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Opinion: Buffalo Bills’ 4th & 1 play — was it the right call by OC Ken Dorsey?

Let’s consider the complexities of situational football

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If you spend any amount of time on social media, it’s likely you’ve seen more than a few disparaging comments about Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Despite a near-universal approval rating following the team’s Week 2 win over the Las Vegas Raiders, Dorsey’s been taken to task over a single call from the Week 3 victory over the Washington Commanders.

But are those opinions too harsh? Are some people too focused on the minutiae of the moment and what it could mean in future games for the Bills?

Given the chance to radio in a call on 4th & 1 with Josh Allen as your quarterback, it’s pretty safe to say most people would call a sneak — no matter the true depth of the required yard. So why would Buffalo’s second-year offensive coordinator, who previously worked with former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll suddenly “get cute” and run a spread play with Allen operating out of shotgun?

Yes, it’s a curious move. But was it a terrible decision?

Let’s consider the situation in total. The play in question came just as the fourth quarter began to unfold — 14:18 left in regulation, to be exact. Buffalo faced 4th & 1 at the 37-yard line of the Commanders while up 16-0. The choice to punt seemed like the worst move, while a field goal attempt would have been roughly 55 yards. That distance is within kicker Tyler Bass’ range, but we don’t know what intel was being fed concerning the condition of the field.

As the play began to set up at the line (with Allen out of shotgun), I suspected they might simply try to draw Washington offside or, failing that, take a time out and kick. Instead, Josh Allen took the snap and threw a toss out to the near flat in the direction of wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Incomplete; turnover on downs. A quick glance might have shown you the running back seemingly open to the left flat. All they needed was a hard-earned yard, yet they seemingly made it a far bigger challenge by choosing pass.

Why would Allen attempt such a play on fourth down? Because it actually worked, or should have. The design Dorsey drew up went off without a hitch, and Diggs would’ve caught the football for a first down or more — if not for one fact. Exceptional individual effort by Washington’s defense. There’s zero to critique in terms of Buffalo’s play — it should have been successful because everyone executed their jobs well during the play. Sometimes guys make plays, and the Commanders defensive lineman managed to get his hands in the way of Allen’s pass as it went over the line.

But hold up: That doesn’t necessarily paint a picture of confidence in saying it was the right decision by the Bills. Maybe “right” isn’t the correct term for this situation. I prefer to look at it as one of opportunity. Buffalo was up by at least two scores, if the Commanders somehow were able to manufacture two eight-point drives against the Bills’ defense. That wasn’t happening, driven home even further after you read linebacker Terrel Bernard’s comments:

Everyone loves to point out how the perceived parity in the NFL means every game is decided at the very end. Except that it’s not always the case. Sometimes teams don’t have a game-changing franchise quarterback. Perhaps that’s what Sam Howell becomes, but that’s not the role he was playing on Sunday. The Bills knew this. I’m sure the Commanders realized it, as well. Buffalo’s chances of victory barely moved a hair, if anything at all by turning the ball over due to a failed conversion — while up 16-0 with 14 minutes to play.

The win probability chart by ESPN provides succinct, compelling proof to that idea:

What’s more, Washington fumbled the ball one play later, which Terrel Bernard scooped back up for Buffalo. After the Bills failed to convert that fourth down, the allowed the Commanders to score a total of three points the remainder of the game. Those came in the closing seconds after most starters had been pulled.

But back to Buffalo’s OC. Ken Dorsey made a decision on fourth down that I believe could benefit the offense down the line. He put film out there in the ether that the Bills are willing to attempt more than just a dive over the line by Allen. That helps to keep defenses guessing what’s coming their way in critical moments. Dorsey asking Allen to attempt that pass play in a game they had well in hand comes off to me as the perfect moment to work on diversifying their offense against a hostile opponent, all while mitigating disaster while learning how to refine the result.

The Buffalo Bills won 37-3. They scored 21 points after a failed fourth-down attempt... in the fourth quarter. I see nothing to complain about concerning Dorsey’s work in Washington. Running him out of town would likely set the franchise back in its quest for greatness.