Was Kyle Orton the Right Choice for the Buffalo Bills?

Can Kyle Orton's beard fend off the Buffalo winter and stave off head coach Doug Marrone's firing?

Fans of our regular Regression Candidates column here at numberFire know that I am the unabashed founder of the “Fitzmagic” fan club. This, of course, is the officially unofficial union of aficionados of the neckbeards grown by career backup quarterbacks, named for our patron saint, the ever-undervalued Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick has been a benchwarmer for most of his time in the league, yet has been sneakily efficient as a passer the last few seasons.

With Fitzpatrick’s former team, the Buffalo Bills, in a pinch at quarterback, they have turned to another career backup with stunningly scraggly facial hair: Kyle Orton.

The Bills must be hoping beyond hope that the ability that Fitzpatrick displayed was a Samson-like quality for bearded men in upstate New York, as Kyle Orton was named their indefinite starting quarterback prior to Week 5. Benching last year’s first-round pick in E.J. Manuel is no small decision, and this may be the current Bills regime’s do-or-die moment. With all that on the line, how did this journeyman hold up in his first start in 2014?

MVB: Most Valuable Beard

Sunday’s game against the Lions was Orton’s first game as more than a de facto starter since 2011, when he was named to start for the Kansas City Chiefs midway through the Matt Cassel/Tyler Palko debacle of a season. I don’t defend “quarterback wins” as a statistic that is at all useful in analysis, but it’s clear that the reason Buffalo went to Orton as their starter is to win some games and save their jobs; he did so, leading the Bills to a narrow victory. While that doesn’t offer us a lot of value in analyzing his play, it's useful to note that, as long as the team wins while Orton is under center, his job is fairly secure. Our job today, however, is not to find out Orton’s “Tebow Factor”, but to assess whether or not he’s actually succeeding and if the move to start him was, in fact, the correct one.

We will do this by breaking down his performance via our signature numberFire metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP is a measure not of just an individual’s production on the field, but their contribution to the team’s chances of scoring on each play. Through this lens, we can see a truer measure of success and value for a player. How does our hairy hero stack up in NEP?

Thin Under the Chin

In researching both Orton’s history of production and history of furry facial adornment, I commented to someone, “He has the beard of Fitzy, the arm of Charlie Whitehurst, the IDGAF of Jay Cutler, and the general facial features of Keanu Reeves in 'The Replacements'; my hero.” So, how do all these factors mesh when put into a Buffalo Bills uniform? The table below shows Orton’s 2014 Passing NEP performance (NEP gained only on drop backs) thus far - through his one start - and his rankings among quarterbacks with at least 45 drop backs.

PlayerDrop BacksPassing NEPRankPass NEP/AttemptRank
Kyle Orton450.6027th0.0127th

To sum it up, his performance so far has been extraordinarily “meh”. Ranking 27th among his peers in both categories, Orton has neither exploded in terms of volume thus far, nor been a lethally efficient passer held back by low volume from his offense. He seems to be, based on his production, exactly what the Bills wanted: a pure game manager, someone who just won’t lose the game for them. That's not a bad thing, as he faced a Detroit Lions team this past week that has surprisingly been a top-five unit in 2014.

But is this really better than what they had with E.J. Manuel? Is the regression from Manuel’s upside worth the move away from his much lower downside?

He Wasn’t Fuzzy, Was He?

In order to compare Manuel and his successor, Orton, we’ll look at the same NEP data as before, but also introduce the Rushing NEP categories (that is, all NEP gained on rushing attempts). Who comes out on top, and should have been the Bills’ quarterback of choice? The table below depicts this matchup.

PlayerDrop BacksPassing NEPPer AttemptRushing NEPPer Attempt
E.J. Manuel137-0.050.00-1.90-0.15
Kyle Orton450.600.01-2.48-2.48

When it all shakes out, Manuel and Orton’s Total NEP scores are exactly 0.07 apart, with Orton in a slight lead. Manuel has more natural rushing ability, and that shows on his lead in Rushing NEP (since Orton only has one rush to this point, the per attempt efficiency is a bit hard to judge). But in about a third of Manuel’s drop backs, Orton has already surpassed him in Passing NEP, showing that he may just be a slightly better passer. The curious thing is that their per drop back Passing NEP is nearly identical, and this whole thing basically comes out to a wash.

Is Kyle Orton better for the Bills than E.J. Manuel? Maybe. There’s no real determination one way or the other in the numbers behind their performances. He’ll likely turn the ball over less but offer less upside on dynamic plays (think a poor man’s Alex Smith without the rushing capability). If the Bills’ staff has the goal of saving their jobs now, Orton is probably the best man for that job, as he can keep the team from losing a game. If their goal was to truly better the team and allow it to grow, using and developing their first round pick from only last year (who, remember, has not yet started a full season) is probably the way to go.

For fantasy owners, again, the profile you’re looking at with Orton is a less interesting version of Alex Smith. This week, he put up 14 fantasy points, while E.J. was able to do that with multiple turnovers per game. Like for Doug Marrone, your decision comes down to whether or not the upside is worth the risk. For a team like Buffalo, it remains to be seen if they made the right decision. For your fantasy teams, dump Manuel in redraft, but hang onto him in dynasty; you never know when the winds may turn.