a meaningful jump and is the spirit of the question.

The response above would have put the Bills in sole position of tenth place. The following numbers would tie for tenth so anything exceeding them would work too. For yardage, the Buffalo Bills had 5,283 yards—which is 596 short of the Los Angeles Chargers’ tenth place 5,879. That’s 37.25 yards per game. For points, they were 88 short of the Tennessee Titans’ 402—which comes out to 5.5 points per game.

A little deeper

Your first thought might be that 37.25 yards per game could be a single pass. And you’d be right. The problem though is that you’d need one additional 40-ish-yard pass in every game. That’s a tall order. It could also mean two plays of 20 yards or so but again...in EVERY game. Four plays of ten yards? That sounds more reasonable but we’ll get to the dilemma in adding more plays in just a minute.

For points per game it’s easier to think of it in terms of scoring drives per game. You’d need one (a touchdown) or two (field goals) more per game. In just a second I’ll make a case that adding extra drives isn’t likely. To keep this a little shorter I’ll mostly abandon points per game under the premise that adding yards and sustaining existing drives is the best way to add points.

Adding plays/drives/or time

One thing I commonly hear is the idea of running more plays, adding drives, or time. These ideas all surround the same offense, just increasing the field time in some way.

Adding time

The Buffalo Bills were perfectly average in 2019 when it came to play time with 29:59 time of possession. To jump to top ten they’d have to add three seconds. You read that right. Only three teams were above 32:00 minutes. It is incredibly difficult to increase time on the field, which is Exhibit A that simply trying to have more of the same might not work.

Adding drives

What about drives? Well the Bills already had the sixth-most drives in the league with 183. The number-one team had 193 or 0.6 more per game. It would be incredibly difficult to add even one more drive per game, let alone one or two scoring drives. Exhibit B.

Adding plays

For plays, the Bills were 22 plays short of a top-ten offense. That’s about 1.5 plays per game more to get to top ten. Adding about six plays per game would have tied for number one. To be top four (my “elite” level) they’d have needed 4.7 more plays per game. Exhibit C is the nail in the coffin. Why?

Assuming the Bills did the best-case scenario and ran six more plays per game, their current rate would only yield 31.2 yards per game. That’s six yards short of a top-ten team. And they’d have to run more plays than anyone else. Briefly returning to points per game it should result in 1.83 more, which is far short of the 5.5 goal.

Efficiency

Facts are facts. The Bills adding more of the same offense simply won’t cut it. Adding extra time or drives is incredibly difficult. While adding a few plays is feasible, it won’t have enough of an impact. If there’s only one sentence you read from this data dump let it be this one:

To make a jump on offense the Buffalo Bills need to take advantage of EXISTING opportunities rather than trying to create new ones.

Here are a few ways they can make that happen. As a reminder, our targets are 37.25 yards and 5.5 points per game.

Yards per play

The Bills ranked 24th in the league at 5.2 yards per play. To achieve our goal they’d need to increase that by 0.58 yards per play. Not so coincidentally, adding that and rounding to 5.8 yards per play would have tied tenth best in the league last year. This doesn’t tell us “how” to get there though, so let’s be more specific.

Rushing yards

The Buffalo Bills were eighth best in the league in yards per game with 128.4 on the ground. Aside from the Baltimore Ravens all the other teams above them were within a 16-yards-per-game difference. With our goal at 37.25 yards it would take a lot of investment into the running game and they’d still likely fall short.

Passing yards per attempt

Let’s assume that all the “new” yards will have to come in the passing game. The Bills passed 32 times per game in 2019, which means they’d need to increase production by 1.16 yards per attempt. That’d be a huge jump, resulting in about 8.0 yards per attempt. That would have been sixth best in 2019.

Completion %

The Bills could increase their completion percentage from 58.3%, which was second worst. If we remain at 6.8 yards per attempt, the Bills would need to hit about 5.5 more passes per game. That would put the Bills at 75% completion rate—which actually IS crazy.

So what’s the plan?

Let’s do some realistic tweaks and see how it pans out. Here are some modest targets for Josh Allen and the Bills to hit:

  • Shift 1-3 plays from the run game to the passing game. If nothing else, the 6.8 yards per play is better than the 4.4 in the running game. Shifting three plays would put the Bills at exactly average for both runs and passes per game.
  • Increase completion percentage to 63.5% or exactly average. This fits within development projections for Josh Allen from earlier in the year and Stefon Diggs could help as well.
  • Stretch the field more often and increase to 7.2 yards per attempt. This would again be league average and within projections. Allen reportedly made this a priority this offseason and Diggs helps here too.

This would result in three more passes per game and 3.56 more completions. The Bills would have 252.5 passing yards per game, an increase of 50.7 yards. We do need to subtract the loss of the three running plays, which would drop it by 13.2 yards per game.

The new total would be...drum roll please...37.5 yards per game better. So there you have it. The Bills need to make a small commitment to the passing game and become just average in passing efficiency to become a top-ten offense.