September 25, 2012
When the Buffalo Bills drafted C.J. Spiller with the ninth overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft out of Clemson, there were many in the football community that wondered why Buffalo would make such a move. After all, the Bills still had Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson, both of whom had posted 1,000 yard seasons in recent years. Adding another running back when the team had several other pressing needs, seemed to be a waste of a high draft choice.
The 2010 season seemed to support that thought process as Spiller seemed tentative and not ready for the speed of the pro game. Holes that stayed open long enough for him to dart through against ACC opponents closed quickly against AFC East and other NFL clubs. Instead of being a north and south runner, Spiller spent more time juking and moving laterally, hampering his ability to get up the field. He finished his rookie season with 74 carries for just 283 yards while adding 24 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown. Spiller also returned a kickoff for a score, though both touchdowns came in a week three loss to New England, a game that marked Ryan Fitzpatrick’s ascendance to the starting quarterback role.
In fact, after the week two contest that season, a maiming by Green Bay at Lambeau Field, there was a changing of the guard of sorts in Buffalo. Trent Edwards was released by the Bills, ending his tenure as the starting quarterback. Two weeks later, Lynch played his final game for Buffalo, as he was dealt to Seattle for a draft choice. Spiller took over as Jackson’s backup but picked up no more than 33 yards on the ground in any contest.
In 2011, Spiller was still the backup, failing to receive more than five carries in a game the first ten weeks of the season. It wasn’t until Jackson suffered a broken leg in a 35-8 loss to the Miami Dolphins on November 20 that Spiller was thrust into the limelight. He started the final six games of the season, carrying the ball 86 times for 446 yards and three touchdowns. He added 24 receptions for 187 yards and two additional scores, giving him 633 total yards and five touchdowns in his six starts. Included in that was his first career 100 yard rushing game when he picked up 111 yards on 18 carries against Denver on Christmas Eve.
When the Bills gave Jackson a two year extension, it seemed that Spiller would still be destined to see a lesser time share of the carries for the Bills. Jackson is 31 and at an age when running backs tend to decline a bit, which would lead one to believe that Spiller would get more carries, especially in light of his late season performance in 2011. Chan Gailey said that Spiller would be utilized in the slot as a receiver in an effort to get both backs on the field and exploit potential defensive mismatches.
That concept went out the window, at least for the short term, in the season opener against the New York Jets. Jackson sustained a sprained lateral collateral ligament, or LCL, in his knee and would be out two to four weeks at minimum. That moved Spiller into the starting role with Tashard Choice as the primary backup. Spiller performed well in relief of Jackson on opening day, carrying the ball 14 times for 169 yards and a touchdown against the Jets despite the Bills getting hammered 48-28.
In Spiller’s first start of the season in Week 2 against Kansas City, Spiller continued his hard running, picking up 123 yards on 15 carries and scoring twice in a 35-17 win for Buffalo that evened their mark at 1-1. Spiller became the first running back since Jim Brown to average at least 10 yards per carry through the first two weeks of the season with at least 25 carries. Brown accomplished the feat back in 1963, meaning nearly half a century had passed since such an accomplishment.
With it came a burning question in Western New York and around the country: was it suddenly Spiller time in Buffalo, time to turn the page on what Jackson had done over the past few seasons for the Bills during a down time in the franchise’s history?
There are reasons to look at Spiller and say that he deserves to be the starter. He’s performed at a steady clip since Jackson was hurt last season and with Jackson’s injury in week one, Spiller’s seen the lion’s share of the work in the backfield for eight of the last nine games. He led the NFL in rushing after two weeks with 292 yards and his 364 total yards of offense were the third most in franchise history behind Thurman Thomas, who had 410 yards in 1991, and O.J. Simpson, who had 405 in 1975. With a touchdown on a 32 yard pass from Fitzpatrick in the first quarter of Sunday’s 24-14 win over Cleveland, Spiller scored a touchdown for the sixth consecutive game, tying Thomas’ franchise mark.
At 25, Spiller is entering the prime of his career with his most productive years ahead of him. Jackson is 31, though he has earned the right to start. He rushed for at least 927 yards in each of the last three seasons, including 934 last year despite playing in just ten games. He doesn’t have as much wear and tear as many running backs his age do, having played in Arena Football and NFL Europe previously before catching on with the Bills. In 2008, Jackson became the first player in NFL history to run for 1,000 yards and amass over 1,000 yards on kickoff returns in a season.
At the moment, the debate over whether Spiller or Jackson should be the starter is on hold. Shortly after scoring that touchdown, Spiller was driven into the ground by Cleveland safety Usama Young. He left the field with a shoulder injury and did not return. Doctors have said that his collarbone is intact and that he sustained a sprained AC joint. He will miss next week’s divisional game against New England but is expected to be ready to go after that barring any setbacks. In his absence, Choice carried the ball 20 times for 91 tough yards to help the Bills grind out a win.
As for Jackson, he’s due to begin practicing again this week after missing the last two games since the LCL injury took place. He will wear a custom fitted knee brace when he returns to action and said that he is “70 to 75 percent certain” that he’ll be able to play this week against New England. Gailey figures that he’ll practice either Wednesday or Thursday but that he is not adverse to going with Choice as the starter this week: “Tashard Choice is a pretty good back,’ Gailey said. ‘I have no qualms about running with him.”
If Jackson is healthy enough to go and Spiller is only out for a week as projected currently, that will give the Bills their dominant duo of running backs in the fold together at the same time once again. Buffalo is third in the league in rushing yards per game so far this season, mainly on the back of Spiller. A good ground game will help shorten the game and keep the Patriots’ offense off the field on Sunday. Will Jackson be back to help Buffalo? He had a huge game against New England in Buffalo’s 34-31 victory last season in Buffalo, rushing for 74 yards and a touchdown while catching five passes for 87 yards. He had a key grab in the final two minutes down to the New England 1 yard line, setting up the game winning field goal by Rian Lindell as time expired.
When Spiller returns, the Bills will have a good situation on their hands with two capable backs trying to get their fair share of carries. Who will be the starter in that situation? It’s anyone’s guess at this point in time. If the Bills are winning football games, it’s unlikely to be a major point of contention for anyone that matters. That’s the main goal: to help Buffalo to the postseason for the first time since the Doug Flutie era and the “Music City Miracle” back in 1999.