Buffalo Bills: How Rick Dennison ruined the NFL’s top running game

(Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images) /

Despite making the playoffs last season, the Buffalo Bills struggled to move the ball on offense in 2017.

Buffalo was the NFL’s best running attack during the Rex Ryan era. But in Sean McDermott’s first season with the Buffalo Bills the run game fell out of the top five for the first time since 2015.

What happened?

Could it be that the star running back is approaching 30? Perhaps it was Tyrod Taylor’s inability to hit his targets. These are certainly problems that went into the struggles the Bills had, but the blame shouldn’t be placed on the players here. Let’s blame the stubborn coaching style of Rick Dennison.

The Bills best offensive weapon is LeSean McCoy— that’s no secret. So one would think it may be beneficial for an offense to build around him and give the star running back every chance he can to succeed.

Well, Dennison’s stubbornness to adapt to his personnel should be at fault here for the reason of the declining production of the Bills running game. The former Bills coordinator failed to tailor his scheme around his players’ skill sets. In return, the Bills suffered from a poor offensive season.

McCoy posted a career-low 4.0 yards-per-carry last season and rushed for the lowest yards per game since his rookie season in 2009.  Sure, McCoy has been a premier back in the league for nearly a decade now so age could be a factor in his decline in production, but perhaps it was the offensive scheme around him.

According to Sharp Football Stats, The Bills ran a fairly balanced offensive attack in 2017 with 53 percent of the plays from under center, and 47 percent in the shotgun— which is actually a good thing.

Balance is key for offensive play calling because it will always keep the defense on its toes.

The problem, however, was how imbalanced the “run vs pass” play-calling was while in shotgun formation. In Dennison’s offense, the Bills ran the ball just 18 percent of the time in shotgun. (That’s not very balanced, Rick.)

Buffalo’s star back ran out of the gun just 17 percent of the time—a far cry from the 83 percent run rate from his career-best 1,607-yard season while in Philadelphia. One of McCoy’s best assets is his elusiveness, and when given the ball from the shotgun formation it allows him to scan the field and make a quicker decision on where to run the football.

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Due to this lack of shotgun running, McCoy’s production suffered from a noticeable dip in production from the year before. The six-time Pro-Bowler ran for 13 fewer yards per game and 1.4 yards-per-rush and dropped off from a 14 touchdown season to just eight.

Anthony Lynn, current LA Chargers Head Coach, was the Bills offensive coordinator for the majority of the 2016 season.

Lynn began the year as the running backs coach in Buffalo and was handed the offensive reigns in Week 3 when Greg Roman was fired.

His familiarity with McCoy and the running back position allowed Lynn to know the strengths of his players and tailored a game plan that produced the NFL’s top-ranked run-game.

He is an example of a coach who adapted his system to his personnel. Knowing how effective McCoy is in certain offensive formations, Lynn rushed the ball 40 percent of the time when in shotgun.

Why wouldn’t Dennison try to incorporate some of McCoy’s strengths into his system? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Right?

Here’s a sliver of hope that McCoy and the Bills offense can improve mightily from this poor season.

The Bills brought in former Patriots offensive assistant and Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to do the same position in Buffalo. Coming from the shotgun-heavy college system a year ago, one would assume Daboll is better suited to deploy the Bills’ offensive weapons. He’ll have a mobile quarterback and an elite rusher— who can excel in the gun, a great fit.

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So let’s not chalk up McCoy as a declining talent just yet. Despite being named to the Pro Bowl, 2017 was certainly disappointing. But with Dennison gone and Daboll on board, the Bills star rusher should return to premier status next season.