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 Year 3 under head coach Chan Gailey and veteran player report day at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 24th and Sept. 9th.
It's as good a problem to have if you're a head coach in the NFL. You've got a pair of tailback talents that are both extremely versatile in their skill sets and both show a high rate of big play ability. Both have also proven they are dangerous weapons with the ball in their hands. The only question is how do you split the work on offense between them?
Buffalo's offensive staff did not split the workload last season. That was because Fred Jackson was taking the league by storm. Not only were 100-yard rushing efforts by Jackson the norm during Buffalo's fast 5-2 start in 2011, but by the time the season had reached Week 9 Jackson was responsible for 31 of the team's 60 big plays on the year.
Head coach Chan Gailey simply could not take Jackson off the field as he ranked among the league leaders in rushing yards per game, yards per carry average, receptions by running backs and total yards from scrimmage.
"The coaches, they knew what I could do and I don't think anyone in this building ever doubted my ability," said Spiller. "It was just we had a guy that was playing at a Pro Bowl level and we stuck with him."
It wasn't until Jackson sustained a fractured fibula in Week 11 that C.J. Spiller had the opportunity to handle a similar workload over the last six weeks of the regular season. And Spiller flourished compiling four games with over 100 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns over the team's final five games in 2011.
Come season's end Spiller nearly matched Jackson's yards per carry average of 5.5 with a 5.2 mark and both had six touchdowns apiece.
"I always had confidence," said Spiller. "We talked about it as just a matter of getting out on the field. I never let my confidence detour or get down. I always knew my ability and what I was able to do on this level. My confidence was high. It was when the opportunity came just trying to take advantage of it."
Now Gailey and his offensive staff have to devise ways to get both players enough opportunities to make big things happen for Buffalo's offense, while also spreading the ball around enough to keep opposing defenses honest.
Both players are expected to be on the field simultaneously more of the time in 2012. They could be lined up as a split backfield, or one may be lined up wide, but Gailey is cautious not to lean too heavily on such an approach.
"You don't want to do too much when they're both in there because if you lose one of them then you're without a big part of your package," said Gailey. "So you're trying to construct enough to create problems for the defense, but not so much that you're relying totally on having both of them at the same time. That's a fine line that you walk creating offenses to be able to take advantage of both good players."
That's why Gailey has preached to both Jackson and Spiller that the focus needs to be on team success, not personal workload.
"I can promise you this, we will not make everybody happy," said Gailey. "That will not happen this year. The only thing that will make everybody happy is winning. That's what the goal is, to come up with plans that incorporate everybody's abilities that allow us to win. Other than that I can't predict what's going to happen as far as percentages for their touches."
Both tailbacks are team players in every sense of the word so things are not expected to get acrimonious between two players that share a mutual respect for each other's game.
"He's a great guy," said Spiller of Jackson. "You don't find too many guys to take you under their wing once you get here, especially when somebody gets drafted at your position. We're both competitive. We go out there and compete. We push each other. But at the end of the day he's like a big brother to me. I try to take as much of his game to apply it to mine."
"I expect to go back to playing the way I was," said Jackson. "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."
Knowing Jackson and Spiller combined for almost 40 percent of the team's 65 offensive plays of 20 yards or more last year, Gailey and offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins want to put the ball in each of their hands more. Jackson still figures to get a bit more of the work. Hopefully a better Bills defense this season will give the offensive minds more possessions and thus, more plays per game in which to utilize Jackson and Spiller's talents.
"It's something we feel like we have to do to win football games," said Jackson. "We'll see how they do it. They have a tough job in getting both of us involved in the offense, but we'll make it work. We'll do whatever we have to to get some 'W's. We've been able to work on it and we've got to come back to training camp and continue to work on it."