After an embarrassing loss, heads roll. That’s the way the NFL goes.
Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey was the man the Buffalo Bills chose to take the fall after the team’s 24-22 loss to the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football.
No matter that Dorsey doesn’t coach the defense that had 12 men on the field at the end of the game, a penalty that gave the Broncos a second chance at their winning field-goal after Wil Lutz missed his first attempt. Or that the Bills’ offense has been fine for much of the season. Or that the offense has had the worst starting field position in the league from weeks five to 10, thanks, largely, to injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Or that Dorsey didn’t call for plays that ended in drops or fumbles, problems that have plagued his group in recent weeks.
It doesn’t seem to matter, either, that the Bills’ five losses this season have all come in one-possession games, a notoriously unreliable way of judging any team.
When times feel desperate, organizations feel the need to do something. And the Bills have been living in desperation mode since their 13-second loss in the playoffs to Kansas City in 2022. It’s why they handed Von Miller an eye-watering contract in free agency in 2022 – and why they murkily parted ways with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier last offseason, despite Frazier delivering a top-seven unit.
When you’re 5-5 in a supposed Super Bowl season, someone has to take the fall.
Dorsey shouldn’t be completely absolved of blame, though. Yes, at the time of his firing, Dorsey’s offense ranked third in the league in DVOA, first in success rate, third in EPA per play, third in yards per play, second in third-down conversion % and third in redzone efficiency. Pick your measure, and you will find the Bills in the top-three. But it’s tough to separate the impact of the coach from the individual excellence of Allen; letting Dorsey go is the Bills’ way of saying that the offense performed despite the architecture constructed by its coach.
After Dorsey, Allen is next up on the ritual blame-athon. This week kicked off the ‘are we sure he’s good’ phase of Allen’s career, soon to be followed by the traditional ‘why can’t he get it done in the big one’ sequel. What drivel. Allen ranks second in the RBSDM composite, which measures the value of a play and how much the quarterback can be deemed responsible for that value.
Still: Yards and fancy metrics don’t win or lose games. Turnovers do.
Allen continues to cough the ball up at a league-leading rate. Since 2022, Allen leads the NFL in turnovers, throwing 25 interceptions (the most in the league) and losing eight fumbles (the second-highest mark in the league). But there’s noise in those numbers. Turnover luck is fluky – sometimes a fumbled ball bounces to an opponent, sometimes to a teammate. And Allen has been less reckless this season compared to last year. Last season, PFF deemed 4.2% of Allen’s throws were turnover-worthy. That’s fallen to 2.4% this season, putting him 27th among eligible quarterbacks and better than Patrick Mahomes (3.3%), Jalen Hurts (3.2%), and Lamar Jackson (3%), three frontrunners for MVP.
The eye test supports those figures. Allen has curbed his own worst instincts. For much of last year, the Bills’ offense was a chaotic mess. Too often, it was fractured in two, with a bunch of deep threats paired with a get-out-of-jail option underneath, and nothing in between. It was an offense that struggled to challenge all three levels of the field and indulged Allen’s penchant for HeroBall. When defenses figured out how to attack Buffalo’s lopsided set-up, neither Allen nor Dorsey could find solutions that would balance the quarterback’s needs with the coach’s wants.
To deal with that, the Bills have ploughed resources into surrounding Allen with talent, reinforcing the offensive line, drafting and trading for multiple backs and dipping into the draft to add a pass catcher. In the most recent draft, they selected tight end Dalton Kincaid in the first round to pair with Pro Bowl tight end Dawson Knox.
It was all a part of a broader vision. General manager Brandon Beane wanted to modernize the Bills’ offense. We’re talking positionless football, multiple formations, interchangeable players that can toggle between spots in the formation and create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses.
But Beane’s plan missed a couple of crucial points. Firstly, if you’re going to run an offense centered on two tight ends, those tight ends have to be respected as tight ends – and the Bills duo are not.
Kincaid and Knox are a pair of wide receivers dressed up in tight end clothing. The point of two tight end sets is for the Bills offense to get big and bully defenses in the run game. That should force their opponents to keep their own big boys on the field to slow down the run. The Bills offense can then split out into passing formations, creating conflicts for the opposing defense. But Kincaid and Knox aren’t good enough blockers to improve the run game – the Bills average a paltry 3.3 yards per carry – and they’re not quick enough to challenge defenses like true wide receivers. And if the opposing defense doesn’t buy that the two tight ends are there to help run the ball, then the Bills are left with two taller, slower receivers on the field versus a defense geared up to stop the pass.
Do you know what’s better than a positionless offense where you use tight ends and running backs as pseudo receivers? Having an excellent, reliable second receiver. Outside Stefon Diggs, the Bills do not have a receiver who can consistently win one-on-one. They haven’t selected a receiver during the first three rounds of the draft since 2017. Their free-agent signings have all been whiffs. The ever-frustrating Gabe Davis has been the team’s No 2 option since Cole Beasley was first excommunicated from the team, which feels increasingly like a move designed to have Bills Mafia throw their TVs into Lake Erie.
Diggs and Davis lead the team in targets. After that, it’s a free-for-all. Of the 172 targets Allen has distributed to players other than his top two receivers, only 21% have gone to wideouts.
Positionless football sounds great in theory. In practice, it’s nice to have specialists when it comes to third-and-must-have-it. The inability to surround Allen with a supplementary receiving corps has led to long periods of frustration in the passing game, with Allen forcing the issue when his receivers are not open. If he’s at his best, the offense chugs along. If not, the Bills turn the ball over. The margin for error is too narrow.
There are still reasons for optimism, if you dig far enough. The underlying metrics tell you the Bills offense has been one of the best in the league in spite of its staccato feel. Cut down on critical errors, and more one-score games should tip in Buffalo’s favor. But the team’s upcoming run of games is a gauntlet. Over the next month, the Bills host the Jets and Cowboys and head to Kansas City and Philadelphia. By the time that run is over, they could be 6-9 or worse, with a couple of tricky games left on the schedule.
“The clock is ticking,” Allen said this week. He was talking about this Bills season, but he may as well have been talking about the team’s Super Bowl window.
Being the face of a franchise means taking the shrapnel for the failings of those around you. Allen’s sloppiness has been an issue, but Buffalo’s problems are bigger than their star quarterback.