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For Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, it’s go time

Buffalo’s recent offensive frustrations lack perspective, but Dorsey’s role is becoming increasingly important for the stretch run

NFL: Buffalo Bills Training Camp Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey is a first-time play caller this season. During the team’s 8-3 start to the season, the Bills are averaging 415.9 yards of offense per game (second in the NFL) and scoring 28.1 points per game (also second).

Following a red-hot start to the season, which saw the Bills win six of their first seven games and look like the best team in the NFL, criticism of Dorsey’s offense was muted. Quarterback Josh Allen was an MVP candidate. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs was an Offensive Player of the Year candidate. The Bills had several blowout wins under their belts—everyone loves style points—and had secured wins over each of the other AFC division winners in the Tennessee Titans, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Then November happened. The team started turning the football over at an alarming rate; they currently lead the league with 19 giveaways, nine of which occurred after the bye week. Allen, the culprit in the majority of those turnovers, injured his elbow in a road loss to the New York Jets, and has not looked like his usual self throwing the ball since. Starting offensive linemen Dion Dawkins, Mitch Morse, and Spencer Brown have all missed game time. And the Bills were forced to play two games in five days at Ford Field in Detroit, after a lake-effect snow event forced the NFL to relocate their Week 11 game against Cleveland, adding additional strain to a team that was already reeling a bit.

And yet, despite the fact that the Bills still averaged 390.3 yards of offense and 26.5 points per game during their 2-2 stretch in November, it’s Dorsey that is starting to take heat from Buffalo’s fan base.

The criticism is not completely unwarranted. Buffalo has endured long stretches of game play in the last few contests when the offense has completely stalled out; the latest example of that came in their 28-25 Thanksgiving Day win over Detroit, in which the offense gained just 88 yards of offense on 24 plays in the second half before course-correcting on the final two drives to steal the win. Their issues scoring touchdowns in the red zone are well-documented, and represent the biggest regression for the offense from preceding years under former coordinator Brian Daboll.

But other problems are inherited. Buffalo’s inability to find a consistent running game pre-dates Dorsey and goes back to Daboll’s days; this is a pass-first offense from an identity perspective, and Dorsey needed to be reminded of balance by head coach Sean McDermott, just as Daboll did in years past.

Still more problems are somewhat out of Dorsey’s control. Allen’s injury, and the injuries along the offensive line, fit that description. Dorsey is certainly not scheming up all of these turnovers. A more under-the-radar issue, inherited from the offseason player acquisition phase, has been Buffalo’s inability to replace high-volume slot receiver Cole Beasley (82 receptions in both 2020 and 2021). The lack of a second go-to receiver has helped to cause lulls in Buffalo’s passing attack, as without another high-volume receiving option, defenses have found ways to contain Diggs early, and force the Bills to scheme their only high-target receiver open later in games.

To concisely recap: Buffalo’s offensive struggles of late are slightly overblown, and while they’ve certainly been frustrating to watch for stretches, they’re still producing at a high rate, especially when they need it most. And when they’re struggling, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Buffalo’s offense has been milquetoast and predictable at times. Their red zone interception against Detroit came on a run-pass-option play that the team runs ubiquitously, and Detroit was all over it. But it’s worth considering that the predictability trend could be by design. Four of Buffalo’s final six games come against divisional foes, and it’s entirely possible that Dorsey has been saving new schematic wrinkles for the games that are most important to Buffalo’s division title hopes. That’s a bit of a leap of faith, admittedly, but it’s not even remotely unheard of.

That said, as Dorsey and the offense endures their respective criticisms, it’s go time. Their final stretch run starts next Thursday on the road against the New England Patriots in a game that is as must-win as they’ve had this season; the team absolutely cannot afford to fall to 0-3 in division play. Some of the problems they’ve been facing aren’t going away quickly; Allen’s elbow is still less than 100%, the offensive line is still banged up, and a true second receiving option still has not stepped up.

If Dorsey has been saving his best for the final stretch run, now is the time to unleash it. Fewer turnovers, improved red zone play, and less predictability would go a long way toward eliminating those lulls, and putting the Bills back on track for their third straight AFC East title. Allen will improve as his elbow heals, but right now, the man who can do the most to elevate Buffalo’s offense is the one calling the plays.