FOXBOROUGH – The Buffalo Bills have shown a maddening reluctance to throw the ball downfield.
Maybe that’s by choice, but the data and analysis indicate the Bills simply don’t have the capacity.
Whether the team runs a West Coast offense or likes to ground and pound, every football coach wants to stretch the field horizontally and vertically, to back defenders away from the line and prevent them from guessing what’s about to strike.
The Bills, however, have been unable to establish any kind of deep threat.
Bills coach Chan Gailey has claimed he has the proper personnel for a downfield passing attack, but the data shows his team is the least successful and among the least willing to even bother trying.
The Bills enter Week 10 – and this afternoon’s game against the New England Patriots – with the fifth-fewest passes that have traveled at least 20 yards through the air and with the lowest completion percentage on those throws.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ranks 32nd in how long his attempts travel in the air, 7.29 yards, and in length of his average completion, 4.79 yards.
That’s worse than Captain Checkdown himself. Trent Edwards averaged 7.28 yards per attempt
and 6.49 yards per completion in 2008, his final full season as Buffalo’s starting quarterback.
An inability to stretch the field has contributed to the Bills’ offensive woes. Buffalo ranks 21st in total offense despite a backfield that would be the envy of most clubs.
The Houston Texans last week showed Fitzpatrick little respect by leaving their base 3-4 defense on the field to take away the run. The Bills tried to make the Texans pay by passing. Spiller and Jackson had only six carries apiece, none over the last 23:23 of the game.
And while Fitzpatrick had a nice stat line – 69.4 percent completions, 239 yards, zero interceptions – the Texans didn’t let the Bills score a touchdown and won by 12 points partly because Fitzpatrick either can’t or won’t go long.
Fitzpatrick has not completed a deep sideline pass to a wide receiver yet this season, although he has threaded pretty sideline passes to Spiller, Jackson and tight end Scott Chandler. They’re memorable because they’re so rare.
“Al Davis required it,” legendary Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears vertical threat Willie Gault said. “He wanted you to throw the ball deep at least two or three times a game. It didn’t matter whether or not you completed it, but just to give that threat of throwing deep because it keeps everybody honest.
“When you can’t throw the ball deep, then the Texans can play up, crowd the line and attack. If you can keep three defensive backs out and put the strong safety in the running game, then you dare the quarterback to throw it.”
Minnesota Vikings sophomore Christian Ponder is the lone quarterback with average attempt and completion lengths shorter than Fitzpatrick’s.
On throws of at least 20 yards in the air, the analytic site ProFootballFocus.com says Fitzpatrick has completed five of his 23 attempts for 143 yards and three touchdowns with four interceptions. The site judged none of those throws to have been dropped.
Of full-timers, only San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, Ponder and rookies Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins and Ryan Tannehill of the Miami Dolphins have attempted fewer 20-yard throws. But each has completed a higher percentage and with fewer interceptions.
ProFootballFocus.com’s data showed the average NFL stat line on throws of at least 20 yards was 11 of 31 for 367 yards, 3.4 touchdowns and 1.9 interceptions entering Week 10. Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck leads the league in deep attempts. He was 18 of 49 for 548 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions before Thursday night’s game.
Why don’t the Bills try more downfield throws, and why aren’t they more successful when they take their occasional shots?
Gailey hasn’t been forthcoming when pressed on the issue other than to insist he has the personnel to try if he wanted and to say “everything’s designed around what you feel like your players do the best.” Gailey hasn’t given specifics on why downfield passing doesn’t fit into his philosophy this year.
An important factor could be Buffalo’s ineffective defense. It can’t get off the field, ranking dead last in third-down efficiency.
Buffalo ranks 24th in time of possession at 28:57 a game, 16th in third-down offense and 21st on first-down yardage. They have longer second- and third-down situations than most of the league.
With moving the chains, running the clock and protecting the ball such high priorities for Buffalo’s offense, short throws are safe options. Perhaps using a play to throw deep offers such a low-percentage benefit that Gailey deems it reckless.
“It’s responsible to be conservative, but you must always offer the threat,” Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield said. “In the minds of the defenders, they need to be wary that at any time they could be hit for a big play or a touchdown from any spot on the field.
“If defenders are allowed to feel that the only things they need to do are stop a short run or pass because the offense lacks the capability to stretch the field, then offenses are certainly at a disadvantage.
“Defenders come into a game with the mindset of ‘These guys can’t do anything else but that one certain thing.’ It gives them confidence to play recklessly.”
Fitzpatrick’s numbers were substantially better in 2010, the last year speedy receiver Lee Evans was on the team. Fitzpatrick’s average attempt traveled 9.01 yards in the air (12th in the NFL), and his average completion traveled 7.08 yards (tied for eighth).
The Bills this year traded up to draft quicksilver wideout T.J. Graham in the third round, but he has just 10 catches for 109 yards, a disappointing 7.8-yard average.
James Lofton, a Hall of Fame receiver who went deep for Buffalo’s first three Super Bowl teams, doesn’t see the proper downfield makeup among the current receiving corps – and maybe not on the offensive line.
Offenses frequently go deep on play-action passes, which require linemen to maintain blocks longer. The Bills also utilize empty backfields, leaving Fitzpatrick vulnerable to blitzes.
“Fitzpatrick, unless you feel you have the five blocks of granite in front of you, you’ve got to get rid of the ball,” Lofton said.
Lofton scanned the Bills’ roster and noted that Stevie Johnson is 6-foot-2, but Donald Jones is 6 feet and Graham is 5-11.
“When you get a 5-11 guy 30 yards down the field, he’s got to have more separation to appear open than a guy who’s 6-4 down the field,” said Lofton, who coached receivers for the Raiders and San Diego Chargers before getting into broadcasting.
“If you’re throwing the ball over the top of a defender, the receiver has to have a step. If I’m 6-3 and down the field against the typical corner at 5-11, then I appear to be open.”
Even with Fitzpatrick’s dearth of downfield throws, he’s on pace to become only the second Bills quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards three straight seasons. So many of his yards are after the catch.
Fitzpatrick’s pass plays average 5.8 yards after the catch, tied for fifth in the NFL. Much of that has been on screen passes and quick throws to Spiller and Jackson. Buffalo’s backfield has provided 24 percent of Fitzpatrick’s yardage.
“I don’t see a lot of receivers on the Bills who are great runners after the catch,” Lofton said. “The running backs are, but the receivers are going to catch the ball and get tackled for the most part.
“If you want to get rid of the ball with everybody under 12 or 15 yards, you better have guys who are great after the catch.”
Deep shots not only can put defenses on their heels within that game, but they also give future opponents something to worry about when they study film.
“The short-passing game has value,” Warfield said. “But when you complement it with stretching the field, you maximize the value. You have to be able to threaten defenses for the psychology of it.”
That menacing presence can improve the running game, too.
It wasn’t a coincidence that when the Bears drafted Gault in 1983, Walter Payton’s rushing numbers spiked. Payton averaged 73 yards a game in 1981 and 1982. The next three seasons, Payton averaged 97 yards a game at 29, 30 and 31 years old.
Defenders had to back up because quarterback Jim McMahon might scorch them deep with Gault.
“They just have to do it – first play of the game, first play of the second half, whatever,” Gault said of the Bills. “When you have a Cover 3 or man-to-man, you’ve just got to go deep.
“It’s something the quarterback has to be aware of and know to take that shot. A lot of things can happen. You can get a catch or a penalty or it sets up the defense to do other things later. You have to be able to establish that.”