Let’s flip a coin. It’s a standard US quarter. You call heads in the air, and it comes up heads. Well done. Are you ready to make a wager? I’ll bet you that you can’t call a coin flip correctly four times in a row. If you win, I’ll pay you $200. If you lose, you owe me $10. Are you taking that bet?
Answers here will vary depending on an individual’s risk tolerance, and/or their perceived odds of being successful. If you’re wondering what the odds are of correctly calling a coin toss four times in a row, it’s one in sixteen. That gives you a 6.25% chance of winning this bet.
The odds of winning a football game are sometimes similar to a coin toss. But some teams are better than others. Let’s pretend for a moment that your favorite team is widely considered to be the best one in the NFL. Vegas betting spreads imply that in each game, they have a 65% chance of victory. That only gives them a 17.85% chance of winning the Super Bowl without winning their conference.
So what does it take to overcome those odds and win football’s most coveted prize? What’s wrong with the Buffalo Bills teams that haven’t gotten it done?
These lingering questions have been widely discussed since the Cincinnati Bengals came into Buffalo and punched the Bills square in the mouth in the AFC Divisional Round last Sunday.
Leslie Frasier’s defense isn’t any good against the best teams.
Sean McDermott’s game management is too conservative.
Ken Dorsey’s offensive schemes are too predictable.
Brandon Beane wasted way too much draft capital on an underperforming defensive line.
Everyone’s got an opinion. Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane are now tasked with separating fact from fiction.
In his postseason press conference, Brandon Beane spoke candidly about their shortcomings. But he also spoke glowingly about what the team accomplished in 2022.
“We won 13 games. We’re a good team. We didn’t show it last night, but we lost three games by eight points… I don’t want to make one game bigger than it is,” Beane stated. A good team indeed. Maybe even a great one. The Buffalo Bills finished in the top 5 of several of the statistical metrics used to evaluate the quality of the on field product.
Still, it’s difficult to take Sunday’s loss in stride. True competitors don’t care much for silver linings. But keeping proper perspective is of vital importance for sustained success in the NFL. Winning a Super Bowl isn’t just about putting an elite football team together. It’s about fielding elite football teams repeatedly.
Twelve current NFL teams have never hoisted the Lombardi trophy. Of those twelve, four have never even made an appearance. The Detroit Lions (1930) and the Cleveland Browns (1950) are two of the oldest teams in this mix, and they’re both among the four to never even make the final game of the season.
What do most of these teams have in common? A sub .500 winning percentage. As they say, ’You gotta be in it to win it.’
- Vikings – 54.4% (7th)
- Browns – 51.1% (16th)
- Chargers – 49.9% (18th)
- Titans – 49.1% (20th)
- Panthers – 47.5% (22nd)
- Bills – 47.7% (23rd)
- Lions – 45.1% (25th)
- Bengals – 44.9% (26th)
- Texans – 43.3% (28th)
- Falcons – 43.8% (29th)
- Cardinals – 42.6% (30th)
- Jaguars – 41.6% (31st)
All of the aforementioned information might sound obvious. But improper opinions about coaches and players are formed all the time based on individual playoff games. When a team or player doesn’t live up to lofty expectations and get the job done in the postseason, many believe there must be something inherently wrong. But that isn’t necessarily always the case. So when trying to determine next steps following a disappointing playoff exit, executives like Beane are wise to take a step back, zoom out, and evaluate the season as a whole.
Since Leslie Frazier seems to be the most likely candidate to be on the hot seat, let’s talk about the defensive side of the football.
Frazier’s defenses have been slaughtered in the playoffs before. Twice by Kansas City. Now once by Cincinnati. But as a whole, his defenses fare reasonably well in the playoffs. Of the 29 teams that have made playoff appearances since his first season in 2017, the Bills’ defense ranks 12th in dropback success rate allowed, 13th in dropback EPA/a, and 14th in EPA/a against on all plays, when adjusting for garbage time by filtering for plays with a win probability between 2%-98%.
Kansas City, New England, and Philadelphia are all ranked well below the Bills in these aforementioned categories, yet each of these teams has won a Super Bowl in that very same window.
In the regular season, the Bills’ defense has ranked in the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric in four of the last six seasons. Only four other teams have accomplished that feat. One of which, the Rams, has won a Super Bowl. San Francisco, also on this list, is knocking on the door.
Frazier and McDermott (and Dorsey) were bested on Sunday. But they’ve also amassed 62 wins together since 2017. That’s a hell of a track record of success.
In the playoffs, we analyze coaching decisions under a magnifying glass. But as demonstrated by our coin toss exercise, they are truly up against it this time of year. To win a Super Bowl, they must put together game plans to attack and defend against the best football minds in the world. Those game plans are based in part on film study and on analytics. But they’re also based on assumptions and/or suspicions about the schemes and techniques their counterparts will employ. In many ways, game planning is like playing poker, or rock, paper, scissors. Chance and luck play a role. Even if your coordinators and coaches are 10% better than the ones across the field, there’s still a chance that they will fail to come up with a better game plan than their opponents did on that day. Any given Sunday, right?
This is not to say that the Bills shouldn’t consider a change at defensive coordinator. But with a track record of such consistently high levels of defensive success, selecting someone who will do better than Leslie Frazier will be difficult. Out of all the possible outcomes, it’s more likely that the next candidate does worse. And that is the risk head coaches, GMs, and team owners take when making emotionally charged personnel decisions based on postseason results alone, rather than evaluating the body of work as a whole. The NFL is riddled with coaches who ‘couldn’t get it done’ and lost their jobs, only to go on to win it all with their very next team. Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, Bill Belichick, and Tony Dungy are examples from last 20 years alone.
No one is going to give a postmortem about this season and tell you the Bills were a perfect football team. But statistically speaking, the 2022 Bills were good enough to win it all. The 2021 Bills were also good enough. And so were the 2020 Bills. If they don’t make any coaching changes, they’ll probably be good enough to win it all in 2023 as well. Will they be lucky enough? Only time would tell.
Changes at either of the coordinator positions may excite some. But those changes come with significant risks. McDermott and Beane must find sound football reasoning beyond isolated playoff failures to justify any change. The potential consequences of making the wrong decision could knock them out of the statistical sweet spot they’ve operated in for the last three seasons.
Be careful what you wish for.