2013 Team Preview: Buffalo Bills

Buffalo Bills

BuffaloBills1

  • 2012 Record: 6-10 (4th in AFC East)
  • 2012 Point Differential: -91 (25th out of 32)
  • 2012 Strength of Schedule (per PFR’s SRS system): -1.0 (20th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.02 (17th)
  • 2012 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.56 (28th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (offense): 5.07 (14th)
  • 2011 Predictive Yards per Play (defense): 5.43 (25th)

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Offensive Projection: 337.25 points

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Defensive Projection: 371.17 points

Buffalo has become the NFL’s version of Siberia, a place where all hopes and dreams eventually die away under an avalanche of snowfall and interceptions. The last time the Bills made the playoffs, Bill Clinton was president, Britney Spears was more famous than Justin Timberlake and M. Night Shyamalan was the hottest up-and-coming director in Hollywood. On January 8, 2000, the Bills lost the first playoff game held in the 21st century after Frank Wycheck and Kevin Dyson performed the Music City Miracle on them and they haven’t been back since. More than that, they haven’t even really been close since.

Only in 2004, when the team rode an absurdly dominant six-game win streak to a 9-6 record and a win-and-get-in scenario in Week 17, has a playoff spot been within Buffalo’s grasp in that time frame. The Bills couldn’t beat Pittsburgh’s second-stringers at home, however, and thus 2004 ended the way the four years prior to that and the eight years since have also ended: lots of free time in January. It’s really sad to speak of one 9-7 season as the highlight of the past decade-and-a-half of a franchise’s existence, but beyond that you really have to grasp for straws to find any high points out of the bunch.

Drew Bledsoe’s first year as starting quarterback in 2002 made the team at least an exciting .500 team to watch. They blew out the Patriots 31-0 in the 2003 season opener and looked like they were really going to stick to Bill Belichick for cutting Lawyer Milloy (they sure showed him!). And they got off to fast starts in both 2008 and 2011, giving their long-suffering fan base hope that the playoff drought was finally over before ultimately sprinting as fast as they could off a cliff both years. These are the best moments of the Buffalo Bills’ franchise in the 21st century. Feel the excitement!

If we were talking about normal franchises in this essay, we’d probably say that the team’s fast start in 2011 actually wound up setting the team back a few years. These are the Bills, though, and they’re always setting themselves back a few years, so it’s tough to make a bigger deal out of this specific instance than any other. At this point, I think they’re setting themselves up for a run in 2035. Since this was the most recent example – or one of the most recent examples – of the team screwing itself over in the long-term, though, we’ll cover it a little more in-depth.

The 2011 Bills had no buzz whatsoever surrounding them before the season started. They were led by a septuagenarian coach and an Ivy League quarterback whose biggest claim to fame up to that point was leading the Bengals to the league’s worst offensive production in 2008 after Carson Palmer got hurt. Fans wrote the team off before the season and they wrote them off quickly. But oddly enough, the Bills actually ended up getting out to a fast start: they blew out the Chiefs in the season opener, then won exciting and close home games over the Raiders, Patriots and Eagles as Harvard Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (which is what his name was legally changed to during that season) played surprisingly well and the defense made up for high yardage totals with a flurry of turnovers. Two days before the Bills shut out the Redskins to move to 5-2, the team announced a $59 million contract extension with Fitzpatrick through the year 2017.

Buffalo, of course, wound up finishing 1-9 and Fitzpatrick ended up leading the league in interceptions. The team attributed Fitzpatrick’s second-half collapse to a shoulder injury and proceeded to make moves in the offseason like their offense was completely settled. They threw a ridiculous sum of money at Mario Williams to convince him to spend his falls and early winters in upstate New York and invested a first-round pick in corner Stephen Gilmore while picking up everybody’s favorite punching bag head coach Dave Wannstedt to serve as their defensive coordinator. For the first time in a long time, the Bills actually entered 2012 with genuine playoff expectations.

This being the Bills, though, those playoff expectations were way off the mark as usual. Despite his Ivy League pedigree, Fitzpatrick tended to throw the ball around with Brett Favre-levels of recklessness – while possessing about one-tenth of the talent. Stevie Johnson would be a quality #2 receiver on some teams and Scott Chandler has his moments at tight end – outside of that, though, the talent at wide receiver and tight end was completely bare for Buffalo.

The bigger issue, however, was defensively. Over a two game period against New England and San Francisco, the Bills gave up a staggering 97 combined points and 1200 combined yards while letting running backs run through holes so big even John Goodman could have fit threw them. After the Titans came back to beat them 35-34 in Week 7, the Bills never again got back to .500 and once again finished at 6-10, causing a total regime change. Head coach Chan Gailey was shown the door, Fitzpatrick was cut and GM Buddy Nix left the front office after the draft in April.

So the Bills are back starting at zero but they’ve been so close to zero for so long that it’s tough to tell any difference. They’ve hired yet another cheap coach that wasn’t really on anybody else’s radar (former Saints offensive coordinator and Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone). They picked a quarterback in the first round of the draft that they definitely could have picked in the second and maybe even a round or two after that (E.J. Manuel) and are immediately sticking him in a quarterback battle with yet another retread veteran (Kevin Kolb). They’ve also hired a new defensive coordinator (former Jets DC Mike Pettine) and are switching back to the 3-4 after a year with the 4-3 because, hey, who would want to experience any sort of familiarity with a specific system?

Predictive Yards per Play is probably higher on the team’s chances in 2013 than most. It wasn’t high on Fitzpatrick to begin with, so it doesn’t foresee a noticeable drop-off in play from the quarterback position no matter who winds up starting. It took note of the improvement the defense made over the course of the season (especially in pass defense) and thinks that unit is closer to being league-average than conventional wisdom does. And it also expects their schedule to be one of the easiest in the league, allowing the team to probably pick up a win or two extra in the process.

Subjectively, however, it’s perhaps tougher to find reasons for optimism in Buffalo this year than in any other locale in the NFL save for Jacksonville. The Bills offense the past two years has had roughly replacement level talent at every position except two: running back and guard. Somehow, Gailey built a slightly-above-league average offense out of those two areas of strength with a plethora of screen and formation wrinkles. We all made fun of his hire when the Bills signed him before 2010, but if we’re being honest here, he definitely got as much out of that offense as humanly possible. Marrone comes with a good offensive reputation and glowing endorsement from Sean Payton, but good luck to him if he thinks he can wring a 25-point-per-game offense out of 500 screen passes to C.J. Spiller.

That’s leaving aside the inevitability that Kolb will get hurt at some point during the season even if he wins the starting job or the likelihood the defense suffers through another embarrassing transition period at the beginning of the season. All in all, the seven-win mean projection Predictive Yards per Play spits out looks almost comically high; I’d personally put much higher odds on the Bills tanking for the Teddy Bridgewater Sweepstakes in December than them vaguely hanging around in the Wild-Card race. All things considered, though, bottoming out and going 2-14 or 3-13 is probably the best-case scenario for the Bills this season, anyway. Finally being able to select a franchise player in the first few picks of the draft is probably the only way their playoff exile will finally end.

Offense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Change in Starting QB’s Career NY/A Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Scored
5.038497 -0.5375 0.985432 -0.03 -0.10766 337.251

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, WR David Nelson, WR Donald Jones, G Andy Levitre, G Chad Rinehart

Notable 2013 offseason additions: QB Kevin Kolb, QB E.J. Manuel, WR Robert Woods, WR Marquise Goodwin, G Doug Legursky

In Marrone’s last year at Syracuse, his offense began to switch to the high-tempo no-huddle style of offense that Chip Kelly popularized at Oregon and early reports out of Buffalo seem to indicate he’s going to at least try to install that same ultra-fast pace in the Bills offense too. This would theoretically seem to make the mobile first-round pick Manuel the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, but when in doubt it’s usually a good idea to side with the veteran in any training camp quarterback deal. So the Bills’ Predictive Yards per Play projection assumes that Kolb will be the quarterback who starts the season under center – given his own bouts of ineffectiveness and injury history, however, it’s safe to assume Manuel will also see extensive playing time this year…C.J. Spiller was easily the biggest reason to watch Bills games last season. His speed and acceleration in the open field churned out a ton of huge plays for their offense and made him one of the biggest breakout players of the season. Unfortunately, the Bills let standout guard Andy Levitre walk in free agency and don’t really have any other exciting skill position players to speak of (unless you think Fred Jackson’s going to magically rebound from an injury-plagued year at age 32). It’d be fun if C.J. averages 6.0 yards per carry again and I’m rooting for it to happen, but it doesn’t look too likely…

Defense

PY/P 2011-12 Weighted Avg. 2012 Consistency Index Ball Control % Projected Strength of Schedule Projected Points Allowed
5.511866 4.125 1.014568 -1.08773 371.1645

2012 key contributors who moved on in the offseason: DE Chris Kelsay, OLB Shawne Merriman, ILB Nick Barnett, CB Terrence McGee, S George Wilson

Notable 2013 offseason additions: DT Alan Branch, ILB Kiko Alonso, OLB Manny Lawson

The Bills’ 2012 defensive consistency index was maybe the most surprising of all 32 teams. Despite their obvious struggles at various points throughout the year, the Bills did force incompletions and fumbles at a much-better-than-league average rate. If they can repeat their 57.1% completion percentage from last year (big if, but still), then they could reasonably expect to force more interceptions than just the 12 they accrued last year…Mario Williams is switching back to outside linebacker in Mike Pettine’s 3-4 system and Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will remain the key cogs on the front line. That’s a unit that possesses a large amount of talent but is definitely capable of producing a higher sack rate than 6.3%, which tied for 13th in the league. Pettine needs those three guys and Mark Anderson to push that rate into the top ten for this defense to wind up around league average…In the secondary, the Bills are half-golden and half-screwed. Last year’s Stephon Gilmore played better and better as the year progressed and Jairus Byrd was actually one of the better safeties in the league (he had to be with all the gaping holes the front seven left in front of him). Their starting mates Leodis McKelvin and Da’Norris Searcy don’t inspire nearly the same sort of confidence, however.

Special Teams/Schedule/Miscellaneous

1 September 8 New England Patriots
2 September 15 Carolina Panthers
3 September 22 @ New York Jets
4 September 29 Baltimore Ravens
5 October 3 @ Cleveland Browns
6 October 13 Cincinnati Bengals
7 October 20 @ Miami Dolphins
8 October 27 @ New Orleans Saints
9 November 3 Kansas City Chiefs
10 November 10 @ Pittsburgh Steelers
11 November 17 New York Jets
12 Bye Week
13 December 1 Atlanta Falcons
14 December 8 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
15 December 15 @ Jacksonville Jaguars
16 December 22 Miami Dolphins
17 December 29 @ New England Patriots

2013 Projected Strength of Schedule: -1.20 points per game harder than average (27th-toughest)

Rian Lindell only missed three field goals last year for the Bills, but he got terrible depth on his kickoffs last year, so the Bills drafted Dustin Hopkins in the sixth round to compete with him in training camp. Returns are a massive area of strength, however, as McKelvin and Brad Smith scored three return touchdowns between them and generally gave Buffalo great field position…For what it’s worth (which isn’t usually very much), the Bills’ schedule rated out as the sixth-easiest in the league according to Predictive Yards per Play. Typically, though, you have to be a good team to be able to take advantage of that aaaaaaaaannnnnnnddddd we’ll be back…Also, take note that the Dec.1 game against Atlanta isn’t actually a home game but the team’s annual foray into Toronto – I predict 40% Falcons jerseys in the stands, 40% Argonauts jerseys, 15% assorted jerseys of other NFL teams and 5% Bills jerseys.

2013 Predictive Yards per Play Wins Projection: 7.1 wins (2nd in AFC East)

Marrone coaxes enough magic out of Spiller to keep the offense functional and the Bills muddle through their 75th consecutive 6-10 or 7-9 season.

2013 Subjective Prediction: 4-12 (4th in AFC East)

Lots of sad Bills fans. Lots and lots of sad Bills fans.

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