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How have Rick Dennison's offenses performed through the air?

The Buffalo Bills have established themselves as one of the best running teams in the NFL, but many believe in order to take the next step as an offense, they need to become more proficient through the air.

Buffalo has led the NFL in yards per carry in each of the past two seasons, and although 2015's passing game was more efficient than 2016, in general, Bills fans would like to see greater aerial emphasis and production from the Tyrod Taylor-led offense.

With new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison at the helm, can the Bills field a more competent passing attack? Let's look at the aerial effectiveness of Dennison's offenses in the past.

Below are the years in which Dennison was an offensive coordinator, and the yards-per-pass-attempt average for those teams. The league ranking is in parentheses.

Dennison didn't call the offensive plays in all of these seasons, but as Gary Kubiak's coaching right-hand man since 1995, it's fair to assume he was significantly involved in the offensive game plans.

  • 2006 Broncos: 6.6 (20th)
  • NFL average: 6.9

Jake Plummer averaged 6.3 yards per attempt on 317 passes in 11 starts at a 55.2 percent completion rate. Rookie Jay Cutler started five games and averaged 7.3 yards per attempt on 137 passes. His completion percentage was 59.1.

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  • 2007 Broncos: 7.3 (8th)
  • NFL average: 6.9

Jay Cutler started all 16 games and averaged 7.5 yards per attempt on 467 passes with a 63.6 completion percentage.

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  • 2008 Broncos: 7.3 (9th)
  • NFL average: 6.9

On 616 passes, Jay Cutler averaged 7.3 yards per attempt with a 62.6 completion percentage.

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  • 2010 Texans: 7.6 (5th)
  • NFL average: 7.0

Matt Schaub averaged 7.6 yards per attempt with a 63.6 completion percentage on 574 passes.

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  • 2011 Texans: 7.9 (9th)
  • NFL average: 7.2

Matt Schaub started 10 games, completed 61.0 percent of passes and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt. Current Bills reserve quarterback T.J. Yates started five contests. He averaged 7.1 yards per attempt with a 61.2 completion percentage.

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  • 2012 Texans: 7.3 (13th)
    NFL average: 7.1

In 16 starts, Matt Schaub averaged 7.4 yards per attempt on 544 passes. His completion rate was 64.3 percent.

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  • 2013 Texans: 6.6 (24th)
    NFL average: 7.1

Matt Schaub played in 10 games and started eight. His yards-per-attempt average was 6.5, and he completed 61.2 percent of his throws. Case Keenum had a completion percentage of 54.2 on 253 attempts.

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  • 2015 Broncos: 7.0 (22nd)
  • NFL average: 7.3

The 39-year-old Peyton Manning completed 59.8 percent of his passes at 6.8 yards per attempt in 10 games on 331 throws. Brock Osweiler started seven games, connected on 61.8 percent of his 272 passes at a 7.2 yards-per-attempt clip.

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  • 2016 Broncos: 6.9 (21st)
  • NFL average: 7.2

Trevor Siemian started 14 games, averaged 7.0 yards per attempt and completed 59.5 percent of his passes. Rookie Paxton Lynch started two games and completed 59.0 percent of his throws at 6.0 yards per attempt.

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  • Average yards per attempt (average ranking): 7.16 (14.5)

For perspective, with Tyrod Taylor as Buffalo's starting quarterback beginning in 2015 (plus three starts from EJ Manuel and one quarter of play from Cardale Jones), here's how the Bills have fared in yards per attempt the past two seasons:

  • 2015:  7.7 (9th)
  • 2016: 6.9 (22nd)

The good and bad of Tyrod Taylor's transition to Rick Dennison's offense

Dennison's past impact

Dennison seemed to get the most out of Cutler, as the quarterback's combined 7.4 yards-per-attempt average during his three seasons in Denver with Dennison remains the highest three-year yards-per-attempt average of his NFL career.

Matt Schaub had his finest pro campaign under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan the season before Dennison got to Houston, but the veteran quarterback posted his highest TD percentage (5.1), and yards per completion (13.9) of his time as an NFL starter in his second year operating Dennison's offense. Schaub struggled as a 32-year-old in 2013, Dennison's final year with the Texans.

Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will bring Bills into NFL's pass-happy era

Brock Osweiler was at his best with Dennison as the Broncos' offensive coordinator in 2015, which came at the same time Peyton Manning simply didn't look like Peyton Manning anymore.

Trevor Siemian got out to a strong start in 2016, experienced a lull in the middle of the season and had a mediocre end to the year.

General offensive efficiency

Offensive efficiency isn't simply measured in yards-per-attempt passing figures. Football Outsiders' DVOA (defensive-adjusted value over average) is the most telling, all-encompassing efficiency metric available. The website's "ultra-short" definition of DVOA is as follows:

"DVOA measures a team's efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent."

ESPN's Bill Barnwell – a former Football Outsiders staffer – recently explained DVOA this way:

"The stat measures a team's success on a given play (through points and yards gained or lost) versus what would have been expected after accounting for the down, distance, game situation and quality of the opponent."

For perspective on DVOA, the Falcons, Patriots, Cowboys, Packers and Redskins were the five-best teams in offensive DVOA last season, and the Broncos, Giants, Eagles, Cardinals and Seahawks had the top five defensive DVOAs. The Bills were 10th in offensive DVOA and 26th in defensive DVOA a year ago. Buffalo had the league's second-best defensive DVOA in 2014.

Now that you have at least a decent understanding of Football Outsiders' fundamental metric, here's a breakdown of the yearly DVOA ranking of Dennison-coordinated offenses:

  • 2006 Broncos: 18th
  • 2007 Broncos: 8th
  • 2008 Broncos: 1st
  • 2010 Texans: 2nd
  • 2011 Texans: 9th
  • 2012 Texans: 16th
  • 2013 Texans: 29th
  • 2015 Broncos: 25th
  • 2016 Broncos: 28th

Takeaway

Dennison's offenses were efficient overall and through the air from 2007 to 2012. The 2013 Texans were a mess personnel-wise, especially after Schaub went down with a season-ending injury. The 2015 Broncos, the Super Bowl champs, make for an interesting case study, simply because Manning was playing in his final year, and Osweiler turned into a disaster after leaving the Broncos and joining the Texans in 2016.

Finishing 22nd in yards per attempt and 25th in offensive DVOA indicates a general lack of efficiency for Denver's attack that year. The Broncos ran the football at a 4.2 yards-per-carry clip, the 13th-best average in the league.

A season ago, Siemian emerged from obscurity and played like an upper-echelon quarterback through September. He was injured Oct. 2 and then wasn't the same post-injury, as his overall numbers were below league average.

Dennison's resume includes high-water marks for otherwise mediocre-to-abysmal quarterbacks and offensive personnel groups, but now, he needs to get more efficiency out of his attack in Buffalo.

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