When it came to Buffalo's offense in 2015 most were hoping for a better run game and capable play at quarterback. The argument was that kind of offensive play along with comparable defense to that of a season ago would be enough to earn an AFC playoff berth. While that formula did not come together, Greg Roman's scheme and his careful handling of Tyrod Taylor enabled a brand new offense and a quarterback starting for the first time to do far more than any outside observers anticipated.
"There were a lot of really good things that we can build on," said Roman. "We actually exceeded my expectations in certain areas offensively, in the first year that is."
The Bills offense embarked on the 2015 campaign with a scheme that was completely new to the 11 starters who would be entrusted to execute it, most notably the quarterback. Tyrod Taylor won the three-man quarterback competition in training camp, and with a third of the snaps that a normal starting signal caller would get before the season, had to perform.
Not surprisingly, Buffalo's offense was ground-oriented with Taylor's passing exploits serving as a complement so as not to put too much on the first-year starter's plate. No team in the league ran the ball more often in terms of percentage than the Bills (50.1%). Despite players missing time to injury the run game did not disappoint ranking first in the NFL with 152 yards per game.
The Bills were also first in the league in yards per carry average with a lofty mark of 4.8. Looking back on it Taylor was glad the run game was so productive.
"Very important," said Taylor of the team's run game productivity. "We talked about that going into the season. Especially with the talent we have at the running back spot – getting those guys going, it's only going to be better for us in the passing game. You force safeties to come down in the box and then you get your one-on-one matchups on the outside. Our running game is definitely a big part of our offense."
LeSean McCoy only played in 12 games, but rolled up almost 900 yards on the ground and Taylor set a franchise record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a season with 568. Karlos Williams had 517 yards in limited action giving the Bills three players who eclipsed the 500-yard rushing mark in the same season for the first time in 53 years.
For perspective Buffalo's leading rusher last season was Fred Jackson with 525 yards when the Bills finished a disappointing 25th in rushing.
"I'm proud of that," said Eric Wood of the team's top ranks in rushing. "That's something to hang your hat on. Obviously I would've rather have won more games, but we didn't, but now looking back I am proud that we led the league in rushing, yards per attempt, total rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. So that's something to be proud of and that's a lot of progress in one year."
Wood made a point of mentioning the tight ends and receivers who were committed to blocking downfield all season long and were instrumental in some of their longest runs of the season. The execution came together even quicker than Roman anticipated.
"I thought midway through the season our offensive line really started performing at an elite level in the run game," said Roman. "I didn't see them jelling like that until maybe next season. There were some things we were doing run game-wise that you just won't find better anywhere, anytime, anyplace. I pointed out to them, 'Guys you're doing some things here that are not being replicated anywhere and quite frankly are as good as I've seen in the least 20 years.'
"So I think that really helped to spark us offensively and kind of created a conflict that I'd like to create to where the defense has to overcommit to the run game and open up opportunities in the passing game."
Buffalo's pass game wasn't something they could consistently rely upon like their run game, but it did provide some game changing plays. The Bills had 23 passing touchdowns, which ranked 20th in the NFL, but 16 of them went for 20 yards or more (69.5%). Six of those went for 40 yards or more.
Those combined with Buffalo's seven rushing touchdowns that went for 20 yards or more help to explain why the Bills led the league in points scored outside the red zone with 194, more than 90 points above the league average.
Eight of Sammy Watkins nine touchdowns (tied for team lead with Karlos Williams) went for 20 yards or more as he became a feared deep threat by opponents. Watkins chalks it up to his blossoming rapport with Taylor, especially after he returned from an ankle injury midseason.
"For myself it was really preparation," Watkins said. "Being healthy, getting healthy and staying healthy was the key. Being on the right page with Tyrod and our offense was already playing okay and then once I came back we just kept doing the same thing. We just kept jelling together and getting better."
Watkins finished with the first 1,000-yard receiving season of his career, while Taylor was largely responsible for the team's ranking of fourth on passing attempts that traveled more than 20 yards through the air with a rating of 105.8.
"We progressed each and every week. We were on the same page throughout the whole season, it started off a little slow," said Taylor. "I wasn't getting the ball to him as much as I would like to. But I was able to get the ball to him and that type of guy, you want him to have his touches, because he's special when the ball is in his hands. It's something we're going to keep working on."
"We led the league in explosive plays and it wasn't even close," said Roman. "There were some beautiful things done by guys like Sammy Watkins and Tyrod and LeSean and some of the guys. That was something I only hoped for, but hope is not a strategy. Those guys went out and did it so the credit goes to them."
Charles Clay proved to be one of the team's most consistent receiving options at tight end since the days of Jay Riemersma. His 51 catches led the team at the time he left the lineup with a back injury. Missing the last three games allowed Watkins to surpass him and lead the team in receptions with 60.
All those successes aside there are improvements that the team has to make. Buffalo's red zone touchdown percentage (50%) improved from a season ago (43%), but it was still in the bottom third of the league. Third down was also marginally better than last year, but ranked 21st at 38 percent.
"All the different situational things, third down, red zone, two minute, that's all that stuff that when you have a young quarterback they're not the first things to blossom," said Roman. "We've got to make strides in that area to have the kind of success that we want week in and week out."
While there are items on the to-do list for Buffalo's offense the positives greatly outweighed any of the shortcomings. The Bills were also improved in points per game moving from 18th in the league a year ago to 12th, as they averaged almost 24 points per game (23.7).
"I think, as a whole, we showed we can be special as a team," said Taylor. "There are definitely things we can clean up in all areas. Starting with me, personally. I can be better on some days, but there is definitely a bright side to this team. I'm looking forward to working with everyone this offseason, getting back and showing what we can do next year."