Before he was appointed head coach of Syracuse in 2009, new Buffalo Bills Head Coach Doug Marrone established his reputation as the offensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints. Marrone worked under Sean Payton for three years, during which time the Saints’ offense finished first in points once, 2008, and first in yards twice, 2006 and 2008.
During his final season with the Saints, the offense used a plethora of players at the skill-positions. Three running-backs had over 100 carries for over 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns, while seven players had at least 30 receptions for 4,267 yards and 26 touchdowns. Furthermore, 11 players had at least 120 receiving yards, 13 had at least nine receptions and 17 players scored touchdowns outside of the quarterback.
Although Sean Payton and Drew Brees received much of the credit for the team’s success that season, rightfully so, it would be unfair to discount Marrone’s impact in such a prominent role. Marrone did arrive in New Orleans after being the offensive line coach for the New York Jets, so he most likely focused on developing what was an impressive offensive line during his time in Louisiana, however he at least would have absorbed some of the traits of the offense that he was overlooking.
During Marrone’s second year in charge at Syracuse, he had two running backs with over 100 carries on the season as well as five receivers who had at least 32 receptions or 397 yards. The following season Marrone relied on a feature back in Antwon Bailey, but still saw seven players catch at least 151 yards and nine players who caught at least one touchdown. During his final season, Marrone had eight receivers with at least 100 yards, while nine players caught a touchdown pass and two running-backs had at least 158 carries. Not to mention the fact that five players ran for a touchdown without considering the quarterback.
Much like the Saints have done since Sean Payton took over in 2006, Marrone’s Syracuse showed a willingness to make use of the different skill-sets afforded to them on offense. Therefore, when Marrone took over the Buffalo Bills this off-season, it was no surprise that he worked to build an offense in his identity.
The Bills had been a quick-pass offense that spread the field under Chan Gailey. Ryan Fitzpatrick was the focal point, as he was expected to make quick decisions before landing accurate passes to open receivers. Fitzpatrick was decent during stretches, but he was always limited because of his inability to throw the deep ball. At best, he would always hamper the offense or leave part of the defense untested. Because of their frailties at the quarterback position, the team’s greatest strength on offense during the Gailey-era was their rushing attack.
Gailey misused CJ Spiller at times, but with Spiller, Fred Jackson and a strong offensive line, they were able to combine big plays and tough running between the tackles. Spiller and Jackson will carry over into Marrone’s offense, but star left guard Andy Levitre was allowed to leave in free agency without much of a fight. Marrone will use his offensive line expertise to overcome the loss of Levitre, because he focused his off-season on re-tooling the defense and adding weapons to the offense.
If his past is anything to go by, the Bills will look to rely on their offense to carry them to victories in 2013.
On offense, the Bills have two directions to go in at the quarterback position. Either way, EJ Manuel figures to feature prominently. If Manuel cannot establish himself as the starter prior to Week 1, it would be a major shock if he doesn’t see the field in some specific packages that will knock the defense off balance. If Kevin Kolb is the Bills’ starter, they won’t have the same expansive play at the quarterback position, but they will still have an offense that can adapt to it’s surroundings and stretch defenses in a variety of ways.
It came as a surprise to some when the Bills drafted Manuel, but it surprised even more people when they took two wide receivers in the first three rounds of the draft. Robert Woods went from the sunshine of Southern California to the harsh weather of Buffalo after the 41st pick of the draft, while Marquise Goodwin followed a similar path from Texas with the 78th overall choice. Goodwin and Woods are very different receivers, but both should be able to contribute to the offense during their first seasons.
Woods played both outside and in the slot at USC and is a polished receiver who can do a variety of things on the field. He has a large catch radius, excellent feet and body control with the ability to lose defenders in space. He is not too dissimilar to his new teammate, Stevie Johnson, who has been seriously hampered by the quarterback play in Buffalo over the past few years. Johnson and Woods will be able to interchange between the slot and outside receiver positions seamlessly, while neither will struggle with any specific coverages.
With Woods and Johnson on the field, the Bills have two wide receivers who can play either side of the field or inside. Once you add in running-back CJ Spiller and presumably healthy tight end Scott Chandler, that number bloats to four.
Those four pieces will likely be the base of the Bills’ personnel groupings on offense with one of Marquise Goodwin, TJ Graham, Da’Rick Rodgers or Fred Jackson coming in as the fifth skill-position player. When one of the receivers comes in, the Bills will be in pass-heavy formations that will make life very difficult for defenses to predict what they are going to do:
Unless Graham has dramatically developed since last season or Goodwin spontaneously combusted from a raw athlete to an all-around receiver or DaRick Rogers does Vontaze Burfict and becomes a team-player, the Bills will only be limited in how they can line up one receiver on the field. With two other wide receivers, a receiving tight end and an electrifying receiver in the backfield, defenses won’t be able to take advantage of the limitations of one spot of the offense.
Instead, the rest of the pieces on offense will adapt to get the best possible matchups. Defenses won’t be able to comfortably match up their defensive backs with the Bills’ receivers, unless all of their receivers are versatile enough to line up all over the field which is rare. Defenses won’t be able to dictate the play with their play-calling or formations, they will be forced to use extra defensive backs.
Even though Scott Chandler lined up at fullback will seem like a disastrous decision for anyone who has watched him block, he will be able to find favorable matchups in this scenario because the defense will have to play cornerbacks to counter the receiving threat on the field. If the defense leaves extra linebackers in, then Chandler can move to the outside position which will either bring a linebacker to the sideline, or put a slot receiver on a slower defender in space infield.
Now, once you bring Fred Jackson into the mix, the Iguana changes it’s colors again.
With Jackson on the field, the Bills now have two running-threats, but they still have four very good receiving threats and a big body receiver who can block effectively in the right situations in Chandler. Jackson isn’t exactly a bad receiver either, he just doesn’t provide the same flexibility as Spiller does.
With the same personnel grouping on the field, the Bills are able to create four completely different formations from which they can run a variety of different plays to knock defenses off balance. The formations above are just examples also, the Bills could easily go to different variations of five-wide with Spiller and Jackson on the field without putting anyone in an uncomfortable position.
How this offense is accelerated is if Manuel can quickly win the starting job. Regardless of whether he wins the job or not, he will still feature in packages, but the prominence of those packages and their affects won’t be as great if he is being subbed on and off of the field throughout the game.
Manuel is considered a somewhat similar prospect coming out of college as Colin Kaepernick was two years ago. Both are exceptionally athletic with all the physical tools to be excellent passers. What is very understated about Kaepernick’s early career success is the impact of the offense that Jim Harbaugh built around him. Yes, Kaepernick does things that not any ordinary player can do, but he is also put in positions where his strengths are highlighted and his weaknesses are overshadowed. If the Bills can successfully do the same with Manuel, they would be in a great position to succeed.
With Manuel, this type of formation could become a regular one for the Bills. Kaepernick is in the pistol, lined up between the running-back and the center, with a fullback to his left side, one receiver wide right and two to the left. Delanie Walker is the fullback on this play, with Vernon Davis to the top of the screen and Frank Gore behind Kaepernick. Kaepernick runs the option with Gore, holding the ball and deciding whether to take it and run or give it to him based on what the defense does to react, while Walker gets out into the opposite flat to block.
The Bills would run this play differently because they don’t have a player like Walker.
Instead, the Bills have Fred Jackson who can do more with the ball than Walker can. The 49ers could have used Frank Gore as the first option and LaMichael James in the ‘Spiller position’ here, but they didn’t do that until late in the season when James established himself if they did at all.
Jackson isn’t a fullback, but he is a tough runner between the tackle who would allow the team to start with the above setup and continue to develop even more layers onto their option. This setup would be more similar to the option that the Washington Redskins used with Robert Griffin III last year, but Kyle Shanahan doesn’t have the same kind of supporting cast around his quarterback as Marrone figures to have around his. While Alfred Morris may be a bruiser, he’s not as dynamic as Jackson and nobody in the league is as dangerous as Spiller in space.
If Manuel proves he can run the typical offense consistently, then this just becomes another color of the Chameleon offense that defenses would have to expect, but couldn’t really prepare for. Defenses can prepare for the option and contain it, but when it’s one of 20 or more different directions the personnel on the field hints at going it, it’s very difficult to set yourself up to stop that and expose yourself to a standard drop-back pass, because that standard drop-back would then have a dramatically slower pass-rush threatening it.
Ryan Fitzpatrick may have had a season worthy of success for the fantasy football 2013 season, but that standard isnt good enough for success. The potential layers and adaptability of the Bills’ offense for the upcoming season is terrifying if the quarterback position can figure itself out.
Unfortunately for Bills fans, that same “if” has never fallen in their favor in recent times.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf