The Bills Offense: Marvel or Myth?

There has been a lot of enthusiasm generated at the additional three wins over last season's record, and on that basis alone for the most part, it has been determined that the Bills are truly an improved team. It should be interesting in hindsight to take a look at the particulars of the season in that light.

Also, much of the success late, or in the second half of the season has been used as a measuring stick as to true improvement of the offense, and therefor the team, on the season as the season went on. But upon further review, it is clear that the basis for such conclusions is tenuous at best.

Regular readers realize two things in particular about this past season. First, that the performance of the team generally speaking has been no different than in the prior seasons during the Commander Tom era. The primary difference from 2002 to last season to this past one has been the strength of schedule with uncanny demonstrated consistency from season to season regarding the outcomes vs. varying categories of opponents played.

Second has been the "hunch" throughout the season supported by the facts following the season that the Bills not only had to move the ball fewer yards than any other team in the league to "earn" a point or touchdown, however one would prefer to break it down, but also that they were among the worst teams in the league at moving the ball. The offense benefited immensely, and primarily only in games vs. bottom tier teams, from the play of the defense and special teams in setting the offense up for points scored.

To illustrate that single point, how else does a team ranked 25th in yardage offense rank 7th in scoring offense which is more accurately called "total team scoring?" Obviously there is a reason for the mismatch. As pointed out in a prior piece, the yardage/scoring ratio, or the number of yards that each team had to move per point scored, was the lowest for the Bills, again, strongly suggesting that it was not primarily the offense which was responsible for the scoring of the Bills.

As stated in an earlier piece, the Bills average starting field position, not including drives where "a knee was taken" or to run out the clock, was at their own 36.3 yard-line. This was over a full two yards better than the Ravens who finished the season with the 2nd best starting field position at their 34.19. The remaining 30 teams were crammed in between starting field position from their own 26.17 to their 32.73 yard lines, a range of 6.56 yards within which 30 teams were represented.

As well, we heard about how the Bills really turned it around in the "second half" of the season. But they also played a string of six games vs. some of the worst teams in the league including the three worst teams in the league. Naturally one would expect superlative play against the worst teams in the league, even by average teams. Nevertheless, is such play vs. such opponents indicative of success next season vs. what now appears to be a much tougher schedule rivaling that of the 2003 season!

There are so many ways to break this season down that a small book could easily be written. I will attempt to break down and offer insights as to some of the more pertinent data.

To start off the season, the Bills lost four straight, then beat Miami which was no big feat and fully expected, lost to Baltimore in shameful fashion, then followed up with a win over Arizona in weather that the Cards rarely see and on the road where they hadn't won in 16 road games. As well, to state that the Cards had no particularly talented team on the whole would be somewhat of an understatement. The fact that they kept the Bills in the game through three-quarters under such circumstances speaks volumes on its own.

The Bills then managed to eke out a win over the Jets who had just come off of a huge Monday Night win over the Dolphins and short on rest and prep as their only reasonable win until that point in the season. They then traveled to New England where they were summarily pounded by the Patriots 29-6. Heading into game 10 the Bills were 3-6 with only one victory that can even be considered as worth mentioning and that with mitigating circumstances characterizing it.

So all the talk about the Bills having played much better in the 2nd half of the season essentially boils down to games 10-15 given that they had their onions handed to them by the 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th teamers in the final game of the season vs. the Steelers. Ergo, the Steeler game does nothing to suggest any improvement over the first 60% of the season, rather it merely strengthens the notions put forth by the Bills' performances in those games.

So what about games 10-15 upon which so many accolades are predicated? How good were these teams? Does having beaten these teams assume any particular significance other than a simple unlikelihood that they were strung together on the schedule?

Perhaps a look at those teams and what other teams beat them this season will provide additional insights. Those teams include St. Louis, Seattle, Miami, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and San Francisco.

Which other teams beat:

Seattle? Lost to St. Louis three times once ousting them in the playoffs, Arizona, and Dallas. The only team that the Seahawks beat which finished above .500 was the Falcons in week 17 in a meaningless game for the Falcons.

St. Louis? Lost to New Orleans, Miami, Carolina, and Arizona. The Bills played the Rams at the Ralph where the Rams on the road only beat weak Seattle and San Francisco.

Miami? Lost to every team it played with the exceptions of the Rams, San Francisco, Cleveland, and New England in a bizarre game to be sure.

Cleveland? Also lost to all but Washington, Houston, Cincinnati, and the Ravens as the sole team above .500 that they beat, yet in week one prior to their injury decimated roster.

Cincinnati? Lost to Cleveland and Tennessee, but were a decent .500 team. Yet, the Bills played the Bengals in their first game minus Carson Palmer, which made all the difference in the win for the Bills.

San Francisco? Lost every game that they played that was not vs. a team from Arizona.

If the Bills are to be among the company of the teams that beat these six teams as well, then certainly a very non-impressive menagerie of teams develops. Yet, this simple analysis certainly is not the end-all-to-be-all in evidence that perhaps "the second half" was overrated. Let's take a peek at where those teams ranked in relation to other NFL teams as well as how well the Bills performed in those games vice how well they performed in the other ten games.

In those six games the Bills averaged over 142 yards-per-game rushing. In the other ten games the Bills averaged just over 103 yards-per-game on the ground.

Interestingly, the Bills were 73.3% in goal-to-go efficiency in those six games vice an abysmal 47.1% in the other ten games. Red zone efficiency at 48.5% for those six games was slightly better than the 42.9% that it was in the other ten games, yet both were well below average.

The most alarming and concerning difference heading into next season and an indicator that simply cannot be overlooked is the difference in offensive scoring in those two sets of games. In those six games, the Bills' offense averaged 32.2 points-per-game whereas in the other ten games the Bills' offense averaged a disturbing 13.1 points-per-game, a mere 40% of that in the six game win streak and no real distinguishable difference from the 2003 season.

Not coincidentally, the average ranking of the opponents' scoring defense in the six game winning streak was 24th and the average ranking of the opponents' rushing defense in those six games was 27th with not one team possessing a ranking in either category higher than 20th.

When one considers that San Francisco, Cleveland, and Miami were among those six teams and were viewed as the three worst teams in the league by a good many fans and media, the "accomplishments" of this Bills team begin to pale immensely. Certainly relying on such an easy string of teams is neither any basis for empirical improvement nor any reason for real hopes that perhaps this team was truly "coming together" as it has been suggested that it has.

On paper at the present time, the Bills schedule for next season is nothing close to the cakewalk that the last half of this past season was. As well, the New England game at the onset of this six game winning streak coupled with the Steeler game featuring largely backups for the Steelers, both injected an appropriate dose of reality and a wakeup call for those not asleep at the helm as to what the true mettle and measure of this team is.

Furthermore, given the late season offensive "surge" irrespective of utterly weak and feeble defensive teams and as the only string of games whereby the offense actually played anywhere close to or above average and significantly better than it had in the past two seasons, why is it that the team's final offensive rankings were well below average and in some cases at or near the bottom.

In 3rd-down conversions the Bills ranked 20th only ahead of a dozen teams all with pathetic offenses.

The Bills had the 8th most penalties as a team.

They had the 2nd most penalty yards.

25th in the league in first-downs/game, again, in front of only teams with horrid offenses.

26th in yards-per-play.

24th in rushing yards-per-carry.

23rd in passing yards-per-play.

29th in the league in red zone efficiency. Ranked 4th in the league in getting there with 62 red zone possessions, the diametrically related stats here suggest a real problem.

When one considers that these rankings were inflated by the "six game winning streak" against a string of opponents ranked:

25th, 22nd, 20th, 24th, 21st, and 32nd in scoring defense, and;

29th, 23rd, 31st, 32nd, 26th, and 20th in rushing defense, this should heighten concerns for the offseason and the approach taken in free agency and in the draft significantly from what it has been in the past.

Using 2004 final rankings, this upcoming season the Bills play only six teams ranked 20th or worse in scoring defense vice having been able to play eight this season and only five in '03. Thus the delta between 9 wins and 6 wins in ‘03.

The Bills were 7-1 vs. teams with scoring defenses ranked 20th or worse and 2-6 vs. teams with scoring defenses ranked higher. Last season the Bills were 3-8 vs. teams finally ranked higher and 3-2 vs. teams ranked 20th or worse in scoring defense. So their performance against similar caliber defenses was on par with, not significantly superior to that of last season.

Moreover, the 2004 schedule featured nine teams ranked 20th or worse in rushing defense. That number was one less last season at eight and dwindles even further to five for next season, again, using 2004 final rankings. Willis McGahee may have a much bigger hill to climb.

The defensive success of the team during the "six game win streak" also does not get a pass. Of the teams beaten during those six games during which the D played so well, three of those teams, Miami, Cleveland, and San Francisco had only one offensive ranking among the three primary offensive categories (Scoring O, Rushing O, and Yardage O) above 26th among them. That was Cleveland hauling in a whopping 23rd rushing offense ranking primarily due to their better play at the beginning of the season prior to losing much of their team to injury.

The Bills had 11 of 16 games vs. teams with scoring offenses ranked among the bottom half of the league. Last season that figure was nine whereas next season it drops even further to seven. Throw in the fact that the average starting field position for the Bills' offense in the "six game winning streak" was at their own 44-yard line, and this even dampens notions of "offensive improvement" even further.

The bottom line here is that the Bills had a relatively easy schedule this season featuring what are now known to have been the three weakest teams in the league in four games. The Bills do not play two of those teams next season and Miami, a team that kept the Bills right in games until the end without any semblance of a rushing game whatsoever not to mention an interim coach, and one that has nowhere to go but up.

Given all of the Bills needs this offseason not to mention the pending statuses of Jonas Jennings the Bills' best, albeit no dominant lineman, and that of Pat Williams and many imminent changes to the offense, there is indeed cause for concern. At present, expectations should be for a regression in wins all things left up to where they appear to be headed.

While anything can happen to downgrade those teams in their strengths in those areas, hoping and relying on this to occur as the primary basis for the "improvement" of the Bills is no real hope for the success of the team in terms of becoming playoff ready/caliber.

As well, what are the odds that a GM such as Commander Tom all of a sudden "sees the light" and begins to address the offensive line to the extent that it needs to be addressed? While two seasons overdue, this would require now all of the primary resources of free agency and the draft combined to put the caliber of line on the field that will be necessary in order to actually improve to playoff caliber next season offensively speaking. A lack of strategic planning has left this Bills line, pending the status of Jonas Jennings, much as it was upon Commander Tom's having taken the team over in 2001. More on that in a week or two.

To continue on more strategically, how have the Bills fared over the past three seasons regarding their play vs. caliber of opponent and was the 2004 performance truly significantly different than that of the three years as a whole and the past two seasons more specifically?

The "word" is that there has been an improvement. Well, has there been? Or has the schedule been the primary factor in the generations of the perceptions of success for this team?

There is not always a perfect indicator of how good a team is. Many would suggest straight won-lost record, however I would suggest a more holistic assessment. Obviously W-L record factors in. One other thing that I have always considered to be of paramount importance is the points that a team either scores or correspondingly allows opponents to score.

For such an assessment "point delta", or the difference between the points scored (PF) and points allowed (PA), or PF-PA is a very useful data point. Naturally, it would stand to reason that the greater this difference is that the better the team is. As well, it also assists in pointing out the overall weaknesses of teams such as Seattle, St. Louis, or Jacksonville.

While the first reaction by some to the mention of those teams may be that they are all decent, the facts reveal that not one of those teams scored more points than it allowed. Yet, two of those teams made the playoffs and two others, Jax and Seattle both had winning records at 9-7. Clearly the weak division of the NFC West was an enormous factor in the "propelling" of the Seahawks and Rams to the division title and playoffs respectively. Yet again, how can a team incapable of scoring more points than it allows in a season to be classified as "good" however "good" is defined.

The Rams put up 73 fewer points than they allowed clearly proving that they were not a true playoff caliber team. In fact no teams in the NFC were truly of the caliber that typically wins a conference championship paving the way for the only team that was, Philly, for an easy trip to the big dance. In fact, the Falcons, the second best team in the NFC this season, only put up 3 more points than it had allowed on the season. The NFC average for point delta for teams that made the playoffs was – 3.6 points without Philly added into the mix. With the Eagles in the mix, the average was + 18 or barely over a point-per-game on the season.

In the AFC, the group point delta average for playoff bound teams was a ridiculously higher +125 with the team in the AFC playoffs with the lowest point delta being greater than five of the six teams in the NFC playoffs and one that is 95 points greater than the point-delta of all five teams combined.

To regress momentarily, the teams in the six-game winning streak had the following point-deltas:

St. Louis: - 73

Seattle: - 2

Miami: - 79

Cleveland: - 114

Cincinnati: + 2

San Francisco: - 193

For purposes of the next analysis, these two primary factors, W-L record and "scoring delta" (PF-PA) will be considered. So how have the Bills fared this season as well as in '02 and '03, during the Bledsoe-era, vs. teams categorized within those general parameters?

The following table will illustrate this data and the clear lack of a trend towards the positive during the Commander Tom-Bledsoe era.

 

‘02

‘02

‘03

‘03

‘04

‘04

3 Yr. Avg.

Games

Wins

Games

Wins

Games

Wins

Games

Wins

Vs. Teams w/ 10+ wins:

2

0

9

1

5

1

16

2

Vs. Teams w/ 7-9 wins:

9

3

1

1

5

3

15

7

Vs. Teams with 6 or fewer wins:

5

5

6

4

6

5

17

14

Vs. Teams with a positive point delta:

10

2

9

1

7

2

26

5

Vs. Teams with a negative point delta:

6

6

7

5

9

7

22

18

Vs. Teams with 9+ wins:

9

2

9

1

8

2

26

5

Vs. Teams with 8 or fewer wins:

7

6

7

5

8

7

22

18

Record:

8-8

6-10

9-7

23-25

 

When one factors in that in the five wins over the five teams with a positive point-delta there were mitigating circumstances in each and every one of those games, the question begs asking, ‘are the Bills truly capable of beating playoff caliber teams at their best and at full-strength and on equal terms at all during the regular season let alone in the playoffs?' The release of Bledsoe will certainly help tremendously, but to be sure there were other very significant issues alongside Bledsoe's foul play. The five games referenced were the "Milloy Pats game" in 2003, the two Miami games with Lucas (2-4) in place of an injured Fiedler (7-3), and the Jets game this season with the Jets having come off of a big Monday Night game over Miami along with the Cincinnati game this season featuring Jon Kitna in first-time replacement for Carson Palmer.

Identical questions loom regarding the Bills victories over teams with winning records and equally so in wins over teams with 10 or more wins. In 16 games vs. opponents finishing their seasons with 10 or more wins, the Bills only managed to eke out two wins. They were the same Jets and Patriots games just mentioned.

In 26 games vs. teams with winning records, the Bills have managed only five wins as well. Four of those five games are also from the initial grouping of five games and include the same Patriots "Milloy game", the Jets game this season, and the two Miami games in '02 with Seattle this season taking the honors over Cincy in this category.

Either way, when it is broken down, and upon further review, the Bills appear no more apt to be able to beat playoff caliber competition today than they did at the onset of the Bledsoe-era under the managerial whiling of Commander Tom! This in turn then questions the entire approach used by the good GM which includes snubbing paying any relevant attention to the offensive line over the past few seasons.

It also calls into question the far more risky approaches that he has consistently made part and parcel of his management and player staffing philosophy. High risk moves such as the Bledsoe and McGahee moves coupled with a seeming reliance on overcompensated aging vets rather than up-and-coming performers seem to be the order of the day with the risks winning out over positive results to be sure.

The questions linger heading into this offseason. Will the Bills continue on in a fantasy football style of offseason approach based on perceptions and historical reality with little future promise, or will conventional wisdom placing credence in a strategy for the future finally take some root in Buffalo. Either way, in this his fifth season, it would not appear that the promises made of the second and third seasons are even close to manifesting themselves anytime soon putting the credibility of the good GM under what should be intense scrutiny. Once again, the offseason will certainly be an indicator as to whether or not the team is moving in the forward direction however.

The biggest question looming for the Bills this offseason may very well be ‘can a leopard change his spots.' Either way, the emperor will once again walk out of the palace following free agency and the draft in just over two months. Will this season be the one where the naïve child shouts, "the emperor is naked!" with the masses following suit, or will this be the season that the emperor truly dons a new set of duds!

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

 

 


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