What we have here, evidently, is a large difference of opinion.
Bills coach Doug Marrone was asked Wednesday how C.J. Spiller’s sprained left ankle was coming along, relative to where it was one week earlier.
“Uh, probably not as well,” said Marrone, who said he’s considering sitting his star running back on Sunday against the Saints.
Spiller’s personal prognosis?
“Oh, a whole lot better,” he said. “Ten times better.”
It’s a tableau that has played out in football locker rooms for 100 years. The coach wonders if an injured player would be better off resting for a week or so to regain full health. The player, who can’t bear to miss a game and let down his teammates, insists he’s coming along fine.
Many former NFL players limp through middle age because of it. There was a time – not so long ago, as we well know – when players “got their bell rung” and rushed back into the game with concussions. That’s the culture of the sport. You man up. You play hurt. The crowds applaud.
At this point in an NFL season, most of the players are nursing some kind of injury. Spiller has a bad ankle. Fred Jackson has a bad knee. The Bills are struggling to get back in the playoff race and hurting at running back. So Marrone has to balance the health of his player against the fortunes of his team.
Marrone seems to be wavering. Spiller injured the ankle on Sept. 29 against Baltimore. He has barely practiced since then. The Bills have spotted him in games, using him for 20 percent of the offensive plays. He had a 54-yard touchdown run in Cleveland, but not much else.
Spiller insists he’s getting better. Marrone isn’t so sure. Spiller had one of the worst games of his career in Miami, touching the ball nine times for a grand total of 7 yards. He meant well, but he hurt the team, and you wonder if Spiller might be hurting himself as well.
Spiller said Marrone can only observe “what he sees on the tape. But I’m telling you, I feel better. I know my body better than anybody on this team or on this earth.
“People are going to think what they want. I do a great job of talking with the doctors, making sure we’re on the same page. I’ve done my research on the injury, and what they tell me pretty much adds up to what I see online. You can’t further damage it.”
Perhaps not. But when a player with Spiller’s athletic gifts is physically compromised, when he can’t make his usual razor-sharp cuts and lacks his typically confident burst, he’s more vulnerable to other injuries. You can see Spiller’s uncertainty when he runs away from contact at times.
“He’s risking a lot,” said Stevie Johnson. “But he’s an athlete. He’s his own man. He knows his body more than we know. If he’s going to suit up, we’re there to fight with him.”
Two weeks ago, when we talked about concussions, Spiller said, “I never let pride get in the way of my health.” He says this isn’t about pride. Spiller said he felt great last week leading up to the Miami game. Then the ankle stiffened up just before game time. He said he doesn’t believe that will happen again this week.
“If it tightens up Sunday, that’ll be devastating, two weeks in a row,” he said. “I want to play. I want to help my teammates win this game. It could give us a whole bunch of confidence to put two straight road wins in our back pocket. But if they decide to rest me, what can I say?
“I want to be out there,” Spiller added. “Everybody knows that. If I didn’t want to be out there, I would have shut it down after Baltimore and said, ‘I’m going to let my ankle heal and that’s it.’ But that’s not part of me.”
Marrone said the team needs to evaluate Spiller and “make a good decision.” He said they’re “absolutely” on the fence. It sounds like they’re leaning toward sitting him out a game. That’s the good decision, the decision that’s best for the long term.
Spiller is a valuable commodity, the Bills’ most explosive offensive player. A year ago, he reached 1,000 yards faster than any NFL running back in 78 years. Spiller finished with 1,703 yards from scrimmage and people were screaming because Chan Gailey didn’t use him enough.
He has 398 total yards on 104 touches this season. He has a minuscule 36 yards on 14 receptions, a 2.6 average. That should tell you how difficult it is for him to plant and change direction. In his first 104 touches a year ago, Spiller had 808 yards. More than twice as many.
Every year, Spiller writes down his statistical goals for the season. He keeps them to himself until the year is over. I’d be surprised if one of his goals wasn’t 2,000 scrimmage yards or more. It must kill you to go out there hurt, I said, knowing how bad it looks on paper.
“I think the only people getting mad right now is my fantasy owners!” Spiller said, laughing.
“I would never have thought at the start of the season I’d be banged up the way that I am,” he said. “I had high expectations. I still do. I still believe in my goals. If you crumple up your goals and throw them away, you might as well throw your season away.
“It’s tougher because of the injury, yeah, but I still believe I can achieve every one of them.”
Winning is probably his No. 1 goal. You have to admire the guy for gutting it out for his team at a time when a lot of people are playing hurt.
The Bills’ primary goal should be getting him fully healthy, not sending him out there as half the player he was before.