After a highly successful preseason and high expectations to go along with it, much was anticipated from Bills top pick C.J. Spiller in his rookie season. The regular season however, proved to offer a much more challenging brand of football that forced the talented running back to adapt and adjust each and every week.
Spiller provided encouraging flashes of his game breaking ability through the 16-game slate in 2010, but he realized faster than anyone that his first NFL season would be one where he had to learn more than perform.
"I knew it was a fast game, but I didn't let that discourage me," said Spiller. "I knew the biggest thing that I'd have to get accustomed to is just my patience. I believe in my speed a whole lot, so that's not a concern to me. Being more patient is what it is. It's easier said than done because you've got a lot of bullets coming at you when you're out there. That's the thing that I'm trying to learn and that's something that I'm going to work on in the offseason."
Bills head coach Chan Gailey admits that Spiller's adjustment to the pro game was one that took longer to materialize in terms of results on the field.
"Good but not great," said Gailey when asked to assess Spiller's rookie season. "I think all of us thought it would be different. I think he thought it would be different. I don't see the mindset being different for any of us on that. Running in the NFL from running in college was a lot bigger transition than we and he thought it would be."
Where Spiller had some issues through the course of the season was in reading blocking schemes on run plays. If he wasn't sure about a read on an inside run play Spiller would quickly bounce a run outside in an effort to get positive yardage out in space. That tactic was often met with success in his time at Clemson where his superior speed would allow him to make plays on the edge even when plays weren't designed to go there. Such success wasn't found so easily at the NFL level.
Spiller averaged 3.8 yards per carry with his longest run covering 20 yards. In his defense he had just 74 carries on the season. Time and again Spiller and his coaches have talked about him being more patient in letting a play unfold and then hitting a hole once it's there.
"The hardest part for me was just trying to develop that patience that I need," he said. "When you're out there on the field you kind of want to speed up because you think everything is going 100 miles per hour, but a couple of times on film I've noticed that if I just would've been patient enough here and there I could have a few more longer runs. That just comes through experience and repetition. So hopefully I'll be able to be more patient (in the future)."
From the day he was drafted Gailey has been questioned about Spiller's ability to run the ball between the tackles, and Buffalo's head coach has been resolute in maintaining that the team's top draft choice is more than capable of being an effective inside runner.
"He's done it before. I've seen him," said Gailey. "He just wasn't comfortable with all the different fronts you get defensively in the NFL and all the different places that people can be and how he fits run-wise into those little small cracks that you have to get into in the NFL."
Cracks qualify as holes in the NFL, and Spiller feels he learned a lot in terms of identifying those cracks from watching Fred Jackson on film each week as he would pick and choose those cracks to get positive yardage on plays when there wasn't much there.
"I definitely learned a lot from him," said Spiller. "He's a great teammate, but better yet he's a great person. He taught me a whole lot about this game, about being patient."
Spiller did provide more impact on special teams as a returner, with his 95-yard return for a touchdown against New England in Week 3 just one example. His production on punt returns the second half of the season in place of the injured Roscoe Parrish was even more encouraging as he averaged 14.6 yards per return with five of his 12 punt returns covering 20 yards or more (41.6%).
Of all the return men in the league that did double duty in 2010 as kick and punt returners, Spiller finished 10th in total return yards with 1,189.
His game-breaking ability in space is undeniable, which is why Gailey is committed to creating more opportunities for him in 2011.
"I have to do a better job of getting him the ball in space," he said. "He is a touchdown waiting to happen. You just have to try and get it in his hands enough times and that's what we're trying to do, figure ways to get it in his hands."
Gailey says he still sees a multi-purpose player in Spiller with plans to use him as a back both outside and inside, a slot receiver and a returner. It might seem like a lot to put on Spiller's plate knowing how challenging the transition proved to be in year one, but Gailey believes in his player's desire to succeed as much as his God-given ability.
"He has amazing talent, he has a great work ethic, he's going to be a very good player for a long time," Gailey said. "I just think he's got to continue to learn and to get better. He's going to be a very good player. Because of where he was picked, expectations are put on somebody like that. It's not anything he did wrong or did bad. He's just got to learn. In five years, this will never come up."
"I'm definitely excited about the future because I've learned so much that will help me as a player," Spiller said. "I'll work hard this offseason and work on the things I need to work on. I'll do what I do every year and look at all the runs that I had and sift out the best runs that I had and try to correct the mistakes through offseason work and develop my patience. There are a lot of things I'm going to do in the offseason to try to help myself become a better player."