Wheatley was a first-round pick of the New York Giants in 1995, selected 17th overall. The Giants however, already had an established starter at running back, who was also a first-round pick, in Rodney Hampton, five years prior. Wheatley found opportunities scarce. The start to his career is what he’ll have in common with Spiller, who was also a first-round pick that had to wait his turn.
He’ll also be able to relate to Jackson, who was passed over for higher draft choices and players with bigger contracts. After playing behind Hampton his first two seasons, Wheatley thought he’d get the lion’s share of the load after Hampton went out with a season ending injury in Week 2 in his third NFL season. Instead he split the workload with FB Charles Way and an up and coming rookie named Tiki Barber.
“Early in my career I was forced into a single mold, which wasn’t my mold,” said Wheatley of his Giants career.
The following year Wheatley was with a different team, signing with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent. He was finally the lead back and rushed for almost 1,000 yards in Jon Gruden’s offense along with 11 touchdowns. The following season he eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau and added 10 more touchdowns as the Raiders advanced to the AFC Championship game before losing to eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore.
“Later in my career I shared with Charlie Garner, I shared with Napolean Kaufman and Zack Crockett and it worked out perfect because I was in the mode and the philosophy that I had a specific role,” Wheatley said. “In my opinion once a player understands his role and understand the overall scheme and philosophy, you’re there.”
Wheatley’s job, as well as every other coach on the Bills staff, will be to clearly define the roles of their players, so they commit to the ultimate cause of the team.
“At the end of the day we want to win,” he said. “We want the Lombardi trophy. If you’re a guy that’s happy with being a team player and a role player and you get rings instead of individual accolades then you’ll be happy with your role.”
What might make that more difficult for Wheatley is how productive both Jackson and Spiller have been. Spiller will be playing in the Pro Bowl Sunday with a league-leading six yards per carry average and a 1,200-yard plus rushing season.
Jackson had an injury-riddled 2012 and was never healthy, but still has a career yards per carry average of 4.5 and was considered a serious league MVP candidate before he fractured his fibula in 2011.
“The options become limitless,” said Wheatley with his two versatile backs. “The more you can do the better for you. That’s my saying and these guys can do it all. They both have distinct skill sets, but they also present a different type of threat towards defenses.”
Wheatley sees Jackson as the thunder and Spiller as the lightning. And though a split backfield with both Jackson and Spiller on the field at the same time sounds like an easy solution to outside observers, that’s not what Buffalo’s run game will be.
“I would just say multiple,” said Wheatley when asked to describe the run game. “I know that’s kind of vague and it doesn’t really clear things up, but we’re a multiple set. We could do two-back, we could be one back. We could be single back, we could be shotgun. It’s a multiple set.”
Fortunately for Buffalo’s running backs coach he has a pair of backs that have mutual respect for one another as well as what’s best for the team.
“These two guys are good guys, great guys,” Wheatley said. “More importantly the character and the personality I’ve heard nothing but great things about them. When I got here I did crack a smile, but there’s also some nervousness because at the same time they’re two great players. I have two jobs, A, to try to develop them and B, not to screw them up.”
Wheatley still has to spend time around his new backs, coach them, watch them in practice and review those practices on tape. It’s only then that roles will begin to define themselves. Still, it doesn’t change the ultimate question for everyone in a skill position on Buffalo’s roster including Jackson and Spiller.
“Do you want to rush for 2,000 yards and be home for the playoffs,” asked Wheatley. “Or do you want to rush for 500 yards and get a Super Bowl ring?”