ADVERTISEMENT

The Buffalo Bills are considered a passing team. Chan Gailey is known as a coach who likes to sling it around. The consensus is the season will hinge on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's right arm.
More likely: Buffalo's offense will depend on its backfield.
The Bills will begin their season at 1 p.m. today against the New York Jets in MetLife Stadium. Expectations for the Bills are at their highest point in perhaps a decade. For the offense to do its part in helping to douse a 12-year playoff drought, Fitzpatrick effectively operating Gailey's spread offense is the prevailing concern.
The men who can override that burden, however, are running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
"A stat people don't realize about Buffalo is - even though it's a spread offense - they led the AFC in rushing last year," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "That tells you a lot about Buffalo."
The Bills ranked 13th in rushing yardage, but they were fourth in average yards per carry behind three NFC teams. The Bills averaged 4.9 yards per attempt.
Jackson averaged 5.5 yards, highest in the NFL among running backs who also averaged at least 10 carries a game. Spiller averaged 5.2 yards a carry.
Jackson and Spiller also were crucial to Buffalo's passing game, tying for third on the team with 39 receptions apiece.
"I think a lot goes through our backfield because we actually do a lot more than probably normal running backs in this league," Spiller said. "Besides run the ball, we're asked to run routes, pass protect.
"We like that challenge. As we can be strong, we think our team can be strong."
Gailey passes to set up the run. The Bills threw considerably more than they ran last year. They had 607 pass plays (578 attempts and 29 sacks). They rushed it 391 times.
But they averaged a meager 1.8 yards more on pass plays than on run plays.
Only three NFL teams had a smaller differential: the Denver Broncos (1.5 yards), Jacksonville Jaguars (1.4 yards) and Minnesota Vikings (1.2 yards).
All three were considered - far and away - run-dominant offenses. All of them had significant quarterback issues. None had a winning record.
The Broncos won the AFC West at 8-8 and squeezed into the playoffs thanks to a series of incredible breaks. Even so, their quarterback, Tim Tebow, was known more for his running acumen.
No other playoff team had an average pass-run differential below 2.4 yards. Nine of the 12 playoff teams gained at least 7.1 yards per pass play and 3.0 yards more per pass than they averaged on the ground.
Those numbers suggest one of two things might have to happen for the Bills to reach the postseason: 1) Gailey and Fitzpatrick make a substantial leap in how many yards they gain through the air; or 2) Jackson and Spiller carry the load.
"I personally want to be a catalyst in this offense," Jackson said. "I have to have a lot of success for us to be successful on offense and take some of that pressure off. That's how we feel.
"C.J. and I know we've got to go out and make plays for us to be successful as a team. That's just it. We want to go out and lead this team to where we're trying to get. Whoever's on the field needs to go out and make a play."
Much of the chatter around Jackson and Spiller this summer speculated how they will divide the workload. Without knowing that answer, it's safe to say they'll both be important no matter how the responsibilities are shared.
Both were electric last year. In 10 games before a broken leg ended his season, Jackson rushed for 934 yards and six touchdowns and caught 39 passes for 442 yards. At the time he got hurt, Jackson ranked second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, had the most 100-yard games and was third in rushes of 20-plus yards.
In Jackson's absence, Spiller came of age. Spiller, the ninth overall draft choice in 2010 and the first running back off the board, struggled as a rookie. But he exploded in November.
"He grew up," Jackson said. "That was the best thing for him, me not being there. He got a chance to see what he can do.
"It all started to make sense to him. It was one of those things where he struggled with what defenses were doing to him and how he had to make guys miss in space. He got a chance to go out there and figure it out."
After Jackson went out, Spiller ran for 446 yards and three touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns. His stats would translate a full season of 1,189 rushing yards, eight rushing TDs, 64 catches, 499 receiving yards and five receiving touchdowns.
"They're about as good as it gets," Bills center Eric Wood said. "Fred's the heart and soul of this team. C.J.'s got speed and strength, and he showed at the end of last year he can be a No. 1 back in this league and he can carry the load.
"They do a great job of getting up field and getting the yards and hitting the home run at times."
As for how Gailey will split the carries, his track record shows he prefers a workhorse back.
He saddled up Bobby Humphrey as Broncos offensive coordinator, Emmitt Smith as Dallas Cowboys head coach, Lamar Smith as Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator, Jerome Bettis as Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator and Larry Johnson as Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator.
Obviously, superstar backs such as Emmitt Smith and Bettis would be fed the ball constantly. But with Gailey calling plays, their backups were barely used. In 1997, the Steelers' second-leading rusher was quarterback Kordell Stewart.
Gailey was reserved in his play calling throughout the preseason. In training camp, when the Bills worked on plays they'll call in the regular season, Gailey didn't hesitate to put Jackson and Spiller on the field simultaneously.
"When we're out there together, that puts us in the advantage," Spiller said. "If we can do that and keep them off balance and use our receivers and tight ends to make plays, and keep our quarterback upright, we'll be good."
Spiller and Jackson were used at the same time infrequently last year. They were on the field together for seven plays against the Oakland Raiders in Week Two, three plays against the New England Patriots in Week Three, seven plays against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week Four and three plays against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week Five.
That should change this year.
"I don't want one of them standing over by me too much [on the sideline] because they're both such good players," Gailey said.

email: tgraham@buffnews.com