Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller has been afforded two opportunities to rise to stardom after starter Fred Jackson went down to injury. How did Spiller evolve to become such a better running back than what he demonstrated as a rookie?
Let's go back to the 2010 draft and work our way to the present time from there. The Bills already had two 1,000-yard running backs on the team in Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, when Buffalo made the rather curious decision to draft Spiller with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft.
The selection of Spiller gave the Bills a very deep and talented backfield, but they were going to have to be creative to come up with enough touches to justify drafting Spiller where they did.
It should be noted that Spiller was the very first draft pick under the new regime of Bills general manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey, so they were making their mark with Spiller. When Roger Goddell announced "The Buffalo Bills are now on the clock," Buffalo raced up to the podium with the card announcing the pick before the first minute had expired.
Since Gailey and Nix were both new to the Bills, it is my personal belief that neither one of them truly understood how good Fred Jackson was. If they knew what they had on their hands, I contend that the first pick would have addressed other needs on the team.
Nix and Gailey figured that Spiller was the home-run threat that the team lacked, as he could score from anywhere on the field. He would become the ideal change-of-pace back. At Clemson, Spiller had scored 21 touchdowns that went for at least 50 yards or longer. That is a true definition of a home-run threat.
If you happened to catch many Bills games in Spiller's rookie year, you would have seen the odd rush here or there that picked up 15 yards or even 20 yards. But the vast majority of his rushes in his rookie campaign resulted in no yards or minus yards.
Spiller would look for a big hole, and when one wasn't there, he would instead try to bounce the play outside. Once he started running east and west, it was easy to tackle him, resulting in one negative play after another. This pattern would continue throughout his rookie year.
It took 13 weeks before Spiller broke off his first run for 20-plus yards in the NFL. He had over 40 rush attempts before he broke off the 20-yard play against Minnesota.
Here are a couple results from 2010 games that illustrate the hit-or-miss nature of his rookie season. In his first NFL game, Spiller rushed seven time against the Miami Dolphins for a total of six yards. He had one rush for six yards and the other six carries netted zero yards.
Another example was the Bills game in Toronto versus the Chicago Bears. Spiller led the Bills in rushing that game as he gained 20 yards on seven rushes. His longest carry went for 15 yards, so the other six rushes went for just five yards. That was the only game he led the Bills in rushing that year.
Looking back at his rookie year, the highlight had to be the Week 3 game at New England, where Spiller scored two touchdowns, which were his only touchdowns that season. One scoring play came when the Bills split out Spiller wide and he caught a short five-yard pass. The second touchdown came on a 95-yard kickoff return. The kickoff return provided Bills fans with a brief glimpse of what he was capable of doing. They just didn't see it happen enough as you would expect from a Top-10 draft pick.
For the 2010 season, Spiller finished with 74 rushes for 283 yards, averaging 3.8 yards per rush. He scored no rushing touchdowns, ran for 10 first downs and lost one fumble. He also caught 24 passes for 157 yards, averaging 6.5 yards per catch. His longest reception was 41 yards, and his longest run went for 20 yards.
During the 2010 season, Buffalo traded away Marshawn Lynch to the Seattle Seahawks for draft picks. The decision to trade away Lynch meant that Spiller was in line to see more touches in the 2011 season.
Buffalo got off to a hot 5-2 start to begin the 2011 season, but it was Jackson who was the star, as he was in the top five for NFL rushers and in the top two for yards from scrimmage. Spiller, meanwhile, was getting some touches every game, but not enough to get into any kind of a groove or rhythm.
The early going in 2011 was an extension of his rookie year. Against Kansas City in Week 1, Spiller rushed five times for 16 yards and had a long rush of nine yards. The other four rushes resulted in seven yards. But at least Spiller scored the first rushing touchdown of his career in this game.
In Week 3, the Bills had a huge 34-31 comeback win over the New England Patriots. Spiller had two touches on offense, which were one rush for three yards and one reception for minus seven yards. The frustration mounted.
Spiller just needed an opportunity to prove what he could do. Jackson started the first 10 games in 2011, and he was the leading rusher in every game he started. In Week 10, Jackson fractured his leg against Miami, which became the opportunity Spiller had been waiting for. Spiller started the final six games and was the Bills' leading rusher in all six.
The first three of those starts were nothing special, but they were the first three games in Spiller's career where he finally got at least 10 rushing attempts in a game. These were probably the most important learning lessons of his career, where he finally started to put the lessons together.
Then, in Week 15 against Miami, Spiller finally turned that elusive corner. He ran the ball 12 times for 91 yards and caught nine passes for 76 yards. Spiller scored one rushing touchdown and one touchdown as a receiver. He broke off a 24-yard run and had a 19-yard reception. The 167 combined yards from scrimmage in one game was his career high.
The Week 16 game against Denver set another milestone. Spiller rushed 16 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. It was the first 100-yard rushing performance of his career. He had a 38-yard run and finally strung two good consecutive games together.
When the 2011 season ended, Spiller managed to gain 561 yards on 107 rushes, and his average rush improved to 5.2 yards per carry. He had four rushing touchdowns. He also caught 39 passes for 269 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per reception and scored two touchdowns as a receiver.
In 2012, Chan Gailey announced that he would try to work out some type of shared workload between Jackson and Spiller. That plan changed in Week 1, when Jackson went down with a sprained knee ligament early against the New York Jets. Spiller was asked to carry the load for the rest of the game and responded with 14 rushes for 169 yards, which included a 56-yard dash for a touchdown.
The following week at home against the Kansas City Chiefs, Jackson was out, so it was again time to feature Spiller. He answered the bell, rushing 15 times for 123 yards and had his first-ever two-rushing touchdown performance. He picked up 38 yards on one scamper and did a fine job of picking up the blitz when he was in pass protection, which was a skill he had to improve in since his rookie year.
After two weeks, Spiller led the NFL in rushing with 292 yards in just 29 carries, averaging 10 yards per carry. People were starting to compare him to Jim Brown, which was a huge compliment for Spiller.
Spiller proved his value as a pass receiver in the first three games, as he had a long reception of 30, 27 and 32 yards over that span. The 32-yard catch against Cleveland in Week 3 was a screen pass that he was able to follow some blocks and let his speed finish off the rest of the Browns defenders.That was the game that he hurt his shoulder at the end of a long run off of a short dump pass.
Spiller showed his toughness by returning the following week against New England even though he was playing with a sprained shoulder suffered the week before. Now in Week 5, the Bills will travel to San Francisco, so we will see how Spiller fares against the 49ers tough run defense.
Through his career, Spiller has only fumbled the ball as a running back twice. One of them happened down at the one-yard line last week against New England, and it was a costly mistake. But considering that he has carried the ball 222 times and has just two fumbles to show for it, the Bills will take that ratio any day of the week.
Spiller has finally come to terms with the understanding that gaining two, three or four yards on a rush is an excellent run in the NFL. It took him two full seasons to appreciate that, but now he gets it. As you watch the videos of Spiller's highlights, you will see how decisive he is now in his cuts and his level of confidence when he runs with the ball.
In this interview from Buffalo Bills.com, you can hear Spiller address questions about why he is off to such a great start in 2012. Spiller feels that he is more decisive this year and has learned how to turn himself into a north-south runner as opposed to being too much of an east-west runner.
Here is another video interview from Buffalo Bills.com that offers additional insights into Spiller's big game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2, when he gained 123 yards on 15 rushes for an average of 8.2 yards per rush. Spiller added two rushing touchdowns in the game.
Through it all, there have been some constants for Spiller. The key offensive linemen have been Eric Wood and Andy Levitre. They have been there for Spiller's entire career, and the Bills will probably look to extend both to long-term deals either after or during this season.
Chan Gailey has been the only NFL head coach that Spiller has played for, and Ryan Fitzpatrick has been the starting QB for the vast majority of Spiller's games. Jackson has served as Spiller's personal mentor and biggest cheerleader.
When you hear Spiller talk, it is clear that he has learned to stay humble and doesn't get too amped up over wins or too depressed over losses. He takes things in stride, as his six-year old daughter helps to keep him grounded.
We may have to wait for Fred Jackson to retire, or for the Bills to move Jackson in a trade, before Spiller ever gets the chance to be the starter all year. Some wonder if he is physically strong enough to take the pounding of carrying the ball 20 times a game for a 16-game schedule.
It is clear, though, that C.J. Spiller is a dynamic talent and is still learning on the job. His best days are still ahead of him.
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