Don't let them fool you.
They don't like each other. Alright, let me rephrase that. Everyone on this Bills team loves each other. You can tell by the way they engage with each other on Twitter. Even though the team has only won 10 games in two years, you never seem to hear any leaks about discontent in the locker room. No trying to throw the other guy under the bus. No Flutie vs. Johnson controversy. The team is a family.
However, when you are competing for a job, things can change. It is nothing personal, just strictly business. It is like that when you work at any job. Sure, you grab beers with co-workers and what not, but when it is time to be the best at your craft, you ain't thinking beers. You are thinking about beating the other guy.
Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller can say all the right things about pushing each other, helping each other out in the film room, and being friends, but you gotta think when the season starts, who is getting the most carries is going to be a weekly topic.
Each player wants to be the guy carrying the rock. They want to be the one who helps his team win. They want the glory. I think next year is going to be very interesting for #22 and #28. I've never been a fan of running back by committee. It can work, but the problem is distributing carries. Do you go 50/50? If Fred is running well, do you take him out for Spiller? Do you alternate drives? Quarters even? The situation just involves too many questions for my taste. Plus, Buffalo fans love to play Monday Morning QB more than anyone, so I can imagine we'd get about 20 calls a day to WGR about the usage of each back.
In my opinion, running back committees work best in two cases:
A) Your two backs have completely different styles.
B) They aren't the most talented players you have.
The Bills have the first part down, but the second is pretty far from the case. You could make a decent argument that CJ and Fred are the most skilled players on the team. Keep in mind that the Bills were ranked 27th in carries last year. That number should be in the teens in my opinion. With all that being said, I feel like dissecting the nuances of both these backs.
Breaking tackles - Advantage Fred Jackson
Fred is a beast in this department. Profootballfocus.com had a stat on how Jackson gained 637 of his yards last year after contact. Before he got hurt, fans and media members joked about how Fred was running angry because of his contract dispute from last summer. He is a load to bring down, but when you look at him, he's not exactly the most imposing looking guy. If you go by his measurements, he's only 215 lbs, which is 12 lbs bigger than Spiller. Ahmad Bradshaw, who will never get confused for a bruiser, weighs the same as Fred. I'm not a personal trainer, but I can only assume Fred does a lot of leg presses. Oh, and how about that stiff arm? As for CJ, he's not going to be running over too many guys. He's a make one cut and shoot for the end zone kind of running back. Speed is his best trait, not power.
Speed - Advantage CJ Spiller
This isn't even close. Don't get me wrong, Fred can run. But CJ has better breakaway speed. That's why the team drafted him. We heard all about his speed coming out of college. We saw glimpses last year. He's a HR threat. In four of his last five games last year, Spiller averaged 5.9, 7.6, 6.9 and 4.6 yards a carry. When you get a high yards per carry, you tend to be a guy who can break long runs.
Popularity - Advantage Fred Jackson
Not even close. We get it. Everyone loves an underdog, especially in a city that feels they don't get enough respect from the rest of the country. Fred Jackson is that guy. In your classic Rocky Balboa storyline, no one gave the guy a chance when he came to the NFL. The Bills didn't really believe in him in 2010, and they decided to draft Spiller with their first pick and had Jackson as #3 on the depth chart behind Lynch and CJ. When Fred wanted a new deal last summer, his teammates and the fans had his back. He's always giving shout-outs to the Bills Mafia and when he signed his new extension a few months ago, he was blowing kisses to the community. CJ may eventually get to this status, but because his body of work has been so small and it took him almost 24 regular season games to finally do something, he's a distant second.
Freshness - Advantage CJ Spiller
Sooner or later, Bills fans are going to stop saying that Fred Jackson has fresh legs because he started his NFL career when he was 26. I keep going back to the Priest Holmes vs. Fred Jackson comparisons and how Holmes started becoming a main back at the age 28 and kicked ass for 3 straight years. However, when he hit 31, he went downhill due to injuries. When you put together Jackson's rushing, receiving, and kickoff attempts for his career, he's touched the ball 1,061 times. Those equal to about what your every down back would get by the time he reached year four of his NFL career. So you are talking 25-years-old. Still, when you get old, you get old. Plus, Jackson is coming off a serious injury. As for Spiller, come on. The guys is as fresh as a new car scent. He has carried the ball only 181 times in 2 years. Not a whole lot. However, the Bills are still pretty cautious when it comes to giving him the ball a lot. Remember how pissed we were when they kept taking him out for Choice last year? In Spiller's 6 starts, he never went over 20 carries while Jackson went over the number 3 times during his 10 starts. So, we have a guy who is 31 and broke down last year going against a guy we are scared to give the ball to 20x a game. Eh.
Regime's love - Advantage CJ Spiller
When your coach says before the NFL draft that he wants a scat back when he already has two established guys in Jackson/Lynch, you know that guy's a teacher's pet. Sure, the main reason Jackson has been the main running back since Marshawn Lynch was traded is because of his stellar play, but don't think for one second that if Spiller showed any promise during his first 24 games, he wouldn't cut into Jackson's carries. Spiller was terrible his first year. There was no way he was getting into the lineup with the way he missed blocks, couldn't run between tackles, and danced too much behind the line of scrimmage. Still, I think if you are drafted high by a team, if you show any flashes, they will eventually crowbar you onto the field. Spiller's last 6 games did that for this upcoming year. Nix/Chan have been on record to say that Spiller is going to get carries this year. I know he played OK down the stretch, but the Bills still lost and when you compare his stats to Fred, well there is no comparison. However, he's younger and a former 1st round pick.
Better running back - Advantage Jackson
Obviously, Spiller doesn't have a large enough resume to compete with Fred. Even still, we are talking about an MVP candidate through the first half of last year. In Jackson's 38 NFL starts, he has over 100 yards in total offense in 23 of those games. He's also gone over the 100 yard rushing mark in 13 of those starts. Add it up, and Jackson has had over 100-yards in total offense in 65% of his starts. Case closed.
Bills history of running back by committee - Advantage nobody
This may be the biggest reason why I'm not a fan of dual running backs. The Bills haven't really had much success with it in their history. OJ Simpson didn't split carries. Joe Cribbs was the primary back, even though Roosevelt Leaks would chip in. Thurman Thomas was arguably the MVP of those Super Bowl teams . You can even goto Travis Henry's back-to-back 1,300 yard seasons and Willis McGahee's 1,100 yard campaign of 2004 (12 starts). The players listed did it without sharing the load. Now when you go committee it gets underwhelming. Remember the running back situation of 1999 and 2000? This was when we were alternating Antonine Smith, Johnathan Linton, Thurman Thomas, and Shawn Bryson. The Bills may have been ranked in the top 10 for rushing yards during those seasons, but it was mostly due to them being a running team. The Bills were 2nd in rushing attempts in 1999, but 18th in yards an attempt (3.9).
Speaking of Henry and McGahee, it is pretty hard to believe that with the caliber of both backs, the Bills made very little effort to maximize both players at the same time. In McGahee's first 4 games as a pro, he carried the ball on 19 times while Travis Henry carried the ball 80 times during those games. Of course, the Bills were 0-4 and needed a spark, so they decided to give the starting job to McGahee, who pretty much kicked start the Bills mini-run of 2004. McGahee carried the ball 261 times during the final 11 games (22 carries a game) while Travis Henry carried the ball 14 times in five games before falling to injury. As I wrote, the Bills didn't go by the route of committee, they went with the hot hand and that was McGahee.
Go to 2009 and the Marshawn Lynch 3-game suspension to start the season. This was when Fred Jackson got noticed by Bills fans. In the 3 games Jackson was the unquestioned starter, he had 425 yards in total offense. At that point, Jackson was the total yards from scrimmage leader in the NFL. Then Lynch came back to the line up and the running game stunk. The coaching combo of Jauron/Fewell tried to split carries, but it just didn't work. I think both Lynch and Jackson need to get fed the ball constantly to get into a rhythm. When you only carry the ball 12 times a game, it is hard to feel involved. For the next seven games, Jackson had 67 carries for 237 yards (Average 3.5 yards a carry). Marshawn Lynch struggled as well, gaining 272 yards on 87 carries (Averaged 3.1 yard a carry). It was an ugly 7 game stretch for the offense in the running department. Finally, the Bills gave up on the committee and gave more carries to Jackson for the final 6 games, rushing for 534 yards on 109 carries (Averaged 4.9 yards a carry) while Lynch sat on the bench and rushed for 178 yards on 33 carries. The same thing pretty much happened at the start of the 2010 season when the Bills tried giving Jackson, Spiller and Lynch carries. Just too many backs and not enough carries.
Bottom line: The best running years in Bills history happened when there was one main guy, not two.
NFL Running back by committee - Advantage passing teams
If you are a fan of running backs by committee, you'll maintain the notion of how half the league runs the same system. Besides keeping defenses wondering who will carry the ball, it keeps backs fresher. The problem is the teams using this system, aren't exactly great rushing teams. Of the top 10 rushing teams, only three of them were running back by committee teams (Broncos, Panthers and Saints). The Saints were on there because they had injuries to their running backs and the Broncos couldn't throw. The Panthers had Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart rushing between 700-850 yards each. If you look at the final 4 teams from last year, you had two teams with featured backs (49ers and Ravens) and two with running back by committees (Giants and Pats). The latter will never be confused with being established rushing teams. If you look at the top 10 passing teams, 8 of the teams had running back by committees (Pats, Giants, Packers, Lions, Saints, Chargers, Cowboys and Steelers). What does this mean? Well, if I were to guess, I'd say passing teams want options at running back to help them with what they do best, and that's the pass. They want options in the backfield who can pick up blocks in passing downs, swing to the outside to catch a check down, or line up as a WR. Adrian Peterson wouldn't be the back you'd want doing that. So, passing teams implement a guy who can run on 1st down and a guy who can probably catch the ball on 2nd and 3rd.
Final word: I've been saying for the last two years that if the Bills want to make this 1-2 punch work, they should look at what the Saints had in 2006. Deuce MacAllister, who resembles Jackson in his running ability with a mix of power, speed and vision, had over 1,000 yards rushing. Reggie Bush, who pretty much resembles Spiller in the way he runs, had 88 catches for 762 yards and 565 yards rushing. That's exactly what I would want. Make Jackson your 16-20 carry guy and have CJ Spiller as your 2nd receiving option, catching 5 passes a game. Forget the notion of both backs getting 800 yards like the Panthers had last year or when the Giants won the SB with Bradshaw and Jacobs in 2007. Chan Gailey doesn't seem to want his team to work that way. He wants to pass a lot. He wants his backs to be as good in the passing game as the running game. That's why he wanted a scat back two years ago. If CJ Spiller can become a dangerous WR threat, the combo will work. If it is just a situation where they alternate carries, I'm not so sure it works because the team doesn't attempt to run that much.
It wiill be interesting to see how Gailey uses both players this year. Running back controversy or your best offensive weapons?