As the Bills offensive staff combs through the numbers and reviews each play from the 2013 season over the next couple of weeks they'll look at both the good and the not so good from their first year with their players. Before head coach Doug Marrone even looked at the statistics he knew and acknowledged that Buffalo's passing game needs to make marked progress heading into next season.
The Bills leaned heavily on the run game all season long in an effort to stay in manageable down and distance to help EJ Manuel in his first NFL season. It'd be hard to blame Buffalo's offensive staff for doing so as the team ranked in the top five in the league in rushing almost the entire season. The drawback was at times it made the Bills somewhat predictable, especially on 1st-and-10 where Buffalo led the league in rush percentage at almost 64 percent.
As Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett saw it the run game was something they had to depend on as their young quarterback made progress through the season. Unfortunately Manuel's injuries curtailed his progress and the plan to expand the variety of the offense as the season wore on, particularly on first down, never materialized.
That expansion will now begin to take shape in the offseason.
"As we move forward our passing game was not where we wanted it to be, but as we get going and we continue with the running game, and build our passing game with the play action we would like to be able to take more shots, throw it more on first down and become more productive from the standpoint of scoring," said Marrone. "Make no mistake you have to have a better ratio than what we had."
The passing numbers in most categories came up short in 2013, but when you consider the inexperience combined with the lack of continuity at the most important position on the offensive side of the ball you understand why Buffalo's aerial attack struggled. All three of Buffalo's quarterbacks, who had one NFL start combined coming into the season, had to start at one point or another during the season.
Add in the fact that the Bills' receiving corps lost games due mainly to injury from three of their top four players (Stevie Johnson – 4 games, Marquise Goodwin – 4, Robert Woods – 2) and there was a lot working against them.
Despite all of those factors Buffalo's passing attack still finished ahead of the other two offenses being run by rookies in the NFL this past season (NY Jets, Tampa Bay).
"There were times we were in rhythm," said Marrone. "Even though we had our struggles, you also have seen 90-something yard drives. We had some long drives this year, more than you would think for a team that finished 28th in passing. I think that's the thing you become frustrated with and players do too. We've shown the ability to do it. We played against some top defenses during the year and showed an ability to move the ball and then all of a sudden it stopped and you can't get back into that rhythm again. That's what we're going to take a good look at."
The passing category where Buffalo fared best was on number of pass plays of 25 yards or more (16th with 29) and where they struggled the most was number of passing first downs (31st with 149).
"I think it's a combination of a lot of things," said Marrone. "I think that obviously for us number one is getting our quarterback better. I think that's going to help us quite a bit with the preparation. I think when you're a young quarterback in this league and one of the things I've seen with EJ and I've seen this with other quarterbacks too, when you work on things and you're expecting certain coverages in a game and you go ahead and get that and you're working with the consistency you see a high level of execution.
At times during the season people threw coverages against us that had a very low percentages of coming up. It was difficult for him to make those adjustments on the fly. So for that we have to do a better job and I think with the year and that process we will."
"I think as a young quarterback there is a lot of room for improvement whether I had a great year or I didn't," said Manuel. "I think overall just the accuracy and a better understanding of going against these defenses and an even better understanding of what we're doing on offense."
Protection was also an issue that helped compromise the effectiveness of the pass game. Buffalo was 28th in the league in sacks allowed and Marrone pointed to that as a culprit in stunting their passing progress.
"It goes up front in how comfortable the quarterback is in the pocket," he said. "I think at times, especially at home and that's the one thing when we get back and start evaluating things, when we've been at home we've given up quite a bit less sacks and hits on our quarterback at home here at the Ralph. On the road he's gotten sacked more and has been hit more. I think that it's very important for the quarterback position to perform well when he feels comfortable back there. When there is no one around at his feet or getting close to him."
Buffalo gave up the second-fewest sacks at home this past season (10), but the most in the league on the road (38).
"We do need to improve the passing game, but that's everybody," said Eric Wood. "Protections have got to be better, routes got to be better, reads, throws, there's a lot that goes into it. Just like it's easy to blame the offensive line when there's a sack, it's easy to blame the quarterback when the passing game is not going right. And it's not always necessarily all on his shoulders."
EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel weren't the only newcomers to the offense. No one on the roster had spent any time in the offensive system brought in by Marrone and Hackett. So it's reasonable to think that not every blitz pickup was made, not every receiver made a sight adjust and ran a 'hot route' and not every switch call on the line was executed soundly.
"As we upgrade or we do a better job with our offensive line, we're looking forward to year two," said Marrone. "We have some talented receivers on the outside, some tight ends that have done well for us. Being able to use all of those options with the running back also in the passing game, I think that will help us considerably."
Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller both finished among the top five receivers on the team. The duo combined for 80 receptions in 2013, but Spiller had his lowest reception total since his rookie season. The offensive staff intends to change that next season.
"This is the first year in the offense so we'll go back and look at some things and see what we can do," said Spiller. "Bounce ideas off each other and try to see if we can split me out wide and do certain stuff. I have to just do what's asked of me and first and foremost I've got to run the ball effectively. Then we'll get the passing game going.
"We have so many weapons on the offense it's just crazy from what we had in previous years."
Spiller is right. The level of skill position talent is plentiful, and though more might be added in the offseason, improved performance on the offensive line and at quarterback will go a long way in lifting Buffalo's passing attack into the top half in the league.
"We're committed," said Marrone. "We know what the challenges are that are facing us this offseason and for 2014."