It's no secret that I wasn't a fan of Buddy Nix's first draft pick as general manager of the Bills. In today's NFL, if you spend the ninth overall pick on a running back, you'd better be absolutely certain that he's something special. More to the point, the guy ought to have the makings of a superstar.
Well, I'm finally seeing what Nix had in mind when he handed C.J. Spiller's name to the commissioner in April 2010. Two weeks into his third pro season, Spiller is showing the full array of talents that infatuated Buffalo's personnel men when he was running rings around college defenders at Clemson.
Spiller showed glimpses late last season when he filled in for Fred Jackson. But what he's done in the first two weeks of this season has grabbed the attention of football fans all over the nation, who have to be wondering if they're seeing the arrival of the game's next great back. Yes, a budding star.
On Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, with his team desperate for a victory and missing two of its top offensive weapons, Spiller played the role of NFL star to the hilt. He had 170 total yards - 139 in the first half alone - and two touchdowns as the Bills rolled over the Chiefs, 35-17.
Panic? Did anyone panic? Just like that, the Bills are 1-1, in a four-way tie for first place in the AFC East. And just like that, they have a featured back who is the talk of the league. After two games, Spiller has carried the football 29 times for 292 yards, a 10.1 average. He has another 72 yards on five receptions, giving him 364 yards on just 34 touches. Not bad for a reserve.
Spiller is the first NFL player to average 10 yards a rush through the first two weeks of the season (minimum 25 carries) since Jim Brown in 1963. OK, the superstar talk is a little premature. But that's pretty lofty company. Some people (and I'm among them) consider Brown not just the best runner of all time, but the best football player, period.
The kid has come a long way since his rookie season, when he lost yardage about every fourth time he touched the ball and read his blocks as if they were in a foreign language. When Spiller was drafted, they said he was one of those backs who was a threat to break a long run every time he touched the ball. That's how it has seemed the first two weeks. He already has nine plays of 10-plus yards.
Chan Gailey believed Spiller had greatness in him all along. But even he didn't anticipate Spiller blossoming into a star this quickly.
"I knew he could be," Gailey said. "I didn't know whether it would happen or not. I would like to tell you, 'Oh sure, I saw that.' But it would be a lie. I didn't see it happening like this. I knew it was capable of happening, but I didn't know it would."
Even when he was struggling to justify the pick and prove himself, Spiller never lost faith. He never complained about playing time. He practiced and listened and learned. He watched Jackson, an all-around back and consummate pro and teammate. He's not surprised by his arrival.
"I'm just having great weeks of preparation," said Spiller. "The offensive line is doing a great job covering these [tacklers] up. We knew coming into the game we were going to have to be very decisive running - put your foot down and take what they give. So I think it all starts with our preparation.
"I do the same thing," he said. "I read and run hard in practice, and it's just translating over to Sundays."
With the Bills reeling from an opening blowout at the Jets, fans wanted to see the translation in person. Jackson, who led the way in big wins over the Pats and Eagles here a year ago, got up in the locker room before the game and told Spiller it was time to carry the team on his back.
"When that comes from the leader in our room, you have to step your game up," Spiller said. "I was ready to go today, though."
On the Bills' second possession, he ran a reverse out of the Wildcat for 7 yards. He caught a slant from Ryan Fitzpatrick for 19 yards on second and 10. On another second and 10, he shot through a hole over left tackle and sprinted 17 yards for a TD. Cordy Glenn and Andy Levitre blasted open a hole.
Spiller shot through it, planted his foot and was gone, a flash of memory.
"C.J. in the open space, he's pretty deadly," said center Eric Wood, "because he's physical now, and he's got the speed to go with it."
On the Bills' next possession, Spiller broke a 38-yard run up the middle. He scored the TD on a toss left from the 5 on third and 3. You didn't have to be Pop Warner to see that one coming. Late in the first half, he took a pass in the flat and jitterbugged 27 yards to the 2, setting up a 10-yard TD pass from Fitzpatrick (on pace for 40 TD passes, by the way) to Scott Chandler.
That made it 21-0, home team. It was essentially the reverse of what had taken place in New Jersey the week before. Between high fives and jello shots, most Bills fans had to be wondering how a team could look so dreadful one week and so good the next. Well, that's the NFL. You try to figure it.
The two constants thus far have been Spiller and the offensive line, which has picked up where it left off a year ago. Spiller is terrorizing defenses and making people around him better. On Fitzpatrick's 43-yard pass to Chandler in the third quarter, Spiller was lurking in the flat, commanding just enough attention to create a seam for Fitz's perfect throw.
This was the kind of game people had in mind when the Bills upgraded the defense. Run and stop the run, play solid defense and don't ask Fitz to be a hero. Allow him to be efficient, a careful, timely playmaker. The Bills are 5-0 the last two seasons when he throws fewer than 30 times.
The coaching staff did a commendable job in all areas Sunday. The team played physical and smart. Gailey said it was by design that the cornerbacks played more aggressively. They ran the ball on first down the first five series, which is rare for Gailey. Spiller will be a target now, even more of a focus for opposing defenses.
He welcomes the attention.
"I already have that mind-set," Spiller said. "These guys are grown men. They watch the film on me, just like I watch film on them. I have to make sure I'm prepared for whatever they throw at me. Our offensive line, those guys take the challenge each and every day.
"I just try to read my reads and be decisive, and that's what I've been doing the first two games."