If there was one thing that hardworking bus driver Lorenzo Anello wanted to impart to his young son Calogero in A Bronx Tale, it was this: The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.
Prior to week 13 of the 2011 NFL season, it seemed Clemson export C.J. Spiller would be just that. While not totally his fault, Spiller had failed to show the dynamism and game-breaking ability that pushed Buffalo GM Buddy Nix to draft him ninth overall in 2010. He logged just 283 yards on 74 carries in that 2010 season, and his only touchdown came on a five-yard swing pass in a 38-30 Week 3 loss to the rival Patriots.
2011 looked to be no different early on.
Starting tailback Freddy Jackson was lighting the league on fire, and to say that table scraps were left for Spiller would be a gross overstatement.
He was tailback non grata.
When Jackson went down with a season-ending injury in a Week-11 drubbing at the hands of the Miami Dolphins, Spiller found himself at the top of the depth chart in the following week's matchup against the New York Jets.
Nineteen carries. Fifty-five yards. Just 2.9 yards per carry.
The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.
In Week 13, the Tennessee Titans came to Buffalo, and Spiller illustrated exactly why the phrase "any given Sunday" is so fundamental to the vernacular of sports fans everywhere.
While he only registered 83 yards, he did so on just 14 carries, one of which was an electrifying 35-yard sprint that saw him recover his own fumble in the back of the end zone to put six up for the hosts. What's not shown on that score sheet are the two other touchdowns Spiller scored that were called back on penalties (along with all the yards gained on the two runs).
What's happening this year with Spiller is a continuation and an evolution of how he performed in that game.
Many reasons for Spiller's emergence exist—another Jackson injury, use of the spread formation and a fantastic offensive line, among them—but one stands out.
Most of Spiller's early troubles can be attributed to his initial inability to retool his game towards NFL defenses. At Clemson, Spiller could almost always count on his superior speed and his athleticism to spring him on sweeps and tosses. He could count on his agility to change the direction of a run on a whim, bouncing to the other side of the field and towards paydirt.
In the NFL, those defenders are faster, those lanes close more quickly and those angles don't exist.
That led to a lot of dancing in the backfield, a lot of negative yardage and a lot of lessons for No. 28 to learn.
As Bucky Brooks of the NFL Network astutely pointed out, it's Spiller's newfound penchant for taking small chunks given to him that lead to the larger gains:
This season, though, Spiller has been more decisive at the point of attack, showing a willingness to take the ball between the tackles for a short gain rather than just bouncing it outside and hoping for a big play. Those three and four-yard gains don't pop out on the stat sheet, but they eventually lead to the monster runs that Spiller covets as a home-run hitter.
Spiller's willingness to run between the tackles has another effect—linebackers are having to cheat closer to the line of scrimmage and play tighter in the box, leaving more open field for Spiller to take advantage of should he cut outside.
Buffalo exploited this on Spiller's 17-yard touchdown run against Kansas City on Sunday. On the 2nd-and-10 play, Spiller was the lone back in a three-WR shotgun formation, while the Chiefs packed five defenders in between the hashes, ready for a run up the gut.
Spiller took the handoff, Bills' linemen Cordy Glenn and Andy Levitre sealed the defensive tackle to the inside, and with one quick cut left, Spiller was through the hole and up the field with not a single defender standing in his way.
It's strong, decisive running like that that has become the third-year pro's calling card.
When he does break into that second level of defense, Spiller has the lower-body strength to change directions and power through tackles all in one fluid motion. His speed is one thing, his ability to parlay that into force and momentum is much of what has made him the NFL's leading rusher through two weeks, as well as joining league luminary Jim Brown as one of two men to rush for over 10 yards per carry through two games.
Of course, he won't be able to keep that torrid pace up all season, and carries will likely drop when Jackson returns from his knee injury.
But whether Spiller keeps the job when Jackson does return seems of little concern to him, according to a recent interview with NFL AM:
That’s not up to me, that’s up to the coaches. I think they do a great job of making sure that we get all our playmakers on the field at the same time. The only thing I can control is going out there and trying to help my team win my right now until we get him back and the rest of it will take care of itself.
What is of importance is that Spiller continues to grow and continues to evolve into a premier tailback. The tools are there, the opportunity is there and the talent is there.
Don't plan on him wasting it.