You'd better have an efficient passing game if you want to make the NFL playoffs.
Over the past two seasons, 80 percent of the NFL's playoff qualifiers ranked among the top half of the league in yards per pass attempt. And 91 percent -- 22 of 24 -- ranked among the top 50 percent of the league in passer rating.
There are lots of ways to make statistics prove a team's playoff worthiness. But the numbers are conclusive on this point: If a team's passing game is below average, that team is in trouble.
It's for this reason the Buffalo Bills are looking like a rebuilding team in 2010.
The four biggest question marks on the Buffalo team are:
1. Quarterbacking. 2. Pass protection. 3. Wide receivers. 4. Pass rushing.
In a league that leans heavily on the passing game -- teams threw the ball on 56.3 percent of plays last year -- this is a big worry for Buffalo.
Asked the No. 1 change he's seeking on offense this year, coach Chan Gailey said: "If I had to say one thing, I think that the running game was very solid. But in watching the film, hopefully we can create a better passing game. But in order for the passing to get better, the protection has to be better. Nobody can throw it laying on their back or running around for their life back there. So our protection has to get better."
Here's a preview of the 2010 season, broken down by weaknesses, strengths and hope for the future.
1. Quarterbacking. Trent Edwards won the offseason QB competition in a relative landslide. Gailey never gave Ryan Fitzpatrick or Brian Brohm a shot to start in preseason. Why? Obviously, he likes Edwards better. At his best, Edwards evokes some memories of Brad Johnson, the big, accurate former Viking and Buc. Johnson, however, stayed mostly healthy in the NFL and won 72 games, including a Super Bowl. Bad pass protection has hindered Edwards. He has been knocked out of the lineup five times in three years. It's hard to blame him for injuries, but a winning QB must stay on the field. A star QB also must make plays when blocking breaks down. Edwards must do more of that and show improved pocket presence. He has a big enough arm, for sure. His deep accuracy remains a bit of a question. He has worked on it and looked pretty good throwing deep this summer. The Bills' "check-down" passing game should be good this year. Edwards needs to parlay that into more big plays down the field.
2. Pass protection. The offensive tackle position is a big worry, again. The Bills were last in the NFL last year in sacks allowed per pass attempt. The Bills saw enough in Demetrius Bell to let him return to left tackle, even though he had major knee surgery in December. Bell has the raw tools to be good. Few seventh-round picks can put it all together. If Bell can, it will be a huge leap forward in the Bills' rebuilding effort. The expectation is Bell will have to get relief early in the season. If he can go 40 snaps a game the first month, that's a plus. The Bills need Jamon Meredith, Bell's backup, to be adequate. New offensive line coach Joe D'Alessandris rides Meredith pretty hard in practice. Meredith is green, and he needs to be pushed. On the right side, power blocker Cornell Green was signed from Oakland. Can he hold off the speed rushers? Preseason results looked shaky. Rookie Ed Wang, a fifth-round pick, is the fourth tackle and needs a year of growth in the system.
3. Receivers. Look for opposing defenses to double cover Lee Evans and dare the rest of the receiving corps to beat them. Who will step up among the other wideouts? It looks like Roscoe Parrish might be revitalized in the slot under Gailey. Rookie David Nelson might be a find in the slot. Can Stevie Johnson get open on the outside? The Bills' spread formations looked good in preseason. But can they pass protect well enough to flood the secondary with receivers? Last year the answer was a resounding no.
4. Pass rush. Roughly a third of the Bills' sacks from last season evaporated when Aaron Schobel retired. The Bills ranked only 19th in sacks per pass attempt with Schobel. Defensive coordinator George Edwards will need to create mismatches in the new 3-4 scheme. A lot is riding on Aaron Maybin producing as a pass-downs rush specialist. Can he get six or seven sacks? Can they get heat from Chris Kelsay and Reggie Torbor when teams pass on first down? Can Chris Ellis get a few sacks against starting-caliber competition? Can they get any heat from straight four-man rushes in pass situations, or will all the pressure be on Edwards to manufacture exotic blitzes?
1. Running backs. Rookie C.J. Spiller looks like a stud. Fred Jackson is an all-purpose weapon. Marshawn Lynch would rather be starting somewhere else, but he still hits the hole hard. The moniker Earth (Jackson), Wind (Spiller) and Fire (Lynch) already is being thrown around for the Bills' loaded backfield.
2. The middle three. Left guard Andy Levitre, center Geoff Hangartner and right guard Eric Wood could be good -- or maybe even great. Levitre is mobile and stout. Wood is mobile and nasty. Hangartner is smart and gives the Bills better than average stoutness.
3. Secondary. The Bills ranked second in passing yards allowed last year. They were third best in defensive completion percentage, holding foes to just 56.8 percent completions. They were second best (behind only the Jets) in opponent passer rating, at 61.1. The depth is experienced and solid. Reggie Corner and Ashton Youboty are outstanding as Nos. 4 and 5 on the cornerback depth chart. Backup free safety George Wilson could start for numerous teams.
4. Lee Evans. He runs all the routes well. He's sure-handed. He consistently gets behind the defense. He has been exiled in Offensive Siberia for most of the past six years. Can Gailey get more out of him? Or does No. 83 have to wait another year before the O-line and WR corps get upgraded?
How good is the Bills' core of young talent? At the end of the season, the answer to that question will go a long way to shaping the outlook for the franchise. Let's categorize the team's top developing talent (players 26 and younger):
Sure-fire cornerstones: Spiller (he falls in this category already), Wood, Levitre, safety Jairus Byrd.
Probable cornerstones: Cornerback Leodis McKelvin, linebacker Paul Posluszny, safety Donte Whitner. McKelvin has big-time talent. He has played well in preseason. He should have a big year. Posluszny has been solid. This is the last year of his contract. As long as he's healthy, he should be signed to an extension. The same probably goes for Whitner, who is only 25. His contract runs through 2011.
Uncertain prospects: Maybin, Bell, Shawn Nelson, Torell Troup, Alex Carrington, Ellis, Johnson. Can four or more of them turn out to be quality starters?
Last chance: Trent Edwards.
The Bills' shift to a 3-4 scheme makes sense in the AFC East, which is a punishing division. Newcomers Dwan Edwards and Andra Davis help make the Bills more stout. But logic suggests there will be some growing pains in adjusting to the 3-4. On offense, Gailey's track record is cause for optimism. He probably will utilize Spiller, Parrish, Jackson and Evans to the best of their abilities.
However, there are too many question marks to predict that everything will fall into place in Year One of the Bills' new regime. The schedule is tough early. Look for the Bills to be more entertaining, competitive and ultimately unsuccessful. Prediction: 5-11.