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Formula for Success, Part III

April 27, 2010

As promised, here is the third part of our “Formula for Success” series. Enjoy.

A Lost Decade: The Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills have not made the NFL postseason since 1999 and have rightfully become the poster child of league mediocrity. With five head coaching changes this decade, seven different starting quarterbacks, and a defense that has on average finished in the bottom half of the league since the 2000 season, the Bills have epitomized discontinuity and tested the allegiances of even their most loyal of fans. This futility exhibited by the franchise is a far cry from club’s heyday during the late 1980s and early 1990s. From 1988 – 1993 the Bills won six straight AFC East divisional crowns, appeared in four straight Super Bowls (1990 – 1993), and boasted one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history –the K-Gun. What seems like a lifetime ago for most Bills fans has sadly become all that the current product has left their supporters to hold on to. The franchise’s current decade-long-and-counting streak of zero playoff appearances lies well outside the realm of a “team rebuilding” justification. Rather, there seems to be larger personnel factors at play (in addition to the ones previously noted), which we aimed to identify through the comparison of the Bills’ regular seasons performances since 2000 to that of the Super Bowl winning teams of the same time period.

The first metric we compiled and assessed was the standard by which all NFL clubs measure themselves – the NFL’s version of the “bottom line” – regular season wins. In a somewhat ironic twist, in a league that prides itself on parity and competitive balance, a .500 regular season record of 8-8 is simply not good enough. Over the course of the last nine years, the eventual Super Bowl winning teams have exhibited an average of twelve regular season wins per year. During that same period, the Bills have managed a paltry 6.67 wins per year and have failed to reach 10 wins since the 1999 season. In fact, the franchise’s best year of this decade came in 2004 in which they went 9-7 and subsequently missed the playoffs. The club promptly followed up this inspiring 2004 campaign by winning just five games the following season, resulting in the dismissal of head coach Mike Mularkey.

This regular season ineptitude displayed by the franchise posed the obvious question of identifying who was to blame. Given the trend in modern NFL circles to immediately point the finger at either the head coach and/or quarterback, we decided to follow suit and concentrate on the quarterback play of the Bills from 2000-2009. Using the respected QB rating system as our guide, we compared the Bills’ performance at the most critical position on the field to that of the Super Bowl winning clubs.

It is no secret that since the retirement of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly at the conclusion of the 1996 season the Bills have been without a true franchise quarterback. This point is overtly illustrated on the above graph, which plots the regular season quarterback ratings of the Bills’ signal callers versus those of Super Bowl winning clubs. Since the 2000 season, Super Bowl winning quarterbacks have averaged a quarterback rating of 87.6. Over that same time period, the collective hodgepodge of Bills QBs has exhibited an 80.6 rating. What is more telling is the fact that in seven out of the nine years we observed, quarterbacks for the Bills have put forth ratings that are below those demonstrated by Super Bowl winning QBs. One exception to this came in the 2000 season in which Baltimore Ravens quarterback Trent Dilfer experienced a 76.6 rating and was promptly released that offseason by the club. What has been made abundantly clear from this graph is that the Buffalo Bills need to drastically upgrade their play from the quarterback position if they hope to finally breakthrough into the postseason in the next decade.

One area of the franchise that has exacerbated the lackluster quarterbacking seen since the 2000 season has been the club’s offensive line. No statistical data is needed to understand that a strong pass-blocking offensive line allows the quarterback more time to work through his various “reads” and deliver throws accurately and on time. The most important position on the offensive line, as we have noted throughout this paper, is the left offensive tackle that protects the quarterback’s exposed blind-side. Over the course of the last nine seasons, the Bills have started five different players at the position and seen only one elected to the Pro Bowl, current Philadelphia Eagles LT Jason Peters. From 2000 – 2009 the Bills have allocated on average 2.35% of their total salary cap each year to this position. In comparison, the Super Bowl winning clubs assigned on average 3.32% of their annual salary caps to their left tackles.

We felt that the most suitable metric to quantify the impact of a team’s starting left tackle would be the offensive rank of teams in terms of points scored. As we previously outlined in this paper, NFL offenses of the present have shifted their attention to scoring through the air. Besides the quarterback, the person most responsible for this occurrence would be the left offensive tackle. As the above graph shows, the Buffalo Bills have been below the Super Bowl winning teams in terms of offensive points scored eight out of the last nine years. Since the 2000 season, the Super Bowl winning franchises have benefitted from offenses that on average ranked 11th overall in terms of points scored. The Buffalo Bills offense, over the course of this same period, has ranked 22nd overall in the league. In this light, it is not difficult to surmise that the combination of poor quarterback play and notable player turnover at this left tackle position has driven the Bills offense towards the bottom of the NFL. In fact, on two separate occasions, the 2003 & 2007 seasons, the Bills offense ranked 30th in the league in terms of points scored. This embarrassing offensive output directly correlates to the tradition of losing felt this decade by the team and fanbase alike.

Finally, with new focus being placed on offensive passing attacks, the value of pass-rushing defensive ends has never been higher. Defensive ends can disrupt the flow and tempo of opposing offenses with their ability to rush and sack the quarterback. Defensive ends like Dwight Freeney, who exhibit the uncanny ability to get to the quarterback on a consistent basis, draw the attention of offensive coordinators every week. These offensive coordinators attempt to mitigate the impact of players like Freeney by installing “max” protection packages into their schemes. These max protection packages decrease the number of downfield targets for the quarterback to throw to, thus, in theory, limiting offensive potency.

From 2001 – present, the Bills have benefitted from the steady play of Aaron Schobel, who has consistently led the team in sacks and twice made the Pro Bowl in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. While Schobel’s career stats speak to his consistency, he lacks the elite speed necessary to be considered a top-flight NFL defensive end.

Similar to the methodology we used to quantify the impact of the left tackle on a team’s offensive production, we chose defensive rank in terms of points against to be our metric for comparing the Bills’ pass rushers to those of the Super Bowl winning franchises. Over the last nine seasons, Super Bowl winning defenses have ranked on average 6th overall in the league. Additionally, on four occasions, the Super Bowl winning team boasted the top ranked defense in the league in terms of points against. Over this same time period, the defensive rank of the Bills franchise has been 17th overall, landing them in the bottom half of the league.  While this middle of the pack result is undeniably attributable to the other ten defensive players on the field, recent Super Bowl winners such as the 2006 Colts, the 2007 Giants, and the 2008 Steelers showcased the likes of pass rushing specialists Dwight Freeney, Michael Strahan, and James Harrison, respectively.

The Bills have lacked this type of elite talent at the defensive end position since Hall of Famer Bruce Smith departed after the 1999 season. In order to climb the defensive rankings and consistently shut down high-powered offenses (including that of the divisional foe Tom Brady led New England Patriots), the Bills must make it a priority to seek out a defensive end who can develop into a menace to opposing offenses.

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