Sunday, July 18, 2010

Your 2010 Buffalo Bills preview: Running Backs Edition

The deal

I know a lot of fans/experts feel that the secondary is strongest part of the Buffalo Bills roster. However, you could make a compelling argument that the running back position has the most promising depth chart. It's a depth chart that includes two former first round picks, two running backs that have a 1,000 yard seasons on their NFL resumes and a renewed dedication to running the football.

My biggest complaint last year with the one/two punch of Lynch and Jackson was that both running backs' styles were just too similar. Seriously, if you switched both guys jerseys and cut Lynch's hair, you really couldn't tell the difference between them. Now, with the addition of Spiller, the Bills have added a thunder/lightning approach with their running back attack.

If you look over the successful running back tandems in this league, the majority of them offer diversity. The Saints had Reggie Bush, who has the ability to zip past defenders with his breakaway speed. Then you have Pierre Thomas, who would do the dirty work by running between the tackles. The Giants, Cowboys and Dolphins are other teams that come to mind that had a similar approach.

If there's one thing that I'm curious/excited to see about this upcoming season, it's how Chan Gailey plans on getting all three of his running backs the ball. Forget trying to get these quarterbacks on track, because on the surface, they are nothing more than serviceable backups. It's the running back situation that has me amped up about the Bills offense. OK, amped is a little too strong of a word.

I just keep on envisioning a scenario kind of like what the Giants had in 2008. The G-men went 12-4 and had a three headed monster at running back with Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw. The trio compiled over 2,500 yards rushing that year and were a key contributor to the Giants success. Sure, the Giants had consistent quarterback play and a stout defense that the Bills only wished to have. However, I can't help but think that with the talent the Bills have in the backfield, why can't we have a running attack like New York did?

The Players

CJ Spiller
Senior Year: 1,212 yards rushing, 503 yards receiving, 16 TDs
Look, I wasn't exactly enamored with the CJ Spiller pick in April. I've gone over ad nauseam about my reasons for the selection and I'm not about to go over it again. Here's the thing you have to know about Spiller, he's not going to be the type of back that's going to carry the ball 20-25 times a game. At 5'11 and 195lbs, he's a little too small to be able to handle the wear and tear of being a every down back. For his college career, Spiller has only carried the ball more than 150 times just once.

Now, the Bills didn't draft Spiller to become the next OJ Simpson, instead, they drafted a guy that could become their version of Reggie Bush. The type of guy who can line up in the slot and can catch bubble or wide receiver screens out of the backfield. A guy that has the type of talent for the coaching staff to devise some passing plays, or in Trent Edwards' case, check downs for big chunks of yardage. If you ever watch the way the Saints and Eagles execute screens to their running backs, it's some of the more prettier plays you'll see in football. I'm hoping that Gailey would be able to open the playbook and be comparable to those teams in running screen plays.

Spiller will be counted on to get the ball in his hands about 8-12 times a game. It wouldn't surprise me to see either Marshawn Lynch or Fred Jackson on the field whenever Spiller is inserted into the game. By doing that, it will make Spiller into the type of player that will keep teams second guessing on whether he's going to get the ball receiving or rushing. Also, he could be used as a decoy. The good thing about Spiller is that he's that homerun type of running back that could break off a 70-yard play. I don't think you could say that about Fred Jackson or Marshawn Lynch.

Bottom line: I'm putting pressure on the coaching staff to be able to design plays that are going to put Spiller in situations to succeed. It can't be the basic Pop Warner (Turk Schonert's words) sort of play-calling that we have seen over the last four years. If it is, Spiller is going to be a wasted pick for this year.

Fred Jackson
2009 Season : 1,062 yards rushing, 371 yards receiving, 4 touchdowns
I've said it before and I'll say it again, if you are not cheering for someone like Fred Jackon, you seriously need to get your head checked. Jackson is the type of player that many Buffalo fans can relate too. A guy that had to fight his way to the NFL. The type of player that probably has been told throughout his career that he just wasn't good enough. He's a fighter that Buffalo fans should embrace.

It was only three years ago that he wasn't really even on the football map; playing his games at some bootleg Arena football league. Luckily, Marv Levy was an alumnus at Jackson's college and had gotten a tip from the football coach at the school's program about the running back. In all honesty, it was Levy's best signing of his short, albeit unremarkable tenure as GM. Three years later, Jackson sits atop the depth chart.

Jackson was arguably the offensive MVP for the Bills last year. He probably would have amassed 1,400 yards rushing if he was the featured back and didn't have to split carries with Lynch during the middle part of the season. In a crowded backfield where the running backs seem to share the same qualities in their respective games, Jackson seems to have the slight edge over Lynch and Spiller in being the guy that can do it all equally. Now, by being able to do it all, I'm talking about carrying the ball 20-25 times a game and being a threat out of the backfield.

Sure, Spiller has that homerun threat, but he's not a workhorse back. Lynch has proven to be able to handle the rock 20x a game, but he isn't that explosive in the passing game. Jackson seems to be more of a complete back of the trio.

I've always liked the way Jackson runs. Actually, scratch that, because the funny thing is that when you see him run, he really doesn't seem like he's going full steam to run over someone or break off a 40-yard run. He just does everything in such a smooth motion. He's got great vision and knows how to use his blockers in hitting the holes. He's also very patient when it comes to letting his offensive lineman slide down field during screen passes out of the backfield. In a way, Jackson's patience on the football field almost duplicates his patience for getting a shot at the NFL level.

A lot of people have said that it's Lynch who has the most to prove on this team. However, it was Fred Jackson who seemed to be in the driver seat for getting the bulk of the carries for this upcoming season. By drafting Spiller, The Bills are kind of telling Jackson that he wasn't the answer to their running game. I'm sure that has added more motivation for the Coe product to prove that he truly belongs at the top of the depth chart.

Marshawn Lynch
2009 Season: 450 yards rushing, 179 yards receiving, 2 touchdowns
Look, I'm not going to get into the off the field saga with Lynch. I've gone over it ad naseum and if you need a refresher, then here you go. I'm going to go about it as if Lynch's status with the team is that he's just another running back who lost his job last year.

As for Lynch's on the field production, he had a 2009 season that he would soon like to forget. Not only was he slowed by his 3-game suspension, but he had to contend with a emerging Jackson, who was taking half of his carries. I've always said that Lynch doesn't seem like the type of back that can only get the ball 10-15 times a game and be effective. Lynch's power running game is more geared to reach the next level when defenses are tired and the team is feeding him the ball constantly. Besides the lack of carries, Lynch's other problems were that he danced way too much in the backfield and didn't seem to hit the hole with the velocity he had during his first two years with the team.

Unfortunately for Lynch, there seems to be no change in how the Bills view him and the former Cal product would be so lucky to even get 5-10 carries a game. Now, I'm not going to sit here and discredit Lynch, he's a hell of a talent and may have better physical gifts than Jackson. However, he's coming off a bad season and the team was very active in shopping him around during the offseason, which tells me that the team doesn't think to highly of him. Frankly, if the Bills wanted more than a 3rd round pick for him (good luck with that), it would behove them to try and up his value by playing him more. Having him just sit on the bench isn't going to increase his trade value.

What does it all mean?
People have gotten it all wrong when it comes to Chan Gailey's qualifications. People keep talking about what he has done with the likes of Tyler Thigpen, Kordell Stewart and Jay Fiedler.........ZZZZZZZZZZZZ......but if you were to dive into Gailey's resume even further, the thing that pops out the most for me is the way his teams have pounded the rock (Not talking about Lawrence Taylor's weekends).

In the seven years that Gailey has been a head coach or a offensive coordinator at the NFL level, rushing the football has been his real forte. During his two years as the Steelers offensive coordinator, the team ranked 1st and 2nd in rushing and almost racked up 2,500 yards both years. When Gailey was the head coach for Dallas, the Boys ranked 6th and 8th respectively. Of course, you can't ignore the fact that Gailey had two of the all-time greats at his disposal in Jerome Bettis and Emmit Smith. Things did catch up to Gailey a bit in Miami, as the Fish were ranked 14th and 23rd in rushing, but he was dealing with Lamar Smith as his feature back.

It's going to be up to Gailey to devise a plan to get all three of his running backs the football. I'm talking the wildcat, wishbone, reverses and whatever other gadgets that can be used to get the ball in his playmakers' hands. When I say playmakers, you have to put in account that after Lee Evans, the offensive skill positions on this team seem to be unproven commodities. I mean, the 3rd string running back on this team is more explosive than the 2nd wide out.

I can see Spiller being the type of back that's used mostly in the passing game to go along with maybe 5-7 carries a game. I then can see Jackson and Lynch running the football 10-12 times a game. Of course, if one back is hotter than the other, I'm sure Gailey will go with the guy that's brought him that far. The Bills could just choose to eliminate Lynch from the equation and use Jackson and Spiller as their one/two punch. However, what would be the point of keeping Lynch if the Bills didn't have any plans to use him?

The bottom line: Take away the running backs and the Bills don't really have much of an offensive punch. Their quarterbacks aren't exactly stellar, their wide receives are inexperience (Besides Evans) and the offensive line is..well, bad. People always use the cliche about the run setting up the pass, I think in the Bills case, they are going to need the run to set-up the victory.


  1. How and Jackson and Lynch similar? Everyone who has ever compared the two has stated that Lynch hits the holes faster but makes sure they develop. While Lynch was an aggressive runner type. You even mention those two attributes. So how does it make sense that you can cut off Lynch's hair and get Jackson? Also, Spiller can easily have 20+ carries a game. Ever hear of Maurice Jones Drew or Chris Johnson? Those guys are undersized as well and can take that many carries. I pretty much hate this post for all it's fallacies

  2. Wow if i could delete my post i would, i meant Jackson lets the holes develop. Think my browser is acting up on me.

  3. Oh and the offensive line for C.J. is probably the best in the league, but don't give me that for Mojo, Jacksonville's line is awful.

  4. Spiller weighs less than 200lbs and a lot of experts have said he's not a workhorse back. Sorry, but I think they almost run the same as far as speed and power. Yes, there are some differences, but they are more similar. It's not a brandon jacobs or Ahmedd Bradshaw difference. To say a guy is different because he follows his blocks better is more of a testament towards being coached that way, instead of physical gifts.

    Jones weighs 215lbs. Yes, I've heard the Johnson comparrison to Spiller, but lets see how Johnson rebounds from his first 350 plus carry season.

  5. Sorry Joe, but when a guy rushes over 2k yards in a season it doesn't suffice to say "lets see how he does next year". If Spiller can get anywhere near 2000 yards this season, then you keep feeding him the rock.