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Buffalo Bills performed better without crowds in 2020

Splitting statistical performance based on crowd vs. no crowd

Occasionally a question comes into the Buffalo Rumblings Q&A that merits a deeper dive. Joe From Buffalo posited on Twitter “It might just be me but I think we had much worse performances in front of crowds.” Joe wonders if the statistics back that up. The headline gave away the answer, but perhaps not the FULL answer. Cue the dramatic music as we delve into the most 2020 season stat split imaginable.


The Data Dump

Methodology

This is mostly direct—stats in games with fans in attendance versus those without. The biggest question was which stats. Points and yards were obvious. Points and yards allowed made sure I captured the defense too. Those stats leave the possibility of one side of the ball having a bad day and negatively impacting the other. For example, a bad day on defense would allow an opponent to burn clock, negatively impacting an offense that might otherwise be playing well.

To account for that I also calculated the same metrics per drive. As every drive roughly equates to one opportunity to score (offense) or shut down a score (defense), using drive averages should adjust things nicely. Thank you to pro-football-reference.com for the data, including attendance figures.

Big ol’ chart

This is a simple chart—there’s just a lot of it. The games with fans are highlighted in light blue rows. Red columns are offense, blue ones are defense. You’re more than welcome to scour this checking my math and finding trends if you’d like. Or you could just look at the next, much smaller chart.

Averages

This is merely the averages for all the metrics above, split by games with fans versus those without. I’m a bigger fan of the “per drive” metrics for the record but here are some quick-hitter thoughts on these.

  • Only the yards and yards/drive measures on offense remained static when splitting between crowd and no-crowd games.
  • Everything else shows better outcomes when the Bills played without a crowd.
  • They scored 8.4 points per game higher without a crowd. The “with crowd” 24.2 is just under the 2020 league average, and 32.6 would have led the league by nearly a full point per game.
  • For points allowed, the swing is about a field goal worse than average to about a field goal better than average.
  • With crowds, the Bills were around league average in scoring points per drive. With no crowds it would lie 0.08 points per drive behind the Green Bay Packers in first place.
  • For points allowed per drive, that 2.8 would have been second-worst in the league. An average of 2.0 would have fallen in ninth place.
  • 40.4 yards per drive would have taken home the crown for worst allowed this season. The 33.0 would have landed at 15th.

These are some pretty sizable gaps in performance splitting between games with fans in attendance versus those without. The difference seems glaring.

Correlation or causation?

Naturally the conclusion is that the Buffalo Bills got all “skared” when they had to play in front of a crowd and it led to worse performances, right? Probably not. The idea that professional athletes would collectively perform worse in front of a crowd flies in the face of a lot of research under the umbrella of social facilitation. If you don’t feel like doing a lot of secondary reading, the short version is that research shows people performing well-rehearsed tasks (professional athletes, musicians) tend to do better with an audience.

I was prepared to do a pretty deep stat dive to see what else might be at play. Luckily I struck gold right off the bat. A quick glance shows that half of the games Buffalo played with an audience occurred in the playoffs. The expectation being these games would be against tougher teams. Of the three in the regular season, one was against a playoff team (Tennessee Titans) and another against a fringe playoff team (Miami Dolphins). The worst team the Bills played against with a crowd was the Arizona Cardinals at 8-8.

In games with no crowds, the Bills faced opponents averaging 8.0 wins. In front of a crowd, their opponents averaged 10.8 wins. That’s a gigantic gap and is likely the best explanation for this discrepancy. They played worse against good teams. And yes, I’m aware that after all the buildup of the charts and whatnot that this is an incredibly lame conclusion. You’re welcome.