Return to Relevance – Running Backs

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Updated: July 5, 2013
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Definition of RELEVANCE:
1 .  relation to the matter at hand
2.  practical and especially social applicability : pertinence

For those of you who haven’t read the first installment in the Return to Relevance series, congratulations. You’ve spared yourself a rather painful trip down memory lane, full of reflections and dissections of the decisive moments during the Aughts that have doomed the Buffalo Bills to irrelevancy. To summarize for any new readers, this series is based on the concept that relevancy in the NFL is defined as making the playoffs. Therefore, in order to gauge the Bills’ progress in their quest to become relevant, we’ll compare the current incarnation to the last relevant squad that graced One Bills Drive: the 1999 team.

Our examination of the offensive line drew a surprising conclusion. While the individual talent on the 1999 team seemed to overshadow that of today’s unit, both squad’s performances rendered a similar outcome. Much like in 1999, the offense will not be the group that the 2013 Bills hang their hats on. Rather, they are a more-than-capable unit that will put their team in position to win, relying on exceptional performances in other areas to vault them into true contender status.

If there is any unit on the 2013 Bills that can be defined as “exceptional,” my beleaguered Buffalo brethren, it is most certainly the running backs. Yet how exceptional do they truly need to be to fit our schematic as a playoff team and how does that translate to the current landscape of the greatest organized sport known to mankind? Let’s find out, shall we?

Predominant 1999 starting backfield:
RB: Antowain Smith (14 Games played/11 games started, 614 yds/165 att, 6 TD, 3.7 YPC, 32 yds/2 rec, 4 fumbles)
FB: Sam Gash (15 GP/12 GS, 0yds/0att, 163 yds/20 rec, 2 TD, Pro Bowl, Associated Press All-NFL 2nd team)
Primary reserve 1999 backfield:
Jonathan Linton (16 GP, 695yds/205 att, 5 TD, 3.4 YPC, 228 yds/29 rec, 1 TD, 4 fumbles)

What jumps out about this unit:
Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room right off the bat so we can all move on with our lives/this column – this was the year the wheels finally came off the cart for Thurman Thomas. At the age of 13, watching my hero fade away on the sideline was a chilling lesson in mortality. I’ve also burned it into my brain as my last memory of Thurman on the field and refuse to acknowledge the unfortunate incident that occurred for nine games in 2000that we’ve all gone through intensive therapy to forget.
The numbers for Smith and Linton certainly don’t jump off the page at you, so let’s delve in a bit deeper before we deal them.

Performance and ranks:
Points per game: 20 (16th)
Offensive yards per game: 333.3 (11th)
Rushing ypg: 127.5 (8th)

The Bills were left in an extremely difficult position at running back in 1999. Thomas’ carries were cut nearly in half from 1996 to 1997, coinciding with the first round selection of Smith. His promising rookie season was eclipsed by a blistering sophomore campaign, when he racked up over 1,100 yards on 300 carries. Heading into the 1999 season, it appeared the torch had been passed from one Bills great to the next (more on that later).

Perhaps this was the first in a series of rugs to be pulled out from underneath Bills fans over the next 14 years. Smith, hampered by a knee sprain and inconsistent (to be kind) play, would need the help of the unheralded Linton to carry the load. Smith’s 300 carries in 1998 would drop to 165 in ’99, 40 less than his “back up.” The two combined to produce a top ten rushing attack though, and with a good-but-not-great offensive line and mediocre passing attack, it may seem confusing as to how the gruesome twosome could translate to such a successful ground game.

This brings us to the X-Factor of the 1999 running attack and one of only two Pro Bowlers on the squad: Sam Gash. I have a soft spot for the fullback position and I’m inclined to think that a lot of my affection stems from watching Gash earn back-to-back trips to Hawaii during his two year layover in Buffalo (2003 notwithstanding). The role Gash’s blocking and veteran guile served as a stabilizing force in the offense cannot be overstated and I believe goes a long way in explaining how Smith and Linton, with all of their individual shortcomings, could combine to form a running attack that was the backbone of an 11- win offense.

Predominant 2012 starting backfield:
CJ Spiller (16 GP/7 GS, 1,244 yds/207 att, 6 TD, 6.0 YPC, 459 yds/43 receptions, 2 TD, 3 fumbles)

Primary reserve 2012 backfield (played in at least 10 games):
Fred Jackson (10 GP/7 GS, 437 yds/115 att, 3 TD, 217 yds/34 rec, 1 TD, 5 fumbles)
Corey McIntyre (13 GP/2 GS, 0 yds/0 att, 9 yds/1 rec)

What jumps out about this unit:
As a Bills fan I look at CJ’s carries, think about the blank look and weak beard on Chan Gailey’s face and begin to slowly cry myself to sleep. As the objective blogger that I am however, I see a running back rounding into the prime of his career who just posted one of the most efficient seasons in NFL history. Once the frustration regarding Spiller’s involvement in the offense (or lack thereof) subsides, I see a single player worth the price of admission on his own, the likes of which Orchard Park hasn’t seen since Number 34 himself.

You can’t look at the 2012 backfield without wondering what might have been for Fred Jackson, though. In 2011, he played the first half of the season like a dark horse MVP candidate before suffering a broken leg that, even from my seat perched on my old roommate’s tacky white leather couch, felt like the gaping hole that would officially sink our rapidly-submerging ship of a season. I had an eerily similar feeling when he sprained his knee and derailed his season in 2012, which is rather unfortunate when you consider that occurred in Week 1, but such is our struggle with irrelevancy. For all of CJ’s brilliance, it hurt to see Freddy lose another season to injury in such a prolonged and depressing fashion, and one can only wonder what the two-headed monster of Spiller and Jackson could have done to help plug the many holes of the Gailey/Fitzpatrick Comedy Hour.

Since I highlighted Gash’s contributions to the 1999 team, I feel obligated to cover McIntyre as well. The fullback position has gone the way of the Buffalo (pun-ny AND topical!) in recent years, playing less of a necessarily-critical role in the current offensive landscape. However, one need look no further than the statistics of backs following the battering ram that is Vonta Leach to see that a productive blocking fullback can still be immensely beneficial to a running game and overall offense. McIntyre, who has left the team and subsequently run into disheartening legal trouble, was a capable blocker, but primarily a special teams talent. He stood the same height and a mere three pounds heavier than Gash, but that is where the similarities end. The loss of McIntyre should prove to be negligible for this year’s squad.

Performance and ranks:
Points per game: 21.5 (21st)
Offensive yards per game: 342.88 (19th)
Rushing ypg: 138.6 (6th)

When compared to the ’99 squad, the 2012 team ranked comparably in rushing and relatively similar in points, but lagged further behind in total yards as Fitzpatrick made Doug Flutie look like some kind of Jim Kelly/Zeus hybrid. I will not belabor the inexplicable refusal to feature Spiller in a larger role. Rather, I will point out that with roughly a season-and-a-half’s worth of games played, Spiller and Jackson approached the 1,000 yard receiving plateau combined. With so much focus placed on handing Spiller the ball 20+ times per-week in 2013, the 2012 backfield showed that, with improved health and surrounding talent, they have the potential to become the premier pass catching unit in the NFL.

The state of the union:
The question isn’t if the 2013 backs outpace those of ’99. The question is exactly how much more dynamic are they and how will that affect the offense as a whole in 2013, where ground-and-pound philosophies have taken a back seat in favor of the spread attack? Relying on the running game as your primary mode of offense is akin to a game of clock control. The defensive side of that equation is an open book in 2013, which means that no matter how wide your eyes become when CJ makes his first cut out of the backfield, it’s a loser’s bet to assume that more carries will translate to more wins. Most importantly, the 2012 backs only ranked two slots higher than their ’99 counterparts and with the sixth ranked rushing attack in league, there isn’t much more that Spiller and Jackson can do to elevate the entire offense by simply taking the rock under center.

The talent between Spiller and Jackson (let alone Tashard Choice who, based on Marrone and Hackett’s track record at Syracuse utilizing multiple backs, will be heard from in 2013) certainly blows the ’99 squad out of the water. The real challenge in getting the most of the running backs this year falls at Hackett’s feet. Jackson fumbled as many times in 115 carries in 2012 as he did in 222 carries in 2010. Coupled with his inconsistent health and Spiller’s inexperience dealing with a heavy workload over a 16 game slate, Hackett will need to make the running backs a focal point of the passing attack in order to maximize their potential to vault the offense from the downside of mediocre to playoff material. The 1999 Bills running backs combined to form a formidable running attack among the ten best in the NFL. Can the 2013 crop do the same? Absolutely. The real question is whether this year’s unit can exceed that performance and drag the entire offense into the postseason. If the men on the sideline are up to task, the men on the field will get the job done.