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Balancing Act - how to divide work between Jackson & Spiller

Posted Jan 16, 2012

The Bills experienced some tough lessons in 2011, but the coaching staff also learned more about the talent it has on hand and how it applies to the team’s future. As encouraging as the emergence of the 2011 draft class was in their rookie season, the biggest revelation of a Bills season that took a wrong turn in Week 9 was what happened at the running back position.

First, Fred Jackson is a league MVP caliber player. He’s not just good. He’s not just productive. He’s dynamic. Finally with a full opportunity to show it he put his whole game on display and Buffalo is now the envy of every offensive coordinator in the league who would love to have him.

Even at season’s end despite missing the last seven games, Jackson still accounted for almost a quarter of the team’s total offense. More importantly he’s described by his teammates as the heart and soul of the team. He’s a self-made success story that commands respect and is the chief catalyst for the team’s offense as well as its emotional leader.

His absence, due to a fractured fibula, coincided with Buffalo’s slide out of contention, but what came out of that was the development of a former first-round pick that officially arrived over the season’s final six weeks.

Simply put the light bulb went off for C.J. Spiller and there were games down the stretch (See: Week 15 vs. Miami) where he was arguably the best player on the field. Six games were enough to convince most that what Buffalo has in their offensive backfield is a tandem that not many in the NFL can rival.

The question is what does Chan Gailey do to maximize the talents of both players in 2012 knowing both are deserving of 18-20 touches per game?

Jackson’s production was so significant that Gailey couldn’t take him off the field and it came at the expense of Spiller’s development. Spiller’s emergence with Jackson on injured reserve however, gave firm indication that he’s ready to be a difference maker as well. How it all shakes out will require patience.

“That’s up to Coach Gailey,” said Spiller. “I’m just going to come in and work out. Go out there and run the ball. We know that we’ve got a good one-two punch, possibly the best one-two punch in the NFL if we know how to use it.”

“He’s definitely got some thinking to do,” said Jackson of Gailey. “But you know, that’s what he does. He’s an offensive-minded guy. So it will be interesting to see what he does.”

Instead of seeing a potential problem in getting two of his most dangerous offensive weapons the ball enough, Gailey chooses to see a multitude of options at his disposal within his offensive scheme.

“It’s a great situation we have at running back,” he said. “We have two very good players. Hopefully we’ll end up with a two-headed monster which will be pretty strong.”

Knowing the offense even in Gailey’s words is more of a pass-to-set-up-the-run type attack, one wonders if the playmaking ability of Jackson and Spiller would shift the offensive philosophy even slightly. Gailey sounds opposed to such a shift.

“I think you have to be balanced, but today in this league I think you may have to lean a little bit more on the pass game,” he said. “The defensive players are so much bigger and stronger and faster than they were 15 years ago and the field has remained the same size. So for the offense the field has actually shrunk because those defensive players are so much bigger, faster and stronger. So the only way to gain an advantage is to spread people out a little bit and create more creases for running lanes, throwing lanes, things like that.”

This past season there were 569 pass attempts for Fitzpatrick and 277 rushes for Jackson and Spiller combined. Part of the reason for that disparity was the frequency in which the Bills were behind on the scoreboard. Buffalo trailed their opponents in the third quarter in 10 of their 16 ball games often leading to more pass attempts.

If Buffalo is closer on the scoreboard through the course of games it’s reasonable to assume that the run-pass figures could shift slightly to 500 passes for Fitz and 345 carries for the two backs. Knowing 80 of Fitz’s completions will probably go to Jackson and Spiller as well (78 in 2011) that could be a balance Gailey can live with.

The key is getting Jackson and Spiller to live with them.

“I told both of them at the end of the year that nobody gets the ball as many times as they want,” said Gailey. “None of them do. I told Fred if we give it to you 25 times, you’ll want it 26. If you catch eight passes he’ll want nine. It’s true that there’s only one football and a bunch of good football players.”

Jackson is likely to still see more of the carries out of the backfield, but the difference in workload won’t be by a whole lot.

“I wouldn’t call it 50-50, but it’s closer to 50-50 than it ever has been because (Spiller’s) more confident and we have more confidence in him having experience now,” said Gailey. “To me it’s a win-win for everybody except them individually. It’s a win-win for the team. It’s a win-win for setting up game plans and for us making it through the season healthy. It’s not a win-win for each of them individually because neither one of them will get the ball as much as they want to.”

It’s a situation that could get contentious, but the character of the two players involved and the mutual respect between them should allow for a successful co-existence knowing the wear and tear of that position.

“I expect to go back to playing the way I was,” said Jackson looking ahead to 2012. “We’ll see. (Spiller) made plays, he’s a playmaker without a doubt, but I also felt like I did enough to show what I’m capable of doing. We’ll see what happens, but we’re going to need both of us to play well to win football games.”

“We both understand each other well,” said Spiller. “We both know we help each other out a whole lot. We’ll see what happens.”

“I’m not worried about the statistics,” said Gailey. “I’m much more worried about winning. We’re going to try to put together the best package and the best plan to utilize both of their talents to win football games.”