Truth be told, this article has been something I’ve been ruminating on for weeks. Astute Buffalo Rumblings members have likely seen some of these thoughts in comments recently and over the years. I’m getting off my butt and then, uh...back onto my butt (just on the couch where I write) thanks to the news that Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier is taking a year off from coaching. Before I dive into my defense of the man and the Bills’ offense, I want to make one thing abundantly clear.
At no point will I suggest that the Frazier defense is flawless and above criticism. Even I’ve had my issues here and there over the years. The main point of this is to dispel the notion that the Bills have a pattern of postseason “collapses.” Also, I’ll go on record with the idea that while I do think the Bills have room to improve on defense, there’s also a ton of room to decline if you catch my drift.
“The Bills fall apart against top competition!”
If there’s one statement that irks me, it’s this one. Let’s reword this idea just a smidge and ruminate a second. This sentence is essentially the same statement:
“The Bills’ defense does worse against the best offenses.”
Yeah, that uh, it makes some sense. Fellow Rumbler Garsimeon has already done a ton of the math for me on this. Quality of opponent is an important metric and it should be no surprise that the best teams are the ones to cause the most fits.
Since this originally was meant to point out postseason efforts, I’d add that the postseason does also feature the best competition. It also features them in a do-or-die situation. Let’s actually discuss the quality of competition though, and see how the Buffalo Bills fared.
- In 2017 the Bills allowed ten points to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yeah, but that was the Jaguars! They averaged 26 points per game in 2017 and dropped 45 on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the next round of the playoffs.
- Buffalo faced the Houston Texans in 2019. That season the Texans averaged 23.6 points per game. Even with a field goal in overtime, the Texans fell a bit short of that, hitting 22.
- The Indianapolis Colts fared better, dropping 24 points on the Bills in 2020. That was still four points shy of their average.
- In 2020, Buffalo faced a Baltimore Ravens team putting up 29.3 points per game. The Bills held them 26.3 points below their average.
- May as well discuss the 2020 and 2021 games against the Kansas City Chiefs in one bullet point. Buffalo’s defense allowed KC to put up more than their season average and significantly so. It’s fair to call both of these bad games by the defense.
- The Bills also faced the New England Patriots in 2021, and allowed 17 points or ten points below their average.
- This year they allowed 31 points to a Miami Dolphins team that had no business dropping 31 on the Bills — and this too is fair to call a bad game. I’m the first to point out mitigating circumstances like the Bills repeatedly turning the ball over in embarrassing fashion, but the fact remains they allowed touchdowns on short fields rather than field goals.
- Against the Cincinnati Bengals the defense allowed 27 points, or 0.9 more than their season average. I’d call this a “meh” performance.
For a quick summary, yes the Bills have had some shaky defensive performances in the postseason — but compared to their competition, the majority of games have been pretty good. By my count, there have been three dominant performances (Jaguars, Ravens, Patriots). There have been three lousy days (Chiefs x2, and Dolphins). That leaves three more somewhere in the middle (Texans, Colts, Bengals).
To reiterate my point above, while I think there’s room for improvement, for sure the idea of consistent collapse is unwarranted.
Are regular-season averages wholly valid in the postseason?
I hinted at something above that may have caught your eye. Two things, actually. First, that the playoffs tend to feature teams that skew more toward “good.” Second, that the teams are mentally in a place where they know they need to perform at a higher level. If you add these up, the suggestion is that postseason averages might be a bit different than the regular season. Let’s explore this idea.
The NFL regular-season average was 21.9 points per game. This was the year of offense in the playoffs, with teams averaging 27.4 during the postseason. What this suggests is that teams generally did much better in the playoffs scoring points. In that lens, the Bills performed a bit better than expected against the Bengals and less poorly against the Dolphins.
Last year the regular-season average was 23.0 and the postseason featured 25.1 points per game. This wasn’t a drastic change, but reaffirms the idea that Buffalo did very well against New England. It doesn’t change the fact that they still were pretty bad versus Kansas City.
Interestingly, this was the year of defense. The postseason saw fewer points, falling from 24.8 to 23.9 points per game. This doesn’t change much as the Chiefs still wrecked the Bills, the Colts still had an average performance, and Buffalo still dominated the Ravens. With the low sample size, there’s a case to be made that the Bills holding Baltimore to a field goal was a pretty big factor in this trend.
The postseason average jumped exactly two points from the regular-season average of 22.8 points per game. This gives the performance against the Texans a small nudge closer to a good day for Buffalo, but still likely a “just alright” performance.
Another year of the defense, likely in no small part thanks to the Buffalo at Jacksonville game featuring a combined 13 points. This season dropped precisely 2.0 points per game from the NFL regular-season average of 23.3.
What does this all mean? This is all a bit volatile but there are generally significant shifts in points scored per game when the postseason starts. Quality of opponent is likely the better metric overall, but this does lend some support to the notion that playoff football is a different beast.
The Buffalo Bills & Recency Bias
If I had to wager, I’d say that a lot of the discontent stems from recency bias. Of the three games that I do consider to be bad efforts by Buffalo’s defense, one occurred this past season to the Dolphins and the other two were the losses that booted the Bills to the offseason at the hands of the Chiefs. The Bengals loss was certainly a bad game by the team overall — and, to be fair, no one should be praising a “meh” performance like that from a defense we’d like to call “elite.”
That does mean that the trend is that the Bills have been getting worse in the playoffs as the years have gone by. That’s not the trend you want. You could even argue that the Patriots game is the anomaly since the 2020 loss to Kansas City.
What I’d counter with is that you might be right. In fact, even with my own impressions of the games you’re right. The bad days are stacked too close to “now” to ignore that fact. I would argue that the root cause is still up in the air, however. It could be coaching. It could be the loss of key players to injury during the season and the unparalleled, repeated trauma the team endured over the course of the season. With Frazier stepping back for at least a year, we may get the answer too.
Bad Days Happen
With me currently working on a three-part Bills Mathia miniseries on “average,” it’s a good time to bring this up. When we call a defense “elite” what we’re actually saying is that they’re on average elite. Not that every moment of every game is elite. Or even that every game has an elite performance.
This is a Leslie Frazier post overall, so let’s consider the ‘85 Bears. Widely regarded as a historically great defense. Many would argue the best of all time. In Week 1 they allowed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to score 28 points. About ten more than the Buccaneers averaged that year. That’s a bad performance.
That’s Week 1, though, where flukes happen. In Week 3 they let the Minnesota Vikings drop 24 points. Not a ton really, but close to a field goal more than the Vikings averaged that year.
That’s a rival team, though, where flukes happen. What about Week 13 when the Dolphins scored 38 points? The Dolphins were a good team that season but the historically great Bears still let up about ten points more than Miami’s usual that season.
Now the Bears were crazy dominant once the postseason started, so they deserve their legendary status for sure. While bad days happen, there are better times to have them than the playoffs. Consider one more team. The 2021 Patriots not only gave up a ton of points to the Bills, they didn’t force a punt. Let’s go fully dramatic here. They couldn’t even force a field goal. So yes, even great defenses get slaughtered on occasion.
Aside from the 2021 victory over the Patriots, I can’t think of a single Bills postseason game that couldn’t have gone better. And yes, that does often include the defensive side of things. Were the Bills due for a change at defensive coordinator? Even I admit it’s possible. While I do think this year’s insane amount of calamities was too much to overcome in the end, there is always a risk of decline and that includes Leslie Frazier, a coach I greatly admire.
The point of this article remains to cast away the idea of constant “collapse” in the playoffs. There have been games I would say are fair to call a “collapse.” Consistently though? No. And honestly, I’ll say the game that ended the Bills’ season this year shouldn’t even be among the list called that.
I don’t know if this change will help or hinder the 2023 Buffalo Bills defense and for now, I’m not going to worry about it. I’m going to take a moment to appreciate all the really fun football I’ve watched with Frazier on the mic for defense, and I’m going to send well wishes Leslie Frazier’s way.