A Regular Tune-Up: How Has Kyle Orton Fared in Buffalo?

Would you prefer E.J. Manuel's nitrous oxide, or Kyle Orton's standard-issue engine?

It’s really difficult to properly compare two things that aren’t at all alike. You might derive a lot of pleasure from driving a sports car at 90 miles an hour down the freeway, but I’ll be honest, I love the little rideshare Smartcars that I drive around town. Still, the experiences are totally different: one is a thrill ride through and through, the other is just a reliable, steady thing that gets me from Point A to Point B. Comparing the two is, as they say, “like apples to oranges”.

Yes, in this metaphor, E.J. Manuel is the Corvette and Kyle Orton is the Smartcar.

The styles of play between these two quarterbacks couldn’t be more different. However, when looking at how they matched up after Week 5 (Orton’s first start as a Buffalo Bill), we discovered that they were producing value for their team at a nearly identical rate. Since then, Orton has established a telling body of work in the Buffalo system and Manuel has sufficiently warmed up a place on the bench. For us, things in the mirror are not closer than they appear; they’re just right. In hindsight, was the Bills’ choice to start Orton still the right one?

That Thing Got a Hemi?

Souped up as he is, the Buffalo brass decided that their incumbent starting quarterback, sophomore E.J. Manuel, was just not getting the job done after leading the team to an early 2-2 record this year. Before getting benched, Manuel had a 58.0% completion rate for 838 passing yards, with 5 touchdowns to 3 interceptions, also contributing 52 yards and a score on the ground. In all fairness, these rates put him on the path for over 3,500 yards passing, 200 yards rushing, 24 total touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

On the surface, those numbers don’t look terrible, but in this age of demanding immediate results and elite passing numbers, it just wasn’t enough to keep his job.

Enter Orton. As one commenter on our last Orton article noted, he has played in over 70 games, and many as a starter; in a 10-year career, however, starting-caliber is not defined by an average of 7.8 games played per season. Still, general manager Doug Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone thought the best way to win was to turn to the veteran, and Orton has rewarded them with a 68.5% completion rate for 890 passing yards, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions.

Eerily similar, no?

Smooth Handling

So, Manuel and Orton are playing disturbingly identically, except that Orton has been more accurate with the ball. But that’s just in the box score. How have they matched up when we consider their impact on the team as a whole?

At numberFire, we use our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric to measure the real effectiveness of a player on the football field as his play affects his team’s chances of scoring. By advancing the ball and increasing the likelihood of his team scoring, that player gains NEP. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

How have Orton and Manuel matched up in our NEP metrics now that they have an identical 137 drop backs under their belts for 2014? The table below displays their production in both terms of Passing NEP (gained on all quarterback drop backs) and Rushing NEP (gained on all rushing attempts).

PlayerPass NEPPass NEP/AttemptRush NEPRush NEP/AttemptTotal NEPTotal NEP/Opportunity
E.J. Manuel-0.050.00-1.90-0.15-1.95-0.01
Kyle Orton2.500.02-2.48-2.480.020.00

As I said in my last article on the topic, “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.” Orton and Manuel have produced exactly a 2.55 difference in Passing NEP, and a 1.97 difference in Total NEP. That’s less than a field goal’s worth in a game, meaning there’s really been little difference in their quality of play. I even looked at their Total NEP divided by their opportunities (drop backs and rushes), and there still is no measurable difference.

In terms of this personal production, Orton has the slight edge with a positive Passing NEP score, but it really couldn’t be closer. Especially when one considers their rankings among the 34 passers with more than 100 drop backs this year, it’s absurdly identical.

PlayerPass NEP RankPass NEP/Attempt RankTotal NEP Rank
E.J. Manuel30th30th30th
Kyle Orton28th28th29th

If there’s no separation between each of their play on the field, perhaps there’s some sort of effect they’ve had on the talent around them. Has the Buffalo offense thrived since shifting to a new gear?

Fast and Furious: Buffalo Drift

To see what effect each quarterback has had on the production of his players, I compared their Rushing NEP and Reception NEP (gained on all successful receptions) accumulated from Week 1 to Week 4, and Week 5 to Week 7. I then amalgamated this data by position. The table below shows the changes in that span of time, in terms of positive or negative shifts in each position’s NEP production since Orton was named the starter.

PositionRush NEPRush NEP/AttemptRec NEPRec NEP/TargetTotal NEP

From this, we can see that, despite a minimal difference in Manuel and Orton’s production, the simple fact that Orton has completed 10% more of his passes has led to a massive uptick in value for almost every position on the Bills’ offense. It’s impressive enough to consider that for the wide receiver position, Orton’s presence has added almost seven touchdowns’ worth of value to their production, but it’s doubly impressive that Buffalo wide receivers have also gained two-thirds of a point of NEP on a per target basis in this span of time. This has been a huge boon to the production of Sammy Watkins and company.

One will notice that the value of the running game has dropped, partially an effect of no longer having a rushing threat at the quarterback position (this effect was looked into earlier this offseason). However, the Bills also simply have a higher pass-to-run ratio through these three most recent weeks (2.25) than through the first four (1.46), due to having a more steady quarterback at the helm.

All in all, a casual observer will not see much difference between Orton and Manuel in the box score. You may think that the Bills could’ve stuck with Manuel and played about the same until this point. But if you take a look under the hood, all the parts of this Buffalo engine are moving more smoothly at Kyle Orton’s hand now.