It's a statistic that has not mustered a lot of traction among NFL fans, but ask coaches or someone in an NFL analytics department and a team's toxic differential is a metric with merit. The Buffalo Bills missed their ultimate goal of reaching the postseason in 2014, but they fared well in the key categories that contribute to a very high ranking in a metric that to most sounds negative.
Toxic differential, a figure first introduced to fans by former NFL head coach Brian Billick, now an NFL.com analyst, essentially combines turnover differential with explosive play differential (plays of 20 yards or more). Any NFL coach will tell you that turnovers and big plays decide games, so combining the differential of those two categories makes for a telling figure.
And in 2014 the Bills finished in the top five in this advanced metric.
Buffalo ranked fifth in the league in toxic differential this past season. To no one's surprise it was thanks in large part to their defense. Their 30 takeaways were third-best in the NFL and helped provide the Bills with a plus-7 turnover differential.
The Bills defensive unit also kept big plays allowed to a minimum allowing just 47 in 2014, or less than three per game. Only the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks allowed fewer (38), the team that finished first in toxic differential with an impressive figure of plus-45.
Those strong figures helped offset a lack of big plays turned in by Buffalo's offense. The Bills' 59 explosive plays on offense were the fourth-lowest among NFL teams that finished with a positive toxic differential. Buffalo managed less than four big plays a game on offense despite having explosive playmakers like C.J. Spiller, Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods in their offensive lineup.
Not surprisingly, the offenses that had the highest number of explosive plays had quarterbacks like Andrew Luck (85), Peyton Manning (80), Tony Romo (74), Joe Flacco (74) and Russell Wilson (73).
At midseason the Bills did rank first in the league in toxic differential with a mark of plus-20 thanks to a fast start in the takeaway category with 18 in the first eight games. They also had 35 explosive plays on offense, which was fifth-highest in the NFL at the time.
Over the second half of the season however, the takeaway pace fell off slightly and the explosive plays did as well, which is why Buffalo had to settle for a top five finish.
With Buffalo's defense expected to remain largely intact and Kiko Alonso returning it's not unreasonable to think the Bills can make even more plays on that side of the ball. Provided the consistency of their quarterback play improves the Bills are likely to not only contend for the best toxic differential in the league, but an elusive playoff berth as well.