In Defense of Firing Ken Dorsey

Since Ken Dorsey was relieved of his duties Tuesday afternoon, I’ve been struck by the disconnect between the national and local reaction to his firing. On the national side (see, e.g., Mina Kimes and Bill Barnwell, two very smarty football people), the narrative is something like this: by any metric, the Bills offense is really good, one of the best in the league. The reason they haven’t scored more points is that they have been very unlucky with turnovers – see, e.g., fumbles and tipped passes. The real reason they are struggling is that the defense has been one of the worst in the league since they lost Milano, DaQuan Jones and Tre White. Ergo, it doesn’t make much sense to fire your offensive coordinator when the offense is very good and the defense is very bad.

The local narrative (read: Bills Twitter) is exactly the opposite. When we watch the games, it certainly feels like the defense gets enough stops and the offense squanders those opportunities. And it’s been that way for over a year now – since the Green Bay Sunday Night Game last year, it feels like every time the defense gets the ball back to the offense in a situation where the offense can take control or put the game away with a score, it’s three-and-out. Surely the offense is the more problematic unit despite being perfect healthy and having a generational cyborg at quarterback, ergo firing Dorsey was justified.

So who is correct? I think we locals have the right take, but not for the reasons cited above. Regardless of what we may feel when we watch, the objective statistics do indeed tell us that the Bills offense is very good and its defense is not. To ignore these statistics in favor of our guts is the wrong way to do it. With normal turnover luck, the Bills would be at least 7-3; the only game they've really been outplayed was the London game against Jacksonville. The problem with the national narrative is not that it is wrong; its that it completely ignores the context in which the decision to fire Dorsey was made.

That context is that the Bills are 5-5 and have only a 20% chance to make the playoffs. For a team that has a top three quarterback in his prime on a roster built to contend for Super Bowls NOW, missing the playoffs would be an organizational (and civic) catastrophe. When faced with a low probability outcome, it’s rational to do high variance things – i.e., things that carry a high risk but also a high reward. That’s the reason basketball teams shoot more three pointers when they are losing - they are less likely to go in but worth more if they do.

Now one could debate whether firing your offensive coordinator mid-season when you already have a top offense is actually high variance. But I would counter that (1) several smart people have been consistently critical of Dorsey (s/o Cover 1, Dan Orlovsky), and (2) there is some evidence that the offense is successful in spite of (rather than because of) his stewardship. So it’s at least a reasonable hypothesis that a change would improve the offense. Obviously, it might not - the offense very well could be worse with Joe Brady; and odds are probably strongest that it will be the exact same (though hopefully a little luckier). But there is a chance that it could be better and that’s why you make this move.

It’s also the only realistic high-leverage move they had. They can’t replace the players - the trade deadline came and went. They can’t replace the defensive coordinator because he’s also the head coach which, coincidentally is also why they can’t replace the head coach (a fact noted by both Barnwell and Kimes, to their credit). There is a difference between being rationally high-variance and irrationally reckless, and trying to find a head coach and defensive coordinator 10 games into a make or break season is the latter. Surely there will be time to debate who is to blame for them being in that situation in the first place, but now is not that time (s/o sunk costs).

I’m not saying that this is why the Bills fired Dorsey - perhaps the speculation that it was more of an interpersonal thing is accurate. I’m merely saying that it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, in contrast to the analysis I’ve heard in the national media. The overall point here is that the Bills defense is going to remain mediocre-to-bad. There’s only so much you can do without your best player at EVERY LEVEL. The only chance the Bills have to make the playoffs is the offense going nuclear (s/o Yards per Pass). That hasn’t happened consistently in over a year, so it’s reasonable to give change a chance. I’d rather it not work and we go 6-10 than have never tried and end up 9-8. Like it or not, desperate times call for desperate measures, and these are desperate times.

Just another great fan opinion shared on the pages of