By Joe Fell
Cold, Hard Football Facts Ice Man
This week's Icy Issue deals with the Buffalo Bills' running back situation.
For several seasons, Fred Jackson has been one of the NFL’s best feel-good stories. Few undrafted Division III players ever have the opportunity to play in the NFL, let alone rush for over 900 yards in three straight seasons. Nevertheless, the recent emergence of the younger and more explosive C.J. Spiller makes it clear that the clock is about to strike midnight on Jackson’s Cinderella story and that keeping Spiller in the starting role is in the Bills’ long-term best interests even after Jackson returns from injury.
Jackson’s season has been derailed by injuries for the second straight season. In 2011, Jackson began the year on a torrid note, rushing for 934 yards on 170 carries and scoring 6 touchdowns in his first 11 games. However, a knee injury ended his season in Week 11 against the Miami Dolphins.
After successful surgery and offseason rehabilitation, Jackson returned to the starting lineup in 2012. In the preseason, Jackson appeared to be poised to return to his old form as he rushed for 61 yards on 12 carries and scored 1 touchdown in only two games of action. Unfortunately for Jackson, he suffered a knee injury in the first game of the year against the New York Jets and is slated to be out for several games.
Spiller has filled in admirably for the injured Jackson. Through Week 2, Spiller has rushed for 292 yards on 29 carries and scored 3 touchdowns. Spiller’s eye-popping rushing yardage has made him the leading rusher in the NFL. In addition, Spiller has caught 5 passes for 72 yards.
Spiller’s emergence comes off his impressive performance in the last six games of the 2011 season following Jackson’s injury. During the six games in which Spiller was the starting running back, he rushed for 446 yards on 86 carries and scored 3 touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 187 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Spiller’s impressive performance and statistics in 2011 and 2012 show that he is clearly able to handle the rigors of the starting running back position. However, barring a setback during his recovery process, Jackson should return later this season.
What should the Bills do?
The answer is simple: keep Spiller in the starting role and trade Jackson to a team in need of running back help in exchange for help at the wide receiver position.
Many fans and analysts may think that the best solution for the Bills is to keep both backs on the roster, and they will ultimately point to the prevalence of timeshare systems around the NFL in support of their view.
However, doing this is the football equivalent of saying, “Everyone else is doing it, so we should do it too.” Plenty of playoff-bound teams, such as the Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles, and Baltimore Ravens, are doing just fine with a system in which one back gets a majority of the carries. Meanwhile, some teams like the New Orleans Saints that utilize a timeshare system are languishing with 0-2 records. One would have hoped that the 2-0 starts by the pass-happy Atlanta Falcons and run-happy San Francisco 49ers would have shown intelligent football fans and analysts that there are multiple ways to win in the NFL, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Keeping both backs on the roster will inevitably lead to a no-win situation for the Bills. If Jackson starts, Spiller will spend far too much time on the bench during the prime of his career. Spiller’s game is built on speed, and if the Bills wait too long before making him the unquestioned full-time starter, they may be handing the keys over to a slower, less explosive Spiller. If Spiller starts, Jackson will spend far too much of his last few productive years on the bench watching Ryan Fitzpatrick struggle to lead a Bills offense that still desperately lacks another starting wide receiver opposite Stevie Johnson. Jackson is 31 years old, and even though he hasn’t suffered as much punishment as most running backs his age, it’s hard to imagine that he will become less injury-prone as he gets older.
The NFL’s complex salary cap structure makes trading only slightly less complicated than predicting the future, but a deal between the Bills and Green Bay Packers in which the Packers send over a wide receiver and a draft pick in exchange for a healthy Jackson later this season isn’t out of the realm of possibility, especially if Cedric Benson isn’t the answer for them at running back.
The torch has passed in Buffalo, and if the Bills intend to help the team continue to move towards a playoff appearance, they need make the tough and painful decision to keep Spiller as the starter and trade Jackson.