Lately, I’ve been feeling like some grouchy old NFL fan, lying back in my easy chair and muttering about the good old days, when men were men and proved it by running the ball down a team’s throat on third and short.
What happened? What would Jim Brown, Larry Csonka and Earl Campbell say about a league where third-and-2 had become an obvious passing down, and it’s become fashionable to throw on third-and-goal from the 1? I don’t even know what qualifies as third and short in this league anymore.
Look, I know it’s a different league nowadays, and that teams pass more than they run. But at its core, football is a still a rugged, physical exercise, a battle of wills. At times, a team needs to assert its authority over small, vital pieces of territory by handing the ball off.
But Chan Gailey has a better idea. The Bills’ coach and offensive genius would rather spread the field and have his quarterback throw on third down. Put Fitz back in the shotgun, often with four receivers and an empty backfield, and let him pick out an open man. Easy, right?
Well, maybe not. Over the last two seasons, the Bills have had 23 plays on third-and-2. They’re 2 of 4 running. They threw on 19 of them. They’ve converted 7 of 19 times. I’m guessing the opposition was happy they didn’t run.
Last Thursday, the Bills went 2 for 12 on third down. On 10 of them, they called passes out of the shotgun. Fitzpatrick threw incomplete on a third-and-3. He was nearly picked off deep in Miami territory on a third-and-1 pass. He was sacked on another third-and-3.
On third-and-1 on their opening possession, the Bills ran the Wildcat with Tashard Choice and he got stopped for no gain. This came after C.J. Spiller had gained 4 and 5 yards on the first two plays. Gailey took his most explosive player off the field on the first third down of the night.
Gailey insists on outsmarting himself. By using an empty backfield, he announces to the opposition that he has no intention of running. Ostensibly, he’s telling the opposition, “You can’t stop the pass.” The results show otherwise. Why not keep a running back on the field and at least give opposing defenses something to think about? It’s mind-boggling how Gailey could consider the fourth wideout on this team more useful than Spiller or Fred Jackson.
The top two running backs are the strength of the team. Last year, Jackson was among the NFL leaders in yards after contact. Spiller was leading the league as of two weeks ago. You’d think they would want to maximize that sort of threat, instead of minimizing it on third down.
Jackson is expected back from his concussion this week at Indianapolis. So maybe the Bills will be more inclined to run on third downs.
“I hope so,” Jackson said. “I think that’s what a running back wants to do on third-and-short, be the guy they lean on and run the ball to get that.”
Offensive linemen talk about wanting to run the ball and establish a physical identity. Before the Houston game, center Eric Wood talked about making a physical statement that day. So Wade Phillips stacked the line of scrimmage, refusing to go away from his base defense against the spread. Gailey blinked. He called 44 passes and 13 runs that day.
Early in the year, I said the Bills might have one of the top five offensive lines in the NFL. But if that were so, wouldn’t Gailey show more faith in their ability to run-block on third downs? He treats them like a finesse unit, better at blocking for the quick pass than the power run.
“If you want to consider us a finesse line, we don’t call the plays,” said guard Andy Levitre. “We execute the plays that are called. When it’s running the ball, we’re physical. When it’s throwing the ball, we’re going to protect for Fitz.”
Wood says it’s not easy to run for short yardage anymore. That’s why teams use the short pass. He pointed out that the Patriots use a lot of empty backfields, too, creating nightmares for defenses against Tom Brady.
At times, you’d think Gailey was calling plays for Brady, not Fitz.
“Whatever it is, we’ve got to be more effective than we are right now,” Wood said. “I don’t know if you fix it by putting guys in the game who don’t normally play on our offense. We’re not San Francisco. We don’t play three tight ends and a fullback on normal downs.”
No, but the play calling ought to reflect the fact that Spiller and Jackson are the backbone of the Bills’ offense.
How about a draw play on third-and-5 for once? Spiller is a lot stronger than he was in his first two seasons. But he’s still stereotyped as a guy who can’t run inside.
“Keep it coming,” Spiller said. “It just adds more desire for me to prove everybody wrong. I don’t get caught up in what outside people say. As long as these other 52 guys believe in me and what I’m capable of doing, that’s the only thing that matters to me.”
Well, it’s your own coaches who don’t seem to believe you can do more, Spiller was told.
“I think they do,” he said. “I hope they believe in me; if they don’t then that’s a serious problem that we have.”
Spiller averages 6.6 yards a carry. The Bills average 5.2. Yet as soon as he has third down and more than a yard to go, at the first sign of crisis, Gailey thinks pass. That’s a problem. I don’t care how much the NFL game has evolved since Jim Brown.