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Why aren’t the Bills winning close games?

The answer might not be what you’d expect

Indianapolis Colts v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

There’s a great reason why Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott continues to harp on complementary football.

It’s been a trying week for Bills Mafia. There are a lot of issues with the Bills right now, and many of them are of the confounding variety. We’ve all seen the stats by this point. The Bills should’ve found a ton of success through the “easier” portion of their schedule. Yet, they’re 5-4, and mired in an identity crisis. Well, to some degree... that’s true.

Everyone knows the team goes as far as quarterback Josh Allen takes it. That’s especially the case when adding in one very talented wide receiver named Stefon Diggs. Since general manager Brandon Beane pulled off the trade that landed Diggs in Orchard Park, NY, the Allen-to-Diggs magic act has proven nearly unbelievable. But it’s real, absent of any sleight of hand.

As the 2023 NFL season began to unfold, it was clear that Allen and Diggs were set to remind the league of their close connection, drama be damned. (Wait, drama?) If you look only at the numbers, the likely impression would be somewhere along the lines of Buffalo’s offense being a dominant force. The completions, the yards, the touchdowns. All of it. An efficient and successful offense. Except that numbers alone cannot tell the whole story. That is, why aren’t the Bills winning close games?

To this point, all one can do is hypothesize about the key issues. Many have chosen to blame it on offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey simply because before Dorsey, “things seemed better.” Well... that’s not necessarily true. Actually, it’s false. Okay, yes, Allen had far more generous rushing numbers prior to Dorsey taking over as play caller. But Dorsey has promoted efficiency in scheme and shown an adaptability to, at times, leverage an up-tempo attack while also switching up from 11 to 12 personnel. Dorsey is not thee problem with this year’s team, as much as everyone wants it to be the case.

Some believe the close-game issue stems from something within head coach Sean McDermott. That’s not wholly accurate, either. McDermott does, again, at times, tend to struggle with game management. The sort of trouble that tends to show up at less-than-ideal times. Even though McDermott recently stated they as a team wanted to try other concepts during the loss against the Bengals, it’s unlikely his voice drowns out what Dorsey and Allen choose to run on any play. Until we know otherwise, it seems disingenuous to label Sean McDermott a micromanager to such degree that he’s intentionally sabotaging the Bills’ offensive success.

Ultimately, it’s likely impossible to lay the blame on any single faction or person. Like the game itself, responsibility and success are tied to a group of individuals exerting their will toward a cohesive plan and common goal. To this point, most who show interest in the Bills believe the defense alone has kept the team in games, giving the offense a chance to win it late. While the offense has failed to get its act together early far too often, the defense also bears some responsibility. There are several instances of the defense being run over by its opponent, an act of first blood that’s seen the team start in a fairly deep hole more than once.

Furthermore, Buffalo’s defense has struggled to influence game-changing turnovers in the last five games, while its offense seemed more generous in handing out footballs.

In Weeks 1 through 4, the Bills turned the football over five times (including zero in two games), while stealing it 11 times.

  • Week 1: 4 (by Bills) to 1 (by Jets) — (L) 22-16 (one-score game)
  • Week 2: 0 (by Bills) to 3 (by Raiders) — (W) 38-10
  • Week 3: 1 (by Bills) to 5 (by Commanders) — (W) 37-3
  • Week 4: 0 (by Bills) to 2 (by Dolphins) — (W) 48-20

From Week 5 through 9, all five finishes were one-score games. Buffalo won twice, losing three. During that span, the Bills lost the football nine times, while taking it away just three times.

  • Week 5: 2 (by Bills) to 2 (by Jaguars) — (L) 25-20 (one-score game)
  • Week 6: 2 (by Bills) to 0 (by Giants) — (W) 14-9 (one-score game)
  • Week 7: 2 (by Bills) to 1 (by Patriots) — (L) 29-25 (one-score game)
  • Week 8: 1 (by Bills) to 0 (by Buccaneers) — (W) 24-18 (one-score game)
  • Week 9: 2 (by Bills) to 0 (by Bengals) — (L) 24-18 (one-score game)

The team’s record in one-score games this season is 2-4. That’s not going to cut it in a league where parity means most contests will come down to the wire. In five wins, the Bills have 4 turnovers on offense, while taking it away 10 times on defense (incredibly failing to get a turnover in Week 6 and 8). In four losses, Buffalo lost the football 10 times while stealing it back four times.

If you’ve done the math, you should find that, in nine games, the Bills have given the ball away 14 times, while the defense created 14 turnovers. Suddenly, a near-.500 record begins to make more sense.

Despite the narratives, I don’t believe the Bills don’t need to run more, speed up, slow down, change offensive or even defensive schemes. They don’t need to take play-calling duties away from or hire someone different to call either side of the ball. None of it. What is it then? The Buffalo Bills need to commit to complementary football. They need to stop turning the ball over, and they need to influence turnovers by opposing offenses.

Sounds simple, right? Play within yourself on offense and hunt the football on defense. It can be, but there is a caveat. Mistake-free football limits Josh Allen’s ability to make the type of plays we’ve all been lucky enough to witness in recent seasons. Dorsey has shown that an efficient offense where Allen operates under center out of playaction serves him well. But Allen wants to do Allen things, and often out of shotgun. And everyone wants Allen to do Allen things, because that means more runs by QB17. Runs by Allen usually lead to good things on offense, and there’s a perceptible momentum swing when he’s in cheat-code mode.

Allen’s best often involves an unbridled approach to football, but it also includes the same player who this season has been surgically accurate out of playaction. Josh Allen’s capable of playing outstanding football regardless of scheme.

So then, why aren’t the Buffalo Bills winning close games? At this point let’s just chalk it up to bad luck... and turnovers. Again: You don’t want to hear it, but the Bills just need to play complementary football.