There are times when you had to wonder if the Buffalo Bills were ever going to be on the right track again, but, for at least the first half of the year, that seemed to be the case. Granted, the illusion broke down by mid-season as injuries and youthful mistakes returned the Bills to their losing ways, but there seemed to finally be hope... not a lot, but a glimmer, a spark. Buffalo may be only a few (key) pieces away from a postseason appearance, so it seems the perfect time to evaluate the 2011 Buffalo Bills and examine what they need to do to advance in 2012.
We'll begin in this article and will take the time to examine what was perhaps the strongest part of the Buffalo Bills this season: the run game.
When Buffalo lost premier running back Fred Jackson Week 11 to a broken leg, he was the leading rusher in the NFL with 934 yards and 6 TDs, as well as 442 yards receiving. He was THE driving force behind the early Buffalo successes in 2011, occupying the defense and freeing up Fitzpatrick for the big passing plays that made Buffalo the No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL. However, as the Bills' injury-riddled warriors limped through the last half of the year, winning just once after Week 8. Buffalo spent the first half of the year leading in rushing in almost every game, but were soon being upstaged by a 50-yard performance by Miami's Daniel Thomas here, a 78-yard day from Shonn Greene there.
Enter the million dollar kid, C.J. Spiller. Kept in chains of ineptitude through most of his first two years, Spiller spent a good portion of 2011 being shuffled around to different spots on the team in the hopes he would start living up to his big paycheck and high Draft pick, but... Though Spiller had initially been seen as the replacement when Marshawn Lynch left for Seattle, undrafted Fred Jackson kept him from progressing by becoming the superstar of the Bills' running game. As C.J. floundered with no rhythm or consistency, no true role in Buffalo, Jackson continued to improve and see his accomplishments resonate even after he went down this season (he still finished the season first in rushing on the team, third on the team in receiving yards).
However, losing Jackson finally got C.J. the reps and game work he needed, and by season's end he was finally starting to prove some worth. Week 13: 83 yards rushing and a TD, 19 yards receiving. Week 15: 91 yards rushing and a TD, 76 yards receiving and a TD. Week 16 even saw Spiller's first career 100-yard game (111), proving that losing Jackson, while unfortunate, was good for at least one player and the strides he made to end the season were the most encouraging thing about the second half of the year.
Here's the rub. Spiller isn't going anywhere, he's under contract for three more seasons, but Jackson may, as he is one of the players the Bills need to sign in the off season. While C.J. may have advanced tremendously to end the year, a healthy Fred Jackson was leading the league in rushing and was there whenever Buffalo needed a go-to guy this season. At 30, Jackson's body is beginning to show the signs of wear, and operating from a position that routinely retires early due to the physical rigors, you have to wonder how much longer Freddy can perform at this level. After signing QB Fitzpatrick to his big payday to be the Bills' "franchise" face and the resulting groans from Buffalo fans, you've got to wonder how much the front office will be offering to a RB who is only a season or two from being on the decline, the downward slope of his career.
Buffalo's running game was brilliant this year, with Jackson's 934 yards by Week 11 still ranking 20th in the league and Spiller rushing for 561, with extremely limited work before Week 12 (he also finished 5th on the Bills in receiving with 269 yds and 2 TDs). Jackson has all the tools to be a 2,000 combined yards threat (he was 3rd in receiving), but Spiller's youth and emerging explosiveness makes one wonder how much money and how long a contract to give the aging Jackson. This decision needs to be made quickly, though, as losing Freddy would warrant the need to find another running back in the Draft this season (a third or fourth-rounder to back up Spiller), or even looking to pick up a free agent as late season addition Tashard Choice was solid, but won't be carrying the future of the Bills backup position.
To avoid a running back controversy on par with the Bills' QB controversy of the late 90's (Flutie vs Johnson), the decision needs to be made and communicated as to who is the running back for Buffalo in 2012. Spiller's strides make it tougher now, as he is no longer the bust Buffalo fans were looking to unload to find money for Fred, but can you really pass up on Jackson? A short deal with some big dollars attached should be coming Jackson's way in the next month if Buffalo hopes to send a clear message as to who they want to lead their rushing attack. Using a split between the veteran Jackson and the emerging Spiller may be just what the Bills need to add some fire to their offense, but there needs to be a clearly defined expectation laid out for both players to avoid a C.J. relapse to the player at the beginning of this season. For too long, Spiller's lack of direction and role on the team has been confusing, not just for fans, but for C.J. himself and the result has been routine failures on the field. If the Bills hope to co-exist with both players, there will have to be a balance between the cagey, intelligent Jackson, and the speedy youth of Spiller and that relationship will have to be clearly defined. Only in maintaining balance between them can the Bills hope to utilize both players to their full potential, or else they should just decide to toss one now.
Either way, Buffalo shouldn't be investing too much time, money, or Draft picks in the running game this year unless they use it for offensive line help or grabbing a premier fullback (Corey McIntyre has 39 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in four years). They've got a good thing going in the backfield right now, they just have to make it clear to both Jackson and Spiller what their roles are and the successes should continue. Combined, they are the complete threat that Buffalo needs both in the passing game and when handed the ball, the one-two punch that could be the difference maker in Bills games this season.