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Galina: Has the NFL caught on to Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills offense?

Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) runs with the ball against the Indianapolis Colts during the second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

After a season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Buffalo Bills ripped off four straight wins, including a dominant win in Kansas City in a nationally televised rematch of the 2020 AFC Championship Game. Five weeks into the 2021 season, the Bills were as hot as any team in the league and had just taken out their new rivals in the AFC.

But all that has now come crashing down. Since that victory, Josh Allen & Co. is 2-3, with their only wins coming against bottom-feeding divisional rivals in the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.

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The Bills team that looked like a lock to not only make the playoffs but even host the 2021 AFC Championship Game is now in the seventh spot in the conference and clinging on for dear life.

A season ago, their offense generated positive expected points added (EPA) per play in 74% of their games played, including the playoffs. This season, they generated positive EPA per play in only half of their games. And even though the team still sits at ninth in EPA per play on the whole season, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to this Bills offense.

Going into their Week 11 blowout loss to the Indianapolis Colts, the team had played the 32nd toughest schedule in the league. Their remaining schedule, including the Indianapolis game, moves the schedule up to the 12th-hardest. 

Buffalo Bills offense by Week (2020 and 2021)
Week 2020 2021
1 0.056 -0.170
2 0.351 0.066
3 0.181 0.141
4 0.207 -0.013
5 0.066 0.287
6 -0.053 0.170
7 0.028 BYE
8 0.095 -0.025
9 0.154 -0.261
10 -0.012 0.335
11 BYE -0.080
12 -0.031
13 0.261
14 -0.077
15 0.400
16 0.383
17 0.177
TOTALS 0.137 (4th) 0.037 (9th)

To talk about this offense, we have to go back to 2016 and 2017 in Laramie, Wyo., when current Bills quarterback Josh Allen led the Wyoming Cowboys.

The Cowboys ran the ball at the 32nd-highest rate in the country in 2016, and that figure fell just slightly to 48th in 2017. In short, they ran the football almost as much as anyone and barely ran plays out of the shotgun formation, finishing 115th and 109th, respectively, in the percentage of snaps with the QB in shotgun.

When they threw the ball, it was often off play-action, with the team finishing 38th and 51st in play-action pass rate in those two seasons.

But then the Cowboys put the ball in Allen’s hands more in 2017, and his grade dipped from 82.1 to 66.6 as a result. So, the future was clear for him as an NFL prospect: put him in a heavy under-center play-action offense, and let him use his bazooka arm to take the top off defenses while he learns the NFL. And the Bills did just that.

Over the 2018 and 2019 regular seasons combined, the Bills' offense was seventh in run rate, 21st in shotgun rate and 17th in play-action rate. But what made sense on paper did not turn out well in reality, as Allen posted grades of 65.3 and 64.1 in his first two seasons. 

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The areas where the Bills receivers ran their routes in 2019 showed that the team was almost trying to turn Josh Allen into Tom Brady — a player offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had worked with between 2013 and 2016.

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