A common refrain among Bills Mafia during the 2023 NFL season and continuing now is the sentiment that Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott should be replaced. By whom? Many don’t seem to care — with the idea that Josh Allen is a generational talent who creates an “easy button” for a head coach.
That got me thinking. What if we plugged Josh Allen into the underachieving Bills teams of the past?
What if... Josh Allen Quarterbacked the 2013 Buffalo Bills?
The Buffalo Bills were looking to move forward after the Chan Gailey experiment failed to yield better than six wins in a season. Enter Doug Marrone — who turned around the Syracuse program and was now dead set on doing the same for Buffalo to snag the second miracle required for Sainthood. Marrone and company sought to bring new wrinkles to the league courtesy of the college game. In his first year, Marrone did no better than the previous regime with the exact same 6-10 record. The Bills were dead last in the AFC East and missed even a Wild Card chance by a whopping three games.
Coaches and Stats
Doug Marrone brought Nathaniel Hackett with him from Syracuse as his offensive coordinator. The duo pledged a fast-paced offense based on the idea that more plays per game = more scoring opportunities. For the defense, Marrone went with NFL veteran defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, formerly with the New York Jets.
On a systems level, both sides of the ball changed significantly. Under the previous staff the Bills ran an Erhardt-Perkins-based offense and a 4-3 defense. Marrone’s team ran with Air Coryell and swapped the defense to a 3-4 base.
Due to a number of factors, Buffalo’s offense was woeful in 2013. With 1.48 points per drive, they were 25th in the league. They were 24th in drives ending in a score at 29.9%, and had a relative bright spot being average in turnovers with 12.1% of drives ending that way (18th).
They did, however, make good on their promise of playing fast. Their tempo resulted in 1,152 plays on offense, which was third highest. Arguably they played too fast, as all of those extra plays still resulted in an average of 2:09 time of possession. Only the Eagles had a worse average time of possession that year. Per game, the Bills averaged 28:23 ToP — which was 29th in the league. Tons of short plays meant short drives, and ultimately short points.
Some of the offensive problems may have contributed to fatigue for the defense. Pettine’s side of the ball performed well at the start of the game (Q1) and reasonably well after a rest period (Q3). Points allowed were significantly higher in the second and fourth quarters. Still, Pettine managed to land a head-coaching gig based off of this performance, which was felt to be the Bills’ strength in the 2013 season.
Buffalo was the 12th-best team in points allowed per drive with 1.68- which is a fairly average performance. They had the ninth-best turnover percentage and third-best sack rate in the league. Looking back at the aggregate season, the Bills put up the “sexy” defensive numbers but ultimately weren’t a shutdown unit.
The biggest story for the season was the debut of Bruce Smith’s godson, EJ Manuel, at quarterback. Hampered by injuries, Manuel platooned the QB spot with Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel. As for tendencies, the group ran the ball a decent amount, which will of course factor into our Josh Allen discussion.
Speaking of running, that season saw Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller splitting reps at running back. Both were effective, averaging 4.3 and 4.6 yards per carry, respectively. Wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods (rookie), and tight end Scott Chandler highlighted the passing game with overall poor results, especially compared to what we know these players were capable of. Johnson in particular saw a large drop in targets in 2013.
On the offensive line, Eric Wood and Cordy Glenn should ring a bell. Lee Smith, blocking machine/tight end was available to the team, which helps explain the run game success.
Buffalo’s defense had four Pro Bowlers on the roster. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, edge rusher Mario Williams, safety Jairus Byrd, and defensive tackle Kyle Williams all made it. Defensive end Jerry Hughes rounded out the Cold Front defense that racked up 57 sacks. On the back end, cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin, plus safety Aaron Williams had a big impact while on the field. Injuries created rotation, which tested depth that included cornerback Justin Rogers. Rounding things out was linebacker Kiko Alonso, who many felt was destined for greatness after this season. While we’ll always fondly remember Kiko in the Kitchen, the rest of his playing career left a lot to be desired unless you like tiny shirts.
The Josh Allen Effect
I was, and still am, more of an EJ Manuel fan than most of Bills Mafia, but Josh Allen is a clear upgrade at the position. This is especially true with the upheaval due to injuries in the 2013 season. This entire premise started with the idea of how other coaches would fare with Allen under center and the 2013 season has me wondering something pretty big.
Would Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett lower Allen’s ceiling? Both Marrone and Hackett had coaching opportunities after their stop in Buffalo, and neither has exactly made a reputation as innovators. I hinted above that the duo promised, and delivered, a full season of pedal-to-the-metal play calling trying to jam in as many plays as possible. Looking through the final games of the season, I can only come to the conclusion that they stuck to their word for the full slate of games.
The 2013 team was also an oddity for this millennium of the NFL, with more running plays than passing. Now we all know Josh Allen is also likely to enhance the running game, but the point remains that between their fast-pace “innovation” and their run/pass ratio, the indicators are that the Bills had a plan in place for the season and stuck to it. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t a great plan for winning. This makes the 2013 season one of obstinance and bad philosophy.
Stevie Johnson saw drastically fewer targets than he was used to with Gailey’s teams. Robert Woods and Scott Chandler were close behind, establishing a team with no clear number-one target. I’d like to see what Allen and Stevie could have accomplished, but I don’t have the confidence in that year’s coaching staff to have allowed it to see its potential. I think Woods would have seen the biggest improvement with Allen on the team, but it’s fair to wonder how high his rookie ceiling was.
The quarterback run stats for 2013 were pretty dreadful despite a significant amount of attempts (80 rushes between the three quarterbacks). Allen would be a clear upgrade for the 2013 unit with our “What if...” thought experiment.
As for the larger ripple, Allen would have likely helped his defense out to some extent. Despite the insistence on using as little of the play clock as possible at all times, Allen should extend some drives that Manuel/Lewis/Tuel did not — and give the defense a bit of extra rest here and there.
As a reminder, the 2013 Bills went 6-10, which seemed less painful at the time it was happening. Looking back, that’s a team that’s pretty far away from postseason glory. With the 2023 team surging late to take the division, let’s discuss that hypothetical first.
In 2013, the 12-4 New England Patriots represented the AFC East as division champs. The easiest path to the division would have been Josh Allen adding a whopping five more games to their win column, and one of them would have had to be against the Patriots. Interestingly, that hypothetical one win against the Patriots would have been enough to win tiebreakers based on a better division record.
Even more interestingly, EJ Manuel nearly shocked the Pats in Week 1. With the ball late and up by one, the Manuel-led team went three and out, giving the ball back to Tom Brady who bled the clock and got his team into field goal range for the win. It’s not unreasonable to think Josh Allen could have turned the tide in that game.
With all that said, I don’t think even Allen could have found five more wins out of the 2013 season with this staff. At the risk of sounding like a homer though, I do think there’s a realistic chance he finds four more wins. Being candid, with my first glance at the 2013 season I had doubts the Marrone-led Bills would have allowed Allen to be the difference maker often enough to reach the playoffs. To do it right though, the actual game results need to be factored in, and the 2013 Bills kept a lot of their losses close.
That Week 1 loss to New England I have high confidence Allen flips. In Week 3, the actual Bills had nearly a full quarter and several possessions to score a touchdown to tie the Geno Smith-led New York Jets. I give Allen a better-than-even shot at leading a touchdown drive there to tie and maybe pull out a win. Overtime losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons are obvious choices as well with a single improved drive or even one play possibly turning the tide. I won’t rule out other losses flipping to wins but those four stand out as the most likely. The bottom line is that four wins are a realistic flip with Allen on the team.
With four more wins, Buffalo would have taken the San Diego Chargers’ six seed spot for a Wild Card chance. With even three wins and a tied overall record, Buffalo had the stronger Conference record and still would have claimed that spot. Going against my first instinct seeing the record, I think Allen leads this team to the six seed. But what happens next?
The Buffalo Bills would have headed to Paul Brown stadium to take on the Bengals. Cincinnati had one of their worst games of the season, losing to the Chargers. There’s a strong case Buffalo comes out on top just like the Chargers did.
This is where things get tricky. The Chargers played a tight game against the one seed Denver Broncos, losing 17-24. The end result is perhaps a bit of a mirage as the Broncos dropped 17 points in the first half and seemed to coast a bit after the break. The Chargers also needed an onside kick in the fourth quarter to get within one score. After kicking it off with nearly four minutes and time to get a stop and the ball back, Peyton Manning methodically drove down the field to ice the game.
PREDICTION: Divisional Round loss to the Denver Broncos
Assuming Buffalo found a way past Denver, they would have traveled to take on the two seed New England Patriots who had an uncharacteristically poor performance. It’s possible Buffalo finds a way past the Patriots as well. If that had occurred, however, no one was beating the Seattle Seahawks in that Super Bowl.
Note: This series is intended as nothing more than a thought experiment to open up discussion on the Buffalo Bills. Hope you enjoy it and feel free to disagree and add your own best guesses into the mix in the comments. Go Bills!