When it comes to finding out the true identity of an NFL offense it often goes a bit deeper than rush and pass attempt totals at the end of the year. Time and score, location on the field, injuries sustained in the game are all variables that can cloud the picture. On the whole however, NFL coaches subscribe to a general rule of thumb in ascertaining what they are offensively.
"If you want to get the true measure of a football team go back and evaluate every first half of every game," said head coach Chan Gailey. "You'll get a true idea of who they are which is what we will do as we continue with our breakdowns to see who we truly are. What kind of team we really are being able to break down the first halves of what we did."
Gailey, and any other NFL coach, knows if you just look at the year-end figures it won't be an accurate assessment of the offense's preferences. Buffalo is a prime example having been behind on the scoreboard in the third quarter in 10 of their 16 games.
"Anybody that was a losing team threw it more than they wanted to because you're behind so much," said Gailey.
Looking at the Bills in the first half of their 16 games from the 2011 season they were 60 percent pass and 40 percent run with 288 pass attempts against 191 rushes. Add in the nine sacks, which are assumed to be pass plays and the percentage changes slightly (61% pass).
Those percentages are anything but surprising knowing Buffalo's most popular formation was the four receiver and one back set. Even Gailey has described his offense as a 'pass to set up the run type attack.' What is surprising is those figures are almost identical to their run-pass percentages in the second half of games from the 2011 season, when the Bills also passed 60 percent of the time and ran the ball 40 percent.
The completion percentage in the second half of games was a bit higher (62.8%) than the first (60.4%), but the point production and turnover tally were close to the same. In the first half of games in 2011 there were 11 touchdown passes against 11 interceptions. In the second half there were 13 touchdowns and 14 INTs.
The run game was virtually a mirror image as well from the first half to second half of games. Through the first two quarters Buffalo's ground game rolled up 937 yards and averaged 4.9 per carry, and in the second half had 984 yards with the same exact rush per carry average. There were seven rushing touchdowns in the first half compared to five in the second half of games on the year.
Even the total net yardage was less than 100 yards apart with 2,838 net yards in quarters one and two on the season, compared to 2,786 in quarters three and four of Buffalo's games. Total points were just a touchdown apart as well between the first and second halves (183 to 189).
In the end it means the Bills did a pretty good job of staying true to what they are as an offense, which is a spread attack that throws first and takes advantage of the space developed by their formations in the run game second.
"I think what you have to do is strike some kind of balance between pass and run and that's what we're trying to do, strike a balance so we can keep the defense off balance themselves," said Gailey.
Despite the emergence of both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller this past season, those passing game percentages are unlikely to give much back to the running game for this coming season.
"Today in this league I think you may have to lean a little bit more on the pass game," Gailey said. "The defensive players are so much bigger and stronger and faster than they were 15 years ago and the field has remained the same size. So for the offense the field has actually shrunk because those defensive players are so much bigger, faster and stronger. So the only way to gain an advantage is to spread people out a little bit and create more creases for running lanes, throwing lanes, things like that."
That's why Gailey doesn't believe they have to rein in Ryan Fitzpatrick's game. Yes, the 23 interceptions are a concern, but the Bills brass believes that's more a byproduct of there being too many plays that Fitz is forced to make based on score and lack of big plays than throwing it too much.
"If we can continue to build our defense and keep our running game going like it did then we don't have to (rely on him so much)," said Gailey. "We have another year under our belt offensively where we're continuing to gather some pretty good players at all positions. We took a fairly significant jump from year one to year two offensively so I think we can continue to be more consistent there. And I think we'll continue to improve defensively. I think we've got some very good young players on the defensive side of the ball."