Oh, how the weight of expectations can damper even a somewhat promising season.
When the Bills took Clemson running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall last year, he was lauded as the early favorite to earn Rookie of the Year accolades. This was an unrealistic idea that was most likely seeped into the nation's consciousness by draft analyst Jon Gruden, who made the prediction before realizing what situation he would be drafted into.
Spiller was taken by a team that already had two 1,000-yard backs on the roster in Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. While I was pining for Iowa tackle Bryan Bulaga, I was in no way upset by the pick and felt that it demonstrated good foresight by the organization.
Jackson was nearing 30 and, while he may not have logged many NFL snaps, his legs still took a beating playing in different indoor football leagues and NFL Europa.
Lynch's rap-sheet was growing by the offseason and Ralph Wilson's patience was wearing thin. It appeared to be only a matter of time before he would be shipped off.
While head coach Chan Gailey repeatedly emphasized he had never worked a backfield committee before, he claimed he would find a way to get all of his weapons touches.
With the exception of the Giants' "Earth, Wind and Fire" (Jacobs, Bradshaw and Ward), most three-headed monsters tend to struggle. None of the running backs can really get into a rhythm and their production suffers as a result.
If you're going to try though, you best have an offensive line that specializes in run-blocking. Unfortunately, the Bills have been poor in this aspect since 2004.
After having an impressive run in the preseason against the Colts, Gailey anointed Spiller the "starter," although he would still be splitting touches. Little did the team know that the official starter on the stat sheet would not really matter.
With limited touches for all three backs and a feeble offensive line, the Bills were in disarray early in the season. The offense started clicking once they shipped off Lynch to the Seahawks and became a spread passing attack. As is trending in the modern NFL, the Bills passed to set up the run and improvement followed.
Spiller, however, was not the back carrying the offense. Fred Jackson pounded the rock and moved the sticks. C.J. was already being called a wasted draft pick by some factions of the fan base and another whiff by One Bills Drive.
From a production standpoint, Spiller did underwhelm in his limited opportunities. He rushed for only 283 yards on 77 carries.
To already write him off as a bust is unnecessarily harsh, though.
Watching him play last season, I saw the flashes of promise that he showed at Clemson. I was steadfast in my belief that he owned the second-best hands on the team, and he showed that in the season finale against New England.
He elevated to the football and made a fantastic grab down the sidelines. He added a spark on special teams as well, though he'll have to work on ball security in year two.
I've heard many contend that he is incapable of running between the tackles and can never be a full-time back. While they may prolong his career by having him split carries, I'm fully convinced he can be a workhorse guy.
One of the biggest challenges facing young runners is adjusting to the speed of the game. That's a cliche, but it's very true. Time and time again last season, you could catch C.J. trying to bounce runs outside instead of taking the minimal yards the defense was giving.
In college, he could outrun every defender to the corner. In the pros, he has to get used to taking what the defense gives instead of going for the big play every snap.
After scouting him before last year's draft, I saw a back with the speed and agility to be a home run hitter, but the leg strength to run through tackles as well. In time, he'll do some damage running inside as well. That can(and will) also improve once he starts running with more decisiveness and starts hitting the holes harder.
Given that the Bills still have a mostly finesse offensive line, I doubt that he'll see a huge bump in production in 2011 (maybe a season?). He'll also still be splitting carries with Fred, which is another reason why I don't believe next year will be his breakout season.
In time though, I strongly believe he will become a playmaker at the next level and will become the centerpiece of the Bills offense. Just give him a chance.
The last thing we need is to have some bitter fans chase away a good player from wanting to be here because circumstances caused him to be late to the party.