Managing the Bills’ game management


Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott gives encouragement from the sideline the first half of an NFL football game Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

In the NFL, there are no empty actions. Every move has a purpose and a reason. That likely goes double for Sean McDermott.

When the Bills added a game management coach this offseason, it must have been because there was a need.

As it turns out, no team may have needed such a coach more.

There’s no stat that can define or sum up game management. To some degree, each decision is a unique situation. Yet, there are a few stats that get your attention when it comes to McDermott’s decision making.

One of the knocks on McDermott is that he manages a game too conservatively. To support that assumption, the Bills have the second most punts from inside opponents territory since 2017. Buffalo’s 44 punts past midfield are topped only by the Bears with 48.

The circumstances behind many of these punts do exonerate McDermott a bit. Twenty of these punts came on 4th and 10 yards or more. Five more happened when a punt was a logical part of killing off a game that Buffalo controlled (ie. the Bills punted in the season opener last year from the plus-35 with 19 seconds left and a 17-16 lead over the Jets).

The Bills are also a team that’s strong on defense and, of the nearly 100 4th down decisions Buffalo faced last year, there were only five that could be criticized in the least degree. However, the NFL is steamrolling towards an aggressive, offensive approach as the correct one. It’s questionable, at this point, to be so far on the conservative side of almost any regular gameday decision.

Coaches challenges have been a well known struggle for McDermott. He has won three of 15 challenges in his career. That’s the second worst percentage among active coaches. Only Vic Fangio’s 0 for 4 last year kept McDermott out of the bottom spot.

It is unclear if the new game management coach (referred to henceforth in this article as the GMC) will have a say in challenging calls.

The part of the game where a GMC (isn’t that better?) would come in the most handy is the final two minutes of a half. It may also be the part of the game where the Bills have the most room to improve.

Under McDermott, the Bills have been arguably the worst two minute team in the NFL.

Since 2017, Buffalo is last in total points, first downs, first downs per play and field goals scored in the last two minutes of a half. They are second last in touchdowns, third to last in field goal attempts and fourth for most turnovers per play.

Last season, the Bills even turned a few two minute successes into failures.

In three different games, Buffalo had the ball past midfield with over 90 seconds left in the first half and came away with only field goal tries each time (two made, one missed). All three were close losses where a late first half touchdown would have been useful (at Cleveland, vs. Baltimore, at Houston).

Fourth quarter garbage time can skew two minute totals. Washington was a respectable 15th in two minute points and 17th in two minute first downs last year. However, they were 29th and 30th in the same stats for the last two minutes of the first half alone

The Bills only had one opportunity for garbage time stats in 2019 (vs. Philly) and they weren’t even trying to score in the final two minutes for ten of their games. Unsurprisingly, eliminating 4th quarter numbers paints a slightly happier picture about the two minute offense under McDermott.

While Buffalo was 26th in points and 29th in first downs in the final two minutes of both halves in 2019, they were 24th in points and 20th in first downs during the final two minutes of the first half alone. The totals for the full three years under McDermott go from last/last to 31st in scoring and 24th in first downs.

The Bills aren’t the first team to assign an assistant game managing responsibilities. The results from other attempts are not only mixed, but you might also have an issue reading the following while the Small Sample Size alarms are blaring.

Four teams tried GMCs last year: Philly, Washington, Carolina and Cincinnati. All but the Eagles improved their overall two minute point and first down totals. Philly stayed the same in two minute points and only dropped from 7th to 10th in first downs.

On the flip side, both Cincinnati and Washington benefited from garbage time fourth quarter success. Their second quarter two minute numbers were either flat (Cincy) or significantly worse (Washington) from 2018 to 2019.

And then there is the curious case of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dirk Koetter hired what’s believed to be the first GMC in 2016 and kept the same man in the role for three seasons.

The year before Tampa added a GMC, they were sixthi-best n the last two minutes. Under the GMC, the Bucs dropped to 29th, 24th and 8th in two minute scoring. When Bruce Arians arrived for 2019, he dumped the GMC and Tampa ended up the best two minute team in the league.

Only the Eagles are keeping their GMC this year, but none were fired because of failure. In fact, it’s mostly the opposite. Cincinnati promoted their GMC, Dan Pitcher, from assistant to full time QB coach. Carolina and Washington both changed head coaches, with Ron Rivera going from the former to the latter. His GMC also got a promotion. Sam Mills III went from assistant defensive line coach in Carolina to the full D-line job in D.C.

The man Buffalo has tabbed to be their GMC is Marc Lubick. He fits the general profile of his GMC brethren. He was a low level assistant heretofore assigned, in large part, to research (Just want to point out I got both “henceforth” and “heretofore” in this article. You’re welcome).

His father is Sonny Lubick, who was the head coach at Colorado State for 15 seasons. Lubick was wildly successful by Colorado State standards. He went to nine bowl games and put together four 10-win seasons from 1993-2007.

Sonny Lubick was not well known for any out of the box thinking or ultra aggressive tendencies. It’s unfair to assume Marc will be the same way, but most of the other GMCs are exactly that. Except for Dartmouth grad Ryan Paganetti in Philadelphia, the rest are just your every day football coach.

No matter what Lubick concocts for Bills game management in 2020, it only matters if McDermott will listen to him in the pressure cooker of against the clock football. Lubick is a veteran pro coach who has been on an NFL staff every season since 2010. He walked into Buffalo day one with McDermott and had plenty of time to prove why he was the right choice for the job.

There’s no telling how much Lubick can help the Bills in critical situations this season, but one thing is certain.

There is almost no chance he makes things worse.

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