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3 - How will the RB workload be split?

Posted Jul 26, 2010

Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th.

It’s a question that has been extremely popular since C.J. Spiller was drafted ninth overall by the Bills in late April. With a game breaking talent like Spiller added to an offensive backfield with Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, how will the rushing workload be divided?

Only head coach Chan Gailey has the answer, but looking at his history in the league as an offensive coordinator one can make a logical conclusion as to how it could play out.

With respect to Buffalo’s stable of talent at the running back position, it’s arguably the deepest one on the roster. Lynch went to the Pro Bowl after a solid 2008 campaign, and Fred Jackson had a monstrous 2009 season in which he led the league in total combined yards with his staggering total of 2,516 yards ranking fourth best in NFL history.

Add in Spiller, who had 53 touchdowns in his college career including 21 of 50 yards or more and Gailey appears to have a good dilemma, but a dilemma nonetheless.

“I’ve never really been in this situation where we have three like this,” Gailey said. “But I certainly am looking forward to seeing how it all pans out because I think you have a chance to give defenses some real problems with that many good running backs and football players.”

The first clue about the rushing workload may have come shortly after Spiller was drafted. It was clear that Buffalo’s front office did not view the Clemson product as a workhorse type back.

“Spiller is a hybrid,” said Bills GM Buddy Nix. “He’s a back, he’s a receiver and he’s a returner.”

“We can use him in a lot of different spots,” said Gailey. “We can split him out and try to create a mismatch out wide. You can use him in the backfield as a running back. So we feel we have a chance to create some very good matchups in our favor with a guy like C.J.”

With comparisons to the likes of the Saints Reggie Bush and the Vikings Percy Harvin, Spiller is not expected to carry the lion’s share of the workload when it comes to running the football. At 196 pounds pounding Spiller between the tackles could prematurely wear him down in his first 16-game season.

That’s why it’s more likely that Spiller will be used as a complementary rusher to either Fred Jackson or Marshawn Lynch, with the coaching staff getting the ball in Spiller’s hands more via the pass or the return game to give him enough opportunities to make things happen.

So being the lead ball carrier in Buffalo’s offense essentially comes down to Jackson and Lynch. Jackson certainly impressed last year becoming the first player in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards and have 1,000 kick return yards in the same season.  

Jackson led the team in rushing, return yards, was second in receptions, third in receiving yards, third in touchdowns and even threw a 27-yard touchdown pass. As far as Jackson was concerned all he needed was the opportunity.

“It was just something I felt I was capable of doing all the time,” he said. “I just got the chance to do it last year and hopefully I get that same opportunity to do it this year. With the offense that Chan is going to bring in he’s going to use guys in the way that he feels fit. Hopefully I can be one of those guys that he wants to use a lot of and I can go out and make plays for him.”

After losing his starting job to Jackson in 2009 thanks in large part to a league-imposed three game suspension, Lynch found it tough to regain his Pro Bowl form. Questions about his desire to play for the Bills has been the subject of media speculation all offseason. What to expect from Lynch in training camp might be tough to ascertain for some, but not Jackson who believes Lynch will be giving nothing but his level best.

“We like to feed off each other and compete with each other,” said Jackson. “It makes us both capable backs in this league. I think that’s always been the case with Marshawn and myself. Just going in and competing again is just going to make us better so it’s something we’re both feeding off of and something we both want to do.”

Who wins that top spot at running back coming out of training camp will likely see the bulk of the work all season long when it comes to carries as long as the injury bug doesn’t bite. Looking at Chan Gailey’s history in the NFL as an offensive coordinator and head coach, there are nine seasons in which he ran his team’s offense. In those nine seasons his team’s lead back accounted for more than 70 percent of the carries made by the team’s top three rushers by season’s end (70.6%).

Some might argue that Gailey had perennial Pro Bowl backs like 2010 Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith and likely future Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis, who would naturally see the majority of the work. But Gailey used backs like Bobby Humphrey and Lamar Smith every bit as much as the coordinator in Denver and Miami as he did with Bettis and Emmitt Smith.

In 1996 and 1997 while running the Steelers offense, Gailey gave Bettis 70 percent of the carries in each of those two seasons among the top three rushers on the team. With Emmitt Smith in Dallas in 1998 and 1999 he had the Hall of Famer handle 72 and 75 percent of the total rushing load by the top three ball carriers on the Cowboys squad.

That didn’t change much from his earlier days as coordinator with the Broncos (1989-1990) when Humphrey accounted for 65 percent of the rushes in ’89 and then 76 percent in ’90. In Miami (2000-2001) Lamar Smith saw 75 and 71 percent of the workload.

The only time the lead back in a Gailey offense wasn’t close to two-thirds of the work was in 2008 in Kansas City when Larry Johnson accounted for just 60 percent of the carries. But that was due in part to the fact that Johnson only appeared in 12 games for the Chiefs that season.

Suffice to say that little should change in Buffalo’s backfield this fall, meaning that Jackson or Lynch should plan on carrying the ball between 280 and 320 times in 2010 if they win the top tailback job.

As for the number two back, over Gailey’s nine-year NFL history as an offensive play caller the back that had the second most carries saw an average of 17 percent of the work. That percentage of touches will likely go to Spiller.

Combine that with the average percentage of touches for the lead back under Gailey (70.6%) and it leaves just a little over 12 percent of the workload for the third back. And it should be noted that in seven of Gailey’s nine years as an NFL offensive play caller his quarterback had the second or third most carries on the team.

Some observers might feel the Bills have a pair of number one backs in Jackson and Lynch, and so the breakdown of work will be different in this situation, but history indicates once Gailey has his top ball carrier pegged he sticks with him.

“I don’t worry about people’s feelings. I worry about scoring points,” said Gailey. “We’re going to do what’s best to score points and help this team win football games. If you get people that are selfish all the time that’s eventually going to catch up to you as a football team. I’m worried about scoring points and winning football games. And this is a big piece of the puzzle for us to be able to do that.”

So the battle for the top spot should be fierce come training camp with the players knowing their performance will be the only means of convincing their head coach that they’re the man for the job.

“I think the three of us get along well enough where I don’t think there’s going to be any problems between us,” said Jackson. “You’ve just got to take advantage of every opportunity that you do get and make the most of it. Every time you get on the field you just have to make as many plays as possible. We’ll find out.”

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