Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman is not one to make excuses. He refers to the team's crippling injury situation at training camp when all five running backs were sidelined simultaneously, and when their top three receivers were all unavailable for a couple of preseason games as "unique." His starting quarterback missed a couple of starts, the right side of the offensive line did not start together for almost half the season and top playmakers were in and out of the lineup.
It all led to lost time in year one of Roman's offensive scheme, which put the team in catch-up mode for the balance of the 2015 campaign. Still, the Bills had some notable accomplishments to hang their hat on, like finishing first in the league in rushing, yards per carry, carries of 10-plus yards, rushing touchdowns and points scored outside the red zone. They also found their starting quarterback in Tyrod Taylor.
So while there will be changes to the roster as there are in every offseason, Roman enters the planning stages of the 2016 campaign encouraged and excited about the possibilities this coming fall. Here are the top five reasons why.
1 – Starting QB in placeIt's hard enough when every player on your offense is new to your scheme including your starting quarterback. It's a much taller task when you don't know who your starting quarterback is. Buffalo's three-way quarterback competition was necessary. The cost was not developing a rapport in the passing game between an entrenched starter at quarterback and his receiving corps.
Last offseason reps were split three ways until Tyrod Taylor was officially named the starting quarterback on August 31st, just two weeks before the season opener. Add in the fact that receivers like Percy Harvin (hip), Sammy Watkins (hip) and Robert Woods (hamstring) were all sidelined during portions of training camp and the preseason and you see why Buffalo's passing game was making up for lost time as late as the final quarter of the regular season.
That won't be the case in 2016.
"I think this year with Tyrod coming as a starter it's going to give us an opportunity to build that kind of cohesion throughout the spring," Roman told Buffalobills.com. "We'll get more time on task."
2 – Pick your poisonBuffalo comes into 2016 as the number one rushing offense in the NFL. They also led the league in points scored outside the red zone with a gaudy 194 points last season, which speaks to their big play ability. As opposing defenses formulate their preparations for Buffalo's offense this fall they'll have some difficult decisions to make in terms of what to neutralize.
"We're fortunate that we have some big play guys," Roman said. "Anytime you put your offense together the way we like to there are going to be opportunities. The reason why is defenses are going to get nosy and creep up (to the line of scrimmage) and that roof (on the defense) is going to get really low. Fortunately we've got guys who can execute those types of big plays and that is a huge component of what we want to do. Anytime you're making people defend the line of scrimmage and you can take advantage of the deep part of the field that's a dream for me. I'm in heaven."
3 – Where's Watkins?
In his rookie season under the previous coaching staff, Sammy Watkins did not move from his 'X' receiver spot. He lined up in the same spot just about every single game he played in 2014. Perhaps those offensive coaches didn't want to put too much on his plate in what was a new offense for him.
Roman took a similar approach at the outset of 2015 knowing Watkins missed practice time in his return from offseason hip surgery. But as the season wound down and players like Charles Clay and Robert Woods were out with injuries, Buffalo's offensive play caller saw an opportunity to expand Watkins' responsibilities in a given game plan.
In Week 17 against the New York Jets, Watkins was moved all over the field and the results were encouraging. He was targeted a season-high 15 times and had a season-best 11 catches for 136 yards in a 22-17 season-ending win.
"That last week of the season specifically was a little bit of a final exam that we had been building toward," said Roman of Watkins expanded workload. "I really didn't want to overload him early in the season. He had some nicks and what not that created some lost time, but as the season wore on and he was able to come out and practice every week and play – it just got larger and larger as the season went on.
"By the end of the season he was visibly a lot more comfortable playing multiple positions. It's exciting to see him develop like that. We've just got to put our nose to the grindstone and get it done. It'll be a fun process, but I already know what this guy can become."
Heading into 2016 opposing defenses will find it harder to simply focus all their energies on taking Watkins out of Buffalo's game plan with his ability to handle a wider array of assignments.
4 – Collective knowledge
In 2015 there was a new coaching staff, a new offensive scheme, a new quarterback and a new feature back. Suffice to say familiarity with everything from coaching philosophy to assignments to team chemistry was limited at best for every player in the locker room. All of that newness heading into the 2016 season is gone.
Roman understood why consistency on third down or in the red zone was absent at times in Buffalo's offense. There just wasn't enough time on the job in year one.
"I think everybody was doing it for the first time in our offense and some were doing it for the first time in the NFL," said Roman.
Those growing pains from 2015 however, will greatly benefit what is anticipated to be largely the same group in 2016.
"That experience is going to really weigh in for us maturing as an offense and understanding what it takes to win games," said Roman. "Whether it's starting faster and getting up on a team and keeping that pedal to the metal, early in a game sometimes. And then sometimes you're going to have to go down the field at the end of the game to win the game. That's something we have to be able to do. It's not one specific thing, but it's just collectively understanding what we need to do in that given game.
"It's the evolution and the process of really understanding offensively how to win consistently in this league. We've got some great guys who want to win and put the time in. We're going to press them in that direction. We're going to put the pressure on them to develop and understand that."
5 – Staying a step ahead
While effectively establishing themselves as a team that can run the ball on just about any opponent while also having a deep passing game that must be respected, Roman is far from completing the full picture of what Buffalo's offense will be. In fact he might never be finished. The only consistent theme in his scheme is the commitment to have it morph and change.
"This is not a paint by numbers offense," he said. "We're always going to push the envelope from a scheme standpoint and find out what can we do? We're never just going to sit back and say, 'We've got it.' There are very few teams that can do that.
"So we're always going to stimulate our players. Through that process you might not run all the different plays you're working or different schemes you might be working on, your guys just get better as football players with their overall understanding of the game. So it's not like we're starting from scratch. We're going to start at square one, but I think that group is a very strong group. One of the things I like is (variety) and I think we have all that."