Is Buffalo big enough for both running backs C.J. Spiller (left) and Fred Jackson (right)? The answer may surprise you.
How quickly things change. Less than a month ago, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said the now-famous words that running back C.J. Spiller would get the ball "until he throws up."
Two weeks into the season, it looks like Spiller's stomach is feeling just fine. The Bills have fed their offense a balanced diet of Spiller and veteran running back Fred Jackson.
Now, we must wonder: Should Spiller go back to eating solid foods again, or should the Bills stay true to their word?
The truth lies somewhere in between. Spiller should be getting the ball more often, but Jackson still needs to be a part of the offense.
This debate was one of the major points of contention last year and was arguably one of the (many) reasons former head coach Chan Gailey was shown the door.
In fact, the distribution of touches between the two backs is an even closer split than last year's ratio.
Through two games this year, Spiller has played 82 of the team's 140 snaps (58.6 percent). In addition to his 33 carries, he has been in as a run-blocker on four snaps, has gone out for a pass on 42 snaps and has been a pass-blocker on three snaps.
Comparatively, Jackson has played 57 snaps (40.7 percent). Like Spiller, Jackson has run a route more often than he's done anything else when he's on the field. Bucking the conventional wisdom about Jackson, he has seldom been used as a blocker, with just three snaps in pass protection and one snap as a run-blocker.
There's no reason to think an increased workload would be detrimental to Spiller's production or big-play ability. In his career, he averages 6.1 yards per touch when he has over 15 combined rushes and receptions; he averages 5.5 yards per touch when he touches the ball 14 or fewer times.
In short, it's not as if he gets winded after too many touches and suddenly falls off a cliff.
So, what the heck? Why not give Spiller more touches and fix the problem?
Consider the following facts:
- The Bills have put the ball in the hands of one of their top two running backs on 75 total plays this season, averaging out to 37.5 touches per game. Do you know which NFL running back handled the ball over 26 times per game in 2012? You don't, because he didn't exist.
- Nine of Jackson's 33 touches this season have come on third down, and five more came in other short-yardage situations (four or fewer yards to go for a first down). Only three of Spiller's 42 touches have come on third down, and six have been in short-yardage situations.
- The Bills are one of only two teams to rush for over 130 yards in each of their first two games this season.
So, not only are there too many touches for one back to handle, but the two backs also have very clearly defined roles that have helped the Bills rank among the league's best rushing teams this season through two games.
While Jackson gets the ball in third-down and short-yardage situations, and as a rotational back, Spiller remains the feature back that gets the ball when the defense has to respect both the run and the pass equally.
When the defense focuses on defending everything, that allows a bigger opportunity for Spiller to hit his big plays. Against the Panthers, he had two runs of 20 yards or more. His 46-yard run off right guard was the biggest play of the season so far.
It was the fourth quarter. The Bills were down by six and had the ball on their own 20-yard line. They came out in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) with the tight end lined up in line on the left side.
The Panthers responded with their 4-2-5 nickel defense with the corners playing off coverage five yards away from the line of scrimmage.
Playing from ahead, the Panthers had to be ready for the pass, but that left them vulnerable to the run—even off the weak side, with no true lead blocker.
Sure, right guard Kraig Urbik got to the second level in a hurry for a solid clear-out block of Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. But it's a good thing Spiller wasn't feeling like he was going to throw up here, because he had a hole big enough to drive a Corvette through, and he hit the gas like he was driving one.
He was tripped up by the safety near the sideline, but he stumbled forward for about 10 more yards before ultimately being chased down by Davis.
Thus, while it may not make much sense at the time, there is some value to keeping Spiller fresh over the course of the game.
Make no mistake, Spiller is ultra-talented and deserves to be a feature back, but Jackson has value as well and should see the field on occasion. In terms of the distribution of the workload, the difference between where the Bills should be and where they are right now isn't that big. It may only be a difference of three to five touches per game in either direction.
The only way the Bills are going to get the most out of Spiller is if he's fresh, but they're not doing themselves any favors by leaving him on the bench so often.
The more often he's on the field, the more often the Bills have an opportunity for big plays.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.