Buffalo Bills 2014 Season Review: Inching Closer to the Playoffs

The Bills were close to a playoff berth in 2014 thanks to strong defensive play. What else did they do right?

The best way I can think of to describe the 2014 Buffalo Bills is, “what a strange, strange trip it’s been.”

Turning away from your “anointed” quarterback of the future in favor of a 32-year-old journeyman signal-caller who had started just one game in the last two seasons would normally signal trouble on the horizon. But strangely enough, when Kyle Orton took over for E.J. Manuel in Week 5, it was just the spark the team needed.

Narrowly missing the playoffs in large part due to a Week 16 loss against the hapless Oakland Raiders certainly still stings, but the defense was phenomenal nearly all season, and should prove to be a building block for the franchise moving forward. Having Sammy Watkins and the seemingly ageless Fred Jackson doesn’t hurt either.

But the quarterback situation is still in flux, and the lack of a cohesive running game also must be addressed in 2015. With Rex Ryan replacing Doug Marrone as head coach, this offseason will almost certainly be a media-fueled drama.

Let’s take a closer look at what worked, what did not, and where this team is moving forward into the off-season.

The Good

At the top of this list is the Bills’ defense.

Ranking fourth-best in points per game allowed (18.1), they were especially stingy against the pass, ranking third in passing yards allowed per game (205.8). As a group, they allowed just 16 touchdown passes in 2014, and were one of just two teams who had more interceptions that touchdown passes allowed. While the rush defense was not as prolific as the pass defense, it was still very serviceable ranking 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (106.4).

Using the advanced metrics we have at our disposal here at numberFire, it becomes even more evident just how good the Bills’ defense performed.

They finished 2014 as the second-best team in terms of Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) behind only the Houston Texans. Just for reference, the Seattle Seahawks and their vaunted secondary finished with a mark of -3.65, compared to the -36.96 mark notched by the Bills (the lower the number -- the more expected points prevented -- the better).

On defense as a whole, Buffalo boasted the second-best Adjusted Defensive NEP mark (-51.73). It’s clear that the defense was a huge reason why the Bills came within a hair of making the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

Sammy Watkins’ rookie campaign was another bright spot in 2014. Finishing with a 65-reception, 982-yard, 6-tocudhwon stat line, Watkins lived up to the hype that accompanied his entrance into the league. Although he sits near the bottom of this list, his rookie season still places him in some rarified air.

Watkins’ 89.99 Reception NEP mark, which ranked 19th among all wide receivers in 2014, was the eighth-best season by any Buffalo receiver since 2000.

Depending on who is under center in 2015, and if Rex Ryan will allow it to happen, there’s no reason why Watkins cannot continue to grow as a route-runner and pass-catcher.

The Bad

Picking between the lack of a rushing attack and the early-season failure at quarterback for the top spot on this list was a tough decision, but let’s start under center.

It’s becoming clear that Manuel might not pan out as a viable NFL starter, which is a shame considering the draft capital the Bills invested in him. Manuel saw just 137 drop backs in 2014, and finished 34th in Passing NEP on a per-play basis, just slightly behind Charlie Whitehurst.

I wrote about Manuel’s viability (or lack thereof) during the preseason, and it’s looking more and more like it’s coming to fruition. With Kyle Orton now retired, it will be interesting to see what the team chooses to do in 2015.

Speaking of Orton, what he did as the team’s starter in the final 12 games was rather historic for the Bills. But as Brandon Gdula explained in excellent detail here, while he was great in comparison to former Buffalo passers, he was nothing special considered in larger context.

While the quarterback situation was a messy one, the running backs in Buffalo were just as unsettled. According to our metrics, the Bills ranked 29th in team rushing efficiency.

Injuries plagued the group, hitting C.J. Spiller once again. Anthony Dixon was the only running back on the roster to play in all 16 games, finishing as the team’s second-leading rusher. Fred Jackson was the only real constant tallying 1,026 total yards, but just 3 total touchdowns. The Bills scored just seven rushing touchdowns all season, including one each from Orton and Manuel.

While Jackson’s raw stats were impressive considering his age, he was relatively inefficient on a per-carry basis. Jackson came in 40th in Rushing NEP per carry (-0.08) among all running backs with at least 100 carries. Trent Richardson,who's career is evaporating right before our eyes, finished just behind Jackson at -0.09.

Moving Forward

The Bills made a splash by hiring Rex Ryan as their new head coach after the season ended and, by doing so, showed what kind of team they want to become in the future. Ryan is an excellent defensive mind and coach, but his teams have never really produced substantial results on offense.

The existing talent on defense in Buffalo allows Ryan an excellent opportunity to make a seamless transition and sport a top unit. On offense however, it could be a different story.

The quarterback situation must be addressed, and finding a true feature back would certainly help as well. The moves they make this offseason will go a long way in determining if they can finally make the jump and become a playoff team for the first time this century.