It’s almost impossible to make the playoffs while finishing near the league lead in turnovers.
That simple fact goes a long way to explaining how the Buffalo Bills went from a nine-win team that earned a wild-card berth in 2017 to a five- or six-win team in 2018 that will be sitting home for the postseason.
The Bills have made the second most turnovers in the NFL.
Last year they made the sixth fewest turnovers in the league.
“That’s one stat that doesn’t go away every year,” said Bills coach Sean McDermott Wednesday as his team prepared for the season finale against Miami. “You turn the ball over, you make it hard to win. You turn the ball over, usually it’s an uphill battle to win a football game, particularly when you end up on the minus side of the turnover differential. That’s important in terms of winning football games, so I don’t want to give too much of a context around that. We talk about it just about every meeting. Miami this week is very good at taking the ball away.
To a large degree, turnover differential is a symptom of problems more than the cause.
Inexperienced quarterbacking. A drop-off in quality on the offensive line. Youth and a lack of talent at receiver. These were obvious concerns going into the 2018 season that proved to be big problems, which contributed greatly to the rise in turnovers.
A look at the offensive and defensive production shows a lot of similarities between 2017 and 2018. The defense was good last year and even better this year. The offense was one of the least explosive in the league last year (29th in yards and 22nd in scoring) and was even less potent this year (31st in both yards and points).
Here were the key areas of regression that prevented the Bills from approaching last year’s success:
Buffalo’s 31 giveaways rank second behind only Tampa Bay’s 34. The Bills have thrown 22 interceptions, compared with 10 last season. Tyrod Taylor threw only six INTs in 14 starts last season.
An increase was bound to happen with rookie Josh Allen taking the field. Exacerbating the problem, of course, was the fact that “bridge quarterback” Nathan Peterman threw seven INTs in just a little more than seven quarters of action, including a game-deciding pick-six at Houston.
Only one team in the last 10 years has made the playoffs while ranking in the bottom two of the league in giveaways. The Arizona Cardinals did it in 2009, making 36 turnovers and finishing minus-7 in the turnover ratio. (The Bills are minus-8 this year.)
The most famously successful turnover-prone team arguably was the 2001 St. Louis Rams, which made the Super Bowl (and lost), despite making a league-high 44 turnovers.
Allen had turnover-free outings in wins over Jacksonville and Detroit since returning from a midseason injury.
McDermott acknowledged it’s important for a young QB not to feel he has to “play safe” in the interest of avoiding mistakes.
“To your point, I don’t want a quarterback afraid to pull the trigger,” McDermott said. “You’ve got to be able to go out there and play free. But there’s a responsibility that comes with handling the football. Guys that handle the football – returners, punters, kickers, long-snappers, quarterbacks – you must be responsible, be a good decision-maker and consistent.”
“Sometimes that comes right away, and sometimes that comes with experience,” McDermott said.
Running back production
The Bills’ rushing average doesn’t look much different from last year – 121 a game to 126 last season. But that’s misleading because Allen has been so effective running the ball.
The Bills’ running backs last year rushed for 1,518 yards or 94.8 a game.
This year the RBs have gained 1,166 yards or 77.7 a game.
The struggles of the offensive line have not allowed the offense to lean on the run game like last year, and the passing game is too young to carry the attack.
Seven of the 11 most-used offensive players the past six weeks are under age 25.
“On the offense, in particular, it takes 11 guys committed to making one play,” McDermott said. “Just a fancy way of saying do your job. That’s really what it takes, because you have one guy break down, particularly in the run game, and then all of a sudden the play is blown up.”
Last year the Bills ranked sixth in the NFL in third-down conversions, converting 41.9 percent. Keeping drives alive allowed the Bills to give the running game more chances to get going.
This year the Bills rank 31st, converting 30.8 percent.
The inability to get a consistent ground game leaves the Bills in tougher third-down situations.
Last year the Bills were 18 of 24 on third-and-1 situations.
This year they’re only 7 of 9 on third and 1.
Last year they had 103 plays of third and 5 or less and converted 62 percent. This year they’ve had 73 third-and-5s or less and converted 49 percent.
Last week’s loss at New England was an example. Allen missed on makeable third- or fourth-down throws to Jason Croom, Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie, two of them back-shoulder attempts.
“It was an accumulation of things,” Allen said Wednesday. “They threw a couple things at me that I hadn’t seen or didn’t think that they would do. We tried to adjust, and it was just a little too late.”
“It’s all about timing, trust and the relationship that you have with the guys out there,” Allen said. “We’re still relatively new with each other. To go through and play games like that and have opportunities that were so close but slip away, it definitely gives us confidence as we move forward. We’ll work on them and clean those things up and in no time we’ll be completing those. Having trust on depth, on timing in my drop and expecting guys to be where they are and they’re going to be there.”
The short, possession passing game isn’t nearly good enough. When the Bills pass on third and 6 or less, they’re converting only 37 percent. Last year in those situations, they converted 53 percent.