The Buffalo Bills' passing offense was not quite as bad in 2017 as it was during the J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards eras.
That's the most upbeat spin we can come up with in assessing the Bills' ability to throw the ball this year.
It's remarkable the Bills made the playoffs in spite of the pass offense, given some ignominious lows it hit, such as:
- The Bills 176.6 passing yards a game ranked 31st in the NFL. It was the lowest Bills total since 2009 and the fourth-worst total by any NFL team in the last five seasons.
- The Bills completed just 115 passes to wide receivers, last in the league this year and the lowest total in the NFL in the last seven seasons.
- Tyrod Taylor had by far his least-productive season throwing downfield. He managed just 551 yards on passes that traveled 20 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus. That was 17th in the NFL, 20 percent less than in 2016 and about half of his 2015 total, when he ranked fifth in the league with 1,014 yards on downfield throws.
"It falls on us all," General Manager Brandon Beane said. "It falls on me to provide players. Sean’s going to take his share of it. Coaching, players — you know, this was a new scheme, a new year, a lot of new parts. There were some returning parts, but there were a lot of new things here. I thought they really did some good things. We just could never, you know, we could never get on track consistently and that’s what we’ve got to be."
The first step came Friday when the Bills fired offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, but the issues were not restricted to play-calling or coaching. Most of the Bills' best-laid plans at wide receiver came unraveled.
Veteran Anquan Boldin retired in preseason. Jordan Matthews, acquired from Philadelphia on the same day Sammy Watkins was traded, was hindered by injuries. He started just seven games and caught 25 passes. Kelvin Benjamin, acquired at midseason from Carolina, hurt his knee and managed 16 catches in six games.
Dennison made it clear on several occasions the priority in the passing game had to be getting the ball to the two healthiest playmakers, LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay.
"You have to try and spread the ball," Dennison said recently. "Certainly, we have guys that we think are good mismatches — 85 does a good job versus safeties and you get 25 out in the open, he’s a tough guy to cover. We try to spread the ball as much as we can, just whatever the coverage is, that’s what we get."
McCoy led the Bills with 59 catches and Clay was second with 49.
More receiving talent is an obvious priority. The Bills wideout catch total was the lowest since Oakland managed 112 catches in 2010.
The league average in 2017 was 181 wideout catches per team, which shows how much help the Bills need at the position.
If the 6-foot-5 Benjamin is healthy, his first two seasons in Carolina suggest he's a 70-catch, 1,000-yard receiver. Rookie Zay Jones, who caught just 27 passes, will be counted on to make a big improvement.
Matthews, Deonte Thompson (27 catches) and Brandon Tate (six catches) all are due to be free agents.
Neither Benjamin nor Jones is a blow-the-top-off-the-defense deep threats.
To some degree, Taylor could not be faulted for his big dropoff in downfield completions.
He showed in 2015, when he had a healthy Watkins, he could throw accurate deep balls, especially to the outside of the field on play-action passes.
Taylor, however, does not win from the pocket late in the down, and that's how a lot of elite quarterbacks make big plays, by waiting for the scheme to allow the deeper routes to develop.
The Bills seemed less eager to go deep as the season went on, as they got a little better at moving methodically down the field.
The last eight games, Taylor was just 6 of 24 for 188 yards on throws 20 or more yards downfield.
With a mostly healthy Watkins in 2015, Taylor had 12 TDs and three INTs on passes 20-plus yards downfield. This year he had just four TDs and one INT on such throws.
Bills fans are used to watching a low-ranked pass offense. In the eight seasons from 2003 to 2010, the team averaged just 169 passing yards a game. The Bills also were in the bottom half of the league in interception percentage during that stretch.
Taylor was the least intercepted QB in the NFL this season.