One of the most common refrains coming out of Bills Mafia the last few weeks has been “why do the Buffalo Bills rank so highly in these advanced metrics on offense when my eyes are telling me that they’re struggling?”
In short, it’s because we’re assigning the wrong qualitative message to the metrics.
Success rate and EPA/play are much closer to being measurements of how effective a team is moving the ball than they are of how good an offense is (DVOA is also built on a foundation of success rate prior to any adjustments for things like opponent and league-wide success in that same situation). Historically, the best offenses are also the best offenses at moving the ball, so this distinction isn’t always relevant. In the case of the 2023 Buffalo Bills, it is.
So while the Bills remain high in these specific advanced metrics framed by some as a measurement of “good” or “bad” offenses, the truth is that the metrics are measuring what they were intended to measure and are being mislabeled, and that mislabeling is causing a conflict between what you’re seeing on the field and what you’re seeing on a spreadsheet. This is then leading to people throwing out the metric as useless after its mislabeling.
Allow me an opportunity to provide context.
We’re going to use two markedly lesser known metrics to evaluate why the Bills’ offense looks recently like it’s been spinning its wheels. It’s looked, for lack of a better word, difficult for Buffalo’s offense the last few weeks and there are specific metrics that reinforce the idea if you know where to look.
Yards per point: this is a “degree of difficulty” measurement. How many yards does an offense need to get to obtain a point? This is a metric heavily influenced by starting field position. If you have to drive 80 yards to get a touchdown, your probability of doing so is much smaller than if you have to cross 50 yards.
For the entire year, the Bills are seventh-best in yards per point in the NFL (fewer yards per point is better) at 13.9. However, over the last three games, the Bills are 17th best in this same metric (16.2). You might be thinking that 2.3 yards per point on average isn’t much of a deal, but it represents the difference between the 2023 averages for the Dallas Cowboys’ offense (which has been good in 2023) and the Green Bay Packers’ offense (which is sputtering and searching for answers).
For the year, the Bills are 7th best in yards per point (fewer is better).— Bruce Nolan (@BruceExclusive) November 11, 2023
In the last three games, the Bills are 15th worst (17th best) in yards per point.
This is quantitatively what “spinning your wheels” looks like on offense. pic.twitter.com/mvzfiHBoAD
The answer to “why does it feels so much harder recently” is summed up in this metric. It is actually more difficult recently. The Bills are having to travel a further distance to get a point in the last few games than their average this season.
For further reference, the Bills’ average yards per point in previous seasons:
- 2022 = 14.2 (6th in the NFL)
- 2021 = 13.1 (1st in the NFL)
- 2020 = 12.9 (4th in the NFL)
(There’s a separate discussion in here about NFL offenses having to work harder on average in recent years as well).
So Buffalo’s offense now needs to work harder to score points. Do you know what would help with that? Explosive plays. Unfortunately, the Bills aren’t getting much help in that regard either. From Weeks 1-4, Buffalo was averaging 2.12 plays per point. In Weeks 5-9, they averaged 3.16 plays per point. They’re having to go father on average to get points and they’re having to do it in more plays.
If the Bills were ripping off chunk gains left and right, the fact that they’re being forced to go farther distances might be able to be compensated for. But they’re not.
If you’d like to break it down farther (h/t @LowBuffa), the Bills plays per point:— Bruce Nolan (@BruceExclusive) November 11, 2023
Weeks 1-4: 2.12
Weeks 5-9: 3.16 (mmm pie)
This is everything we talked about on the pod. More work for less results. Field position + lack of explosives outlined right here in metrics.
This is why it feels wrong.
This is why it doesn’t pass “the eye test.”
This is why it feels like it’s so difficult for the Buffalo Bills’ offense right now despite the glowing EPA/play, success rate and DVOA numbers. They’re being put in bad positions by a defense that’s not getting turnovers and special teams that aren’t helping out much, which leads to longer yards needed to score points. In addition, they’re not generating explosive plays on offense, further exacerbating the issue.
It is actually more difficult. Your eyes aren’t lying to you and they’re not failing to match the success rate numbers. We just need to avoid assigning qualitative messages to quantitative figures that don’t match their intended purpose.
Now here’s hoping the Buffalo Bills figure it out.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!