Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With Year 3 under head coach Chan Gailey and veteran player report day at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 24th and Sept. 9th.
The Bills took a big step forward in their second year under head coach Chan Gailey on offense. After finishing 25th in total offense and 28th in points in 2010, Buffalo's attack jumped up to 14th in offense and 14th in points per game last season. And that's with a significant second-half slide on the offensive side of the ball in 2011. With a focus on better consistency and some better luck on the injury front, can the Bills be a top 10 offense in 2012?
"I believe we can," offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins told Buffalobills.com. "In this league continuity is big and we've been able to establish some of that offensively. It doesn't mean that we might not decide to add pieces here or there, but the core group is here and if we can stay healthy and maintain our continuity I think finishing in the top 10 is a realistic goal for us. The goal is to improve so we want to keep the arrow going in the right direction offensively."
The Bills last season were excellent on first down where they ranked eighth in the league in average first down yardage gained rolling up an average of better than six yards on first down (6.06). Buffalo's offense had a respectable ranking of 11th in the NFL for drops on catchable passes averaging a full drop less than the league average.
Their red zone touchdown percentage also ranked 11th as they converted red zone opportunities into touchdowns more than half the time (52.8%). They also had the fifth fewest penalties among offensive units in 2011 with just 86 assessed infractions and were the best in the league in fumbles lost with just five on the season.
Where the Bills were average were in some more familiar categories like rushing yards (13th), net passing yards (15th), points scored (14th) and plays of 20-plus yards (16th).
However, what the offensive unit is most focused on is where they struggled. Third down conversion percentage was a problem as the Bills finished 28th in the league with just a 32.5 percent success rate. Surprisingly, some of their worst success rates on third down were in third and short situations. Buffalo ranked 28th on 3rd-and-1s in 2011 (60%) and last in the league on 3rd-and-2s and 3rd-and-3s (30.8%).
As a result Buffalo struggled to sustain drives ranking 30th in 10-play drives in 2011. Of course that wasn't helped by the fact that the Bills offense was often handed less than advantageous field position. They ranked 29th in average starting position when they got the ball back (26.2-yard line).
Statistics lie sometimes and there are a lot of things that go into being a successful offense," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "We see ourselves getting better every year and a lot of those stats we have continued to improve. We're looking to take out some of the turnovers, better third down efficiency, better red zone efficiency. We're excited with a lot of the things that happened last year and obviously want to build on those and eliminate the negative ones."
What has Buffalo's offense most encouraged is for half a season they were a top 10 offense last year. After their Week 8 victory over Washington in Toronto, the Bills ranked 10th in the league in offense, fifth in rushing, 13th in passing, 11th on third down conversion percentage and third in scoring.
"The biggest thing is consistency," said Fitzpatrick. "Can we be a consistent offense? Can we be that top 10 offense that we were at the beginning of last year and sustain it throughout the year? We know we have the talent and the system and the pieces and it's just a matter of going out and being consistent. I think a lot of that is on me and me being able to play consistently throughout the season. And when guys go down people being able to step in and not miss a beat."
There's no question Buffalo's offense struggled following the losses of Eric Wood and Fred Jackson. There were also a host of receivers in and out of the lineup and a seemingly weekly change at left tackle. If the Bills can have some better luck on the injury front it could go a long way in helping the offense take the next step in their development.
"I'll be honest with you I think we can be as good as we want to be," said GM Buddy Nix of the club's offense. "We've got good players and good coaches that work hard."
Last year's early season success has convinced the men in the offensive meeting room that they can be a top 10 unit. Their only concern is sustaining that level of play from one week to the next, not if that level of play is possible.
"I think there's a lot of confidence. I do," said Gailey. "I think our guys believe they can move the football and they can score points. Believing it and doing it are two separate things and you've got to go do it. But I think we all are enough on the same page that we believe we can go get that done."