It's a really enjoyable opening to the season after last year's 0-8 start, and this is the Bills' best 6-game start since they went 5-1 in 2008. I remember the 2008 season like it was yesterday. They got their 5th win by beating the Chargers, the team that made it to the AFC Championship game the year before, featuring future Hall of Famers LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates still in their primes, and Pro Bowl QB Philip Rivers. I remember thinking to myself "All they have to do is go .500 from here on out, then they'll be 10-6 and that has to be good enough to make the playoffs."
It turns out that 10-6 would not have been enough, as the 11-5 Patriots didn't make it to the championship tournament. It also turns out that the Bills played .200 ball after their 6th game (i.e., they went 2-8), finishing 7-9. Then they drafted Aaron Maybin, which was awesome.
Those of you who know me know that reminiscing over the 5-1 Bills of 2008 casts a pall, at least in my addled brain, over the 4-2 Bills of 2011. For your entertainment and perhaps my misery, I will examine this pall a bit closer.
Last week the Bills were #1 in Football Outsiders' much vaunted DVOA rankings. The Bills also were #1 in DVOA through 4 weeks, prompting this correlation analysis which concluded that "there's a pretty good chance that teams like Buffalo, Tennessee, and Detroit are going to be good all year."
A closer look shows that unlike these hips, numbers can lie. The Bills have the #30 passing defense with respect to yards allowed. They notched 4 sacks, good for a 1.8% sack rate, both dead last in the league. For comparison, 21 players have 4 or more sacks so far this year. League leader Jared Allen has 9.5. The Bills allow 7.6 net yards per pass attempt, which puts them in a 4-way tie for 4th worst in the league.
Once again, Buffalo's run defense is quite willowy. They have the #29 rushing defense with respect to yards allowed. They allow 5.1 yards per carry, tied for third worst in the league, and their 8 rushing TD against is the worst in the league (in a 4-way tie).
The Bills are ranked #31 in total yards and first downs allowed. And they are in a 3-way tie for 6th most points allowed.
Buffalo succeeds despite these shortcomings because they have 12 interceptions on the year, good for a 5.4% interception rate, both best in the league. They've also recovered five fumbles and are first in the league at +9 takeaway/giveaway. Going into their game against the Giants, something like 48% of their points scored came off of turnovers. Various talking heads including Mike Francesa and Mike Ditka have opined that Buffalo will continue to win the turnover battle for the rest of the year because that's what history says will happen -- teams that have a positive takeaway/giveaway number at the start of the season continue to be successful in this metric throughout the rest of the season.
They may be right. I haven't even attempted to do the legwork required to analyze the data. Luckily, Bill Barnwell did and it looks like the talking heads are wrong. Either way I don't think the Bills will continue to have such an audacious turnover margin because they are taking the ball away using sheer dumb luck, and you can't rely on luck to carry you for 16 games.
For example, three of the four picks Vick threw two weeks ago were bizarre tips/strips. One of Tom Brady's four interceptions came when Brady's pass ricochetted 90 degrees to the left after it hit Marcell Dareus' helmet and floated right to Drayton Florence.
So four of the eight Vick/Brady picks were lucky/flukey plays. Luck is, of course, an important part of a winning season in any sport, but the Bills are so dreadful everywhere else on defense (i.e., everywhere but luckiness) that when their luck runs out and their bills are due they won't be able to pay the piper, simply because their egos are writing checks that their bodies can't cash. How many metaphors and cliches did I mix there?
We can look at this another way. The Bills are +9 through 6 games, which projects to a +24 turnover margin over 16 games. That would put them at the 26th highest turnover margin of all time, tied with ferocious defenses like the '96 Packers, '89 Eagles, and '72 Steelers. I just don't see how this result can obtain after 16 games given their putrid performance in other defensive metrics.
Simply put, this team is overdue for a return to, at best, mediocrity with respect to the turnover game.
Things are rosier on offense. The Bills scored the second most points and racked up the seventh most yards so far this season. They have not lost a fumble yet this season (tied for best, obviously, with the Lions). They have the 5th best completion percentage and have allowed the fewest sacks in the league (7) resulting in the lowest sacks allowed percentage in the league (3.3%). Fitzpatrick has the fifth most TD and the fourth highest passing TD percentage in the leauge. They have the fourth most rushing yards, the second-highest yards per rushing attempt, and are in a 4-way tie for second place with most rushing TD.
Fred Jackson, whose praise I sang two years ago, is playing lights/balls/tits/whatever-else-you-can-think-of out right now. He has the second most yards from scrimage, rushing yards, rushing TD, and yards per rush (behind Vick which shouldn't really count). I knew he was good but I had no idea he was this good. He does all this running behind a no-name offensive line that starts a 7th round pick and two guys who weren't drafted at all. That Jackson languished on the bench and returned kicks is further proof that Dick Jauron is a dipstick.
Further proof of the Bills' dipstickery: the offense starts 5 undrafted players, 3 seventh round picks, 2 second round picks, and 1 first round pick. Imagine how good this offense might be if more of Buffalo's early picks panned out? Meanwhile, 8 of the starters on the aforementioned statistically challenged defense were drafted in the first or second round.
I don't know exactly what to make of this Bills team, but I guarantee that they will be an excellent source of fantasy football points. Every game will be a shootout so their will be plenty of opportunities for Bills to score. I also guarantee that these guys aren't walking through that door (h/t Work Jerry):
I therefore see four winnable games on their remaining schedule (WAS, @MIA, MIA, DEN). The rest are road games against perennial playoff teams, a home game against the Jest, and a home game against the dreaded Inbreds of Tennessee. If the Bills could win one of these six games they would finish at 9-7, much better than I thought they would be and about as good as turn-of-the-century history says they could be.
I'll take 9-7. Chan Gailey clearly knows what he's doing with the offense. If they can stock up on legitimate defensive starters in the draft then they should be able to improve by a win or two next year and maybe even make the playoffs. Much like their turnover margin, the Bills are overdue for a return to mediocrity.
I am, to my own surprise, cautiously optimistic about the Bills. How the hell did that happen?