How the Bills are Succeeding with Late Round/Undrafted Players

Updated: September 27, 2011
fred jackson

Much has been made of the fact that the Bills offense is manned almost exclusively by late round or undrafted players, but not necessarily why they’ve had the ability to not only become NFL starters, but starters on the league’s top scoring offense. After all, there’s a reason Fitzpatrick, Jackson, Johnson, and so on weren’t high draft picks, as none of them are elite athletes.

When you look closely at how each of these skill players stand out, this becomes evident. Steve Johnson has decent size, speed, and quickness, but far from elite or even very good by NFL standards in any of those categories. Looking at his highlight reel, you won’t see him making other worldly over-the-top-of-the-defenders-head catches like Larry Fitzgerald, or destroying a cornerback on a fly by shifting into a second gear. Rather, Johnson relies on doing all the small things with excellence. If you want to see an example of the best route running in the game, watch a Stevie Styles double move slant route.

I could essentially replace all the WR terms with their RB equivalents in the preceding paragraph and it would perfectly describe Fred Jackson. Again, Jackson lacks the ability of McFadden or Peterson to run through a defender. Excellent footwork and body control are what have allowed him to survive this long in this league, a seemingly supernatural sense of timing w/r/t when to make his cut have elevated him to among the league’s best.

Finally, as you’ve been told ad nauseum, Fitzpatrick lacks the size and arm strength of a franchise QB [1]. While 6’2″ is not short, it’s not as tall as you would like for a QB to consistently be able to get the ball over a 6’4″ defensive line. With every Fitzpatrick throw, it seems to require him to make a Herculean effort to heave  his body to fit the rock in the space required for the WR to have a chance. You won’t see Fitz effortlessly zip a 30 yarder on a rope down the middle of the field, as his balls seem to hang in the air an extra half second.

What has allowed the QB to be second in the league in TD passes through 3 games despite all these limitations is his understanding of how to adapt his game to what Gailey’s offense emphasizes.  Fitzpatrick generally makes appropriate pre snap adjustments, has been moving beautifully with regard to avoiding the pass rush [2], and delivers the ball where it needs to be before the defender has a chance to make a play on the ball. These are the hallmarks of a QB having confidence in himself and his offense.

Other than being disregarded by front offices, the common theme with these 3 players is they have an excellent understanding of how to find and exploit space on a football field. Yes, all 3 have worked there rear ends off, but so have hundreds of other players who are now selling real estate in Tennessee. There’s something else at work. Gailey’s spread attack’s fundamental concept is exploiting space.Whether it’s Steve finding a quick window for 7 yards, Jackson bouncing off tackle to go on 1 on 1 with a nickel back, or Fitzpatrick stepping forward to avoid pressure on the edges, it is an aspect that is crucial to the game of all 3. If Buffalo tried to pound the rock at least 2 times per series, the results would be the equivalent to a Turk Schonert offense [3].  But by spacing out the defenders by going 3/4/5 wide (rarely 2), Chan has allowed his 3 best skill players to emphasize their strengths.

[1] Also, he went to Harvard.

[2] If there’s one area Fitzpatrick is looking as good as Brees or Brady, it’s his pocket presence. The fact that Buffalo has given up only 1 sack in over 100 pass attempts is equal parts the line’s improved play and Fitz ability to sense pressure and move within the protection scheme.

[3] And it’s not a coincidence that that’s exactly how good ole Turk used to love to lose the Bills football games call his plays