It's only been three games, but Buffalo's offense has taken the NFL completely by surprise. No one outside the walls at One Bills Drive envisioned that the Bills offense would rank second in the league in passing, third in the league in scoring and Josh Allen would be the AFC's passing yardage leader.
The combination of offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's scheme and approach and Josh Allen's dramatic development has steadily convinced national analysts that the sudden spike in offensive production by the Bills is sustainable and can make them a serious AFC contender.
"We've always known about the talent, the size, the athleticism and arm strength of Josh Allen, but now we're starting to see the trust to go along with that talent," said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah. "You see Cole Beasley and he's getting the ball out to him before he gets out of his break. You see Stefon Diggs and the ball is out before he's out of his break. You're seeing anticipation being added to Josh Allen's skill set.
"You're also seeing beautiful play design in the offense by Brian Daboll, who has done a wonderful job crafting this scheme around Josh Allen. But when you have talent and trust and you're starting to see him throw with touch as well… good luck. Good luck trying to slow that down. That wasn't a bad defense they went against in the Rams and they went up and down the field on them."
COACHING PHILOSOPHY AND FORMATIONS
It's readily apparent that this year's Bills offense is going to lean on its much-improved quarterback and deep pool of receiving talent to drive the team's point production (31 ppg), which is pacing almost 12 points ahead of last season's average (19.6). Thus far, Buffalo has had all six receivers on the roster active on game day and playing. And Daboll has refined a scheme that's rooted in pre-snap motions, play action, spread formations and a lot more passing.
Buffalo's offensive play caller tried to incorporate some of these elements into the offensive scheme last year, but Josh Allen was still in the early stages of his development as an NFL starter and the passing game didn't have a truly elite target that demanded full-time attention from an opposing defense.
Through the first three games of the 2019 season, Buffalo produced 61 percent of their total yards of offense via the pass. Now a year later more than three quarters of their offensive output has come through the air (76%).
In 2019, Buffalo used a three-wide set with a back and a tight end just 49 percent of the time through their first three games. And for less than one percent of the snaps in those first three games they lined up in four wide.
Thus far this season, Buffalo has lined up in three (68.2%) and four wide (24%) looks more than 92 percent of the time.
Daboll and McDermott don't see the dramatic spike in offensive success as an identity, as much as an approach that they believe is best for their offense at this time.
"Every year is different and that's why we believe in having a fairly expansive playbook because you don't know who the players are until you get them in, whenever it may be, free agency, the draft, undrafted however that sorts itself out," said Daboll. "So we missed OTAs, and you're not able to see some of those guys. So in training camp when you're out there your job as a coach is to figure out who you want on the field, and then tailor that to the guys that you have. You've really got to see what you got. You've got to see them go out there and execute it and if you have good players you better find a way to use them. And that's what we try to do."
"I would say we're always going to put our players in position to be successful," said McDermott. "That's the job of a coach. And so whether that means in this case three or four wides or one or two wide receivers, two or three tight ends. I mean it's really just a game plan approach. And so it may vary every week. But at the end of the day again that's the job of a coach is to take what he has, and then put those guys in position. We're trying to do what it takes to win."
While all of that is true, the heavy dependence on spread formations is a clear indicator that the way they feel they can best win football games is with their rapidly ascending quarterback and his receiving corps.
Yes, much of the credit goes to the offensive staff led by Daboll, as he and quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey have done an extraordinary job with the self-motivated Allen. But a good deal of the credit also goes to the construction of the roster around the franchise QB.
After landing the quarterback in the 2018 draft with a series of bold trades to move up into the top 10 to take Allen seventh overall, GM Brandon Beane has worked to construct an offensive unit around him. In the 2019 offseason he rebuilt the offensive line with three new starters coming via free agency and a fourth via the draft.
He also added proven receiver talent in the 2019 free agency period in Cole Beasley and John Brown along with a veteran back in Frank Gore to mentor rookie running back Devin Singletary. And he traded up for one of the most athletic tight ends in the draft class in Dawson Knox.
The final piece was an elite receiver in Stefon Diggs, who was acquired via trade this past offseason followed by another draft class that added depth at receiver and running back.
"This is about Josh Allen's accuracy and his ability to make plays and Brian Daboll deserves a ton of credit as well as their front office," said former NFL executive and current analyst Michael Lombardi on his GM Shuffle podcast. "The Stefon Diggs deal really has helped their offense tremendously. He's made (Cole) Beasley a better player. The Gabriel Davis kid that they drafted from Central Florida has really been good for them. It's been a really good blend of young and old on their team. For Josh Allen to throw only nine incomplete passes in a game against the Rams, that's pretty remarkable considering where he was. He's playing great."
THE PLAYCALLER-QUARTERBACK CONNECTION
ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who has frequently sung the praises of the Allen-Daboll combination, saw the evolution of Buffalo's offense sooner than most.
"I would say it started midseason last year and carried through to the end of the year and they got a feel for who Josh is as a quarterback," Orlovsky said. "Some guys are thinkers and some guys are reactors. You can win and be great with both. Josh is one of those reacting type quarterbacks. It's not a knock on his intellect, it's just what his strength is, playing reactionary football.
"Daboll and Ken Dorsey have done a good job in identifying that he's gotten good at throwing crossing routes. He's really understanding how to put some touch on the ball. They're using him like the Ravens use Lamar Jackson, utilizing the quarterback run and all that stuff. I just think it's really cool to see. Daboll deserves a ton of credit, Josh deserves a ton of credit, and the organization deserves a ton of credit for putting the pieces together around him."
For years Buffalo's offense has rarely resembled any of the top point-producing units across the league. The Drew Bledsoe-led team in 2002 and Chan Gailey's Bills in 2011 were probably the closest thing to it, and those high-flying attacks fizzled in the second half of the season.
Daboll, much like some of his most successful coordinator counterparts, makes use of the modern staples of successful point-producing football.
"When it comes to football and offensive coordinators in the NFL, if you're not utilizing play action, pre-snap motion or space no matter who your quarterback is you are doing a disservice to your team," said Orlovsky. "First of all most defensive players from the age of nine or 10-years old are told one thing, 'We've got to stop the run.' It's all they hear. It's ingrained in them. So you don't need to be a really good running team. As long as you present the football to a tailback, defensive players are trained to go to the football. So play action is going to create hesitation on a defensive line, at the second level and in the secondary. The more speed you have in the play action game the more hesitation you create and the more you stretch the defense and create gaps thereby making easier throws for the quarterback.
"The same with pre-snap motion. It forces defenses to communicate and to play on the fly to change run fits. You help your receivers get off press. The more space you can create with guys and attack it the more successful you'll be, and Brian Daboll is doing well with all three of those things."
"Coach Daboll is always a guy that I've had a tremendous amount of respect for and then you see the situations that he's able to put Josh in that cater to Allen's playmaking ability," said Rams head coach Sean McVay. "A lot of mixture of personnel and different looks that they can present and Josh's ability to create with his arms and his legs and make plays off schedule is a real winning edge."
WHAT IS IN STORE FOR THE FUTURE?
So where can Buffalo's offense go from here? Their dynamic quarterback already has eight fourth quarter comebacks in 30 career starts, including two already this season. Josh Allen's performance level has national observers already putting him in early consideration for Most Valuable Player honors.
"We talk about spinning these numbers forward, the touchdown to interception ratio, right now Josh Allen is on pace to be better than 50 touchdowns with single-digit interceptions," said NFL Network analyst Brian Billick. "Then you add in designed quarterback runs and he is proving to be the entire package. He's bringing a completion percentage and a wherewithal that we didn't see coming out of college. We didn't project that.
"And obviously the comebacks, the savvy to put it all together when the game is on the line. That was a heck of a drive against L.A. He appears to be the real deal and he'll be right there with Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes. He's putting up MVP type numbers."
"Who is doing as much or more for their football team than Josh Allen," asked Orlovsky following the comeback win over the Rams. "That fourth quarter drive comes and they get 3rd-and-22 and they convert it because of him. Then they get a 3rd-and-25 and they convert because of him and they win the game because of Josh Allen.
"This is as complete a team as there is in the NFL. They're as well coached a team, maybe outside of New England, as there is in the NFL. Now they've got a quarterback where teams are saying, 'If they get into the fourth quarter this kid is good enough to go win the game for them.' He's become a dual threat and I'd put him at the top of the list for MVP."