My 2013 Bills Preview: Running Backs

When you look at the Bills franchise history, with the exception of the AFL Days and the ’90s, it’s a sad state of affairs. Inconsistencies galore when it comes to finding the right mix of players, coaches, and GMs, but plenty of consistency when it comes to finding punch lines.

However, if there’s one thing the Bills have always been able to find, whether it is with Donahoe or Chuck Knox at the helm, it is running backs.

Can you find a franchise in the NFL that has provided 10 different RBs who have rushed for over 1,000 yards in a season multiple times? The list of RBs reads as follows: Cookie, OJ, Cribbs, Thurman, A. Smith, Henry, McGahee, Lynch, Jackson, and Spiller.

We may be starving for playoffs and respect, but we will never go hungry when it comes to RBs.

This season, the Bills are going to have to feed the rock to their RBs like no other season. Actually, that’s a lie. Thanks to poor QB play over the years, it seems like we always have to rely on running the football to at least score some points.

The running back position is the backbone of this football team. We have two guys who can start or at least contribute for like 20 other teams.

At their finest, both Jackson and CJ offer some breathtaking runs that make you feel like you are watching an overproduced sports commercial where time stands still around them. I felt it on CJ’s first carry against the Colts on Sunday. My jaw dropped.

With Fred, you have just pure power. He’s perfected the stiff arm and running over would-be tacklers. He runs angry as I’ve said in the past, due to a lack of respect from others and not being counted on to be the man. At least that’s a stoic way to think it.

CJ, on the other hand, is pure grace. He’s cunning like a thief in the night who avoids laser beam security detection. He’s able to stop on a dime and cut back when being pursued by defenders. He’s the present and the future here.

Yeah, I get excited talking about the RBs.

When you look at the Vikings, they are a team that the Bills could resemble. Both teams have great running games, less than stellar QBs, and talent on the defensive side of the ball. If you get a coach who understands the importance of accentuating the positives and hiding the negatives, maybe it could be a season of hope like the Vikings had.

Yup, any shred of optimism about the Bills revolves around the running backs. But unlike a lot of other positions, the hype for 28 (and Fred) is warranted.

How much should the Bills run these guys?

These are the meal tickets for the Bills. Guys you know can deliver. The guys you want to watch the most on offense. I know CJ is the breadwinner of the two, but in the end, I’d like for the Bills to run both these guys more than they pass.

It will be tough to do that as only five teams in the NFL had more rushing attempts than passing attempts (Hawks, 49ers, Washington, Vikings, and KC) last season. Pretty interesting that 4 of the 5 teams made the playoffs, but obviously, 3 of the 5 had nice QB options to help out.

For the last few years under Gailey, the Bills were the exact opposite from what I think they should have been in terms of run/pass ratio. Since the start of the 2010 season, the Bills have rushed the ball more than they passed it only 11 times and actually haven’t lost when that happens (11-0). You can obviously do the math when it comes to placing the game in their QBs hands (5-24… Fire Chan).

Now, I know it would behoove me to mention that they played catch up in a few games, but there were a ton of games last year that were close (Houston, Tennessee, St. Louis, Colts) where they kept throwing the ball ineffectively and ignored the running game.  But that’s on Gailey and he’s gone.

Now we have a new coach and a new philosophy.

If you were to look at Marrone’s time in Cuse, you would come away being impressed with the amount of times they ran the ball. Last year, Syracuse ran 555 times (although they had Nassib for 84 carries and I’m sure most of them were scrambles off passing attempts) and passed the ball 473 times. Pretty close to 50/50. In 2011, it was 418 to 396 in favor of passing. Again, this is a great ratio to aim for and I hope Marrone sticks with that with the Bills.

Keep in mind when Marrone was the OC in New Orleans, he had the 2-headed monster of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. Their 2-back approach in 2006 is something I’ve been harping on for years now as an example of how I’d like the Bills to use their backs. Deuce was the bruiser and Reggie was the all-purpose back. They combined for over 2,500 yards in total offense that season. To me, it was the best 1-2 punch I’ve seen in the NFL over the last 10 years or so. There’s no reason why the Bills can’t be that good with their duo.

Does a good running game need a good passing game?

How effective will the Bills running attack be if they don’t get help in the passing game? This may be an unpopular or flat out wrong opinion, but I think a rookie QB is probably going to be less than stellar than Fitz at first when it comes to creating the threat of passing. Could it change? Yes. Experience will hopefully help quickly. But I just think EJ being a rookie and learning a new offense is a step back from what Fitz  brought to the table. The idea of 250 yards or 2 TDs seems a bit optimistic for a rookie. But again, I’m just not one who thinks ALL rookies can come in and make an immediate impact. Some, sure… but more often than not, they don’t.

If you don’t have a passing offense that teams respect, it is going to be harder to run the football. Sure, you have your Adrian Peterson, who can have Brad Johnson at 50 handing the ball off to him, but consider that 7 of the top 10 rushing teams last season had more than adequate QBs at their disposal (RGIII, Brady, Wilson, Kaepernick, Newton, Schaub, and Cutler). The lone exceptions were the Bills, Chiefs and Vikings. It should also be noted that those three teams were a combined 18-26. In 2011, besides AP/Ponder and Tebow/Denver, the trend was the same when it came to the top 10.

While I think the Bills rushing attack will fare well this season, I think they need at least some respectability from their passing game, especially with deep outs, in order to keep defenses guessing.

All purpose backs

Since week 9 of the 2010 season at least one part of the Jackson/Spiller duo has played in every single game from start to finish (Cleveland last year being the one exception). During that time frame, the Bills have had a running back get over 100 yards in total offense in 33 of 39 games (19 for Fred and 14 for CJ).

You can hype up the young WRs all you want, but the #2 receiving option for the Bills should be their running backs. Last year, Fred and CJ combined for 77 catches for 676 yards. In 2011, the duo combined for 78 catches for 711 yards. The Bills were tied for 2nd in the NFL behind the Saints (Sproles and Pierre Thomas) for receptions and yards for  #1 and #2 backs. Keep in mind the amount of games Jackson missed (6) and how Spiller went down early in the Cleveland game. As for the Cuse/Marrone connection, the Orange’s RBs accounted for 58 catches for 418 yards last year.

If anything, I’d like the Bills to have CJ/Fred lined up at WR more often or at least have them run deep routes out of the backfield. Of their 77 catches, only three of those throws traveled over 10 yards in the air. Check downs and screens are fine, but let’s use Spiller’s speed to stretch the defenses a bit more.

Lastly, let’s try and have CJ/Fred on the field at the same time. I’ve been begging for this forever! Gun enthusiast, Tim Graham, mentioned in a piece last year that the Bills had both guys on the field for only 10 plays over the first 9 games. I can only assume they kept that miniscule trend going for the rest of the regular season.

Can CJ get 2,000 yards?

I know that so far it seems like I’m invested in a 50/50 split between carries. I also know that’s bullshit. Spiller is going to get the bulk of the work and Fred will probably get in on short yardage situations. This is CJ’s team. He is the meal ticket for this year. The Bills didn’t waste any time planting the seed about getting 2,000 yards and Matthew Coller had a nice look at whether he could do this.

I’m going to lean toward no, but nothing is impossible. I think to hit 2,000 yards, a few things have to happen:

1) The defense has to stop people. There’s no debating this. If the Bills are down 35-17 to NE in the 3rd quarter, you know they aren’t going to run worth a damn. If the Vikings had the Bills defense from last year, no way AP gets over 2,100 yards. The Vikings finished with the 14th best scoring defense. Also, if you look at the Vikings losses, they were by an average of 11 points. The Bills? 4 of their 10 losses came by  20, 24, 42 and 33 points with their average being 17 points a loss. This can’t happen. If it does, you can kiss your ‘CJ sitting on his offensive lineman’s shoulders’ image goodbye and just live with rehashing OJ’s photo with the Electric Company.

2) Spiller has to carry the ball more. Don’t think he just needs 100 more carries to reach 2,000. It doesn’t work that way. If CJ carries the ball the same amount of times as Peterson did, I’d probably bet that his 6.0 yards per carry will go down. You have to put into perspective the number of backs who have averaged over 5 yards a carry (reference to Coller’s piece above) and had as many as 350 carries.

3) As much as we hated Chan Gailey, I think he designed some great running plays for the Bills. The problem was that he needed someone to funnel his game management skills. I’m all for running the football out of the spread or 3-WR sets. Last year, Spiller averaged 6.6 yards per carry out of that formation while it dipped down to 5.5 yards when they ran 2 WR sets. Although that’s a great number for a 2 WR set, it is only based on 60 carries while they former is out of 118. I’m reminded of the Barry Sanders Football life on NFL Network where he talked about hating to have a FB in the backfield or if the Lions ran out of a bunch formation. He looked at a FB not as someone who was blocking his way to pay dirt, but as someone who was in his way. Sanders and Spiller have very similar running styles with their cutback ability and I think this serves the Bills well in regards to keeping 3-WR sets on the field.

4) Someone needs to tell CJ to give up the idea of prolonging his NFL career by not carrying the ball 20-25 times. I find it hilarious that he actually said he didn’t want to be Arian Foster, and no one, fans or media, gave a shit. I mean, we just went through a year where we kept asking “Why isn’t Gailey using CJ more?!” and he used the silly ass winded excuse. Maybe CJ just told Chan about his aspirations for a longer career. If Mario Williams said he wanted to stay fresh in order to prolong his career and didn’t mind having a rest between series or whatever, Jerry Sullivan and others would have shot through the roof. Just a simple situation where one guy talks on Mondays and the other guy doesn’t.

Final word:

I’ll keep it simple: The Bills need to run the ball a shit load this year. They also have to stop the run and keep games kind of boring and low scoring to have a shot at .500. I just don’t have that much faith in the passing game. Maybe down the road it will be different, but it is just too much for rookie WRs and a rookie QB to maintain a passing threat. For that, the Bills have to let Spiller/Jackson lead the way.

Some of these stats were from the ESPN Profile page for each player


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The Lord of Buffalo Wins