Back in the June minicamp, Fred Jackson said it was time to prove himself again. Nothing new there. Critics have been underestimating him all his life. People had dismissed him as too old for years. His role was going to be diminished this season as C.J. Spiller took on a heavier load.
One thing you could be sure of with Jackson, though. Come the regular season, he would be ready. In Sunday’s opener against the Patriots, Jackson had an answer for his critics. He led the Bills in both rushing (67) and receiving (41) yards and was the team’s best offensive player in a 23-21 loss.
Jackson looked a lot like the guy who was the centerpiece of the Bills’ high-flying offense early in the 2011 season, when he was a chic candidate for league MVP. Even at age 32, Jackson doesn’t feel any less physically capable than he was at this time two years ago.
“Not at all,” Jackson said Monday morning at One Bills Drive. “I still feel like I can play. I’ve said it all along, I wouldn’t be in there if I didn’t feel like I can still compete and play at this level. Yesterday was just a good way to hit the ground running and show I can still compete.”
The Bills clearly intended to give C.J. Spiller more touches after his stunning breakthrough a year ago, when he rushed for 1,244 yards and averaged a stunning 6.0 yards a carry. Spiller would be the focus of the attack this year. Nate Hackett even said he would run Spiller until he threw up.
But Spiller struggled early against the Pats, who made him the clear focus of their defense. Jackson relieved Spiller and popped for 20 yards on his first two carries. Just like that, Doug Marrone was rotating his two running backs, same as Chan Gailey did in the old days.
Make no mistake, Spiller is still the featured back. He is too gifted a runner to share time equally. But he didn’t seem quite right Sunday. Spiller wasn’t as elusive as he was at his best last season. He didn’t have the same electric quality, the looming sense that he could break a long one at any moment.
Still, Jackson looks capable of a larger role than many people expected. There was talk in training camp of him serving mainly as a blocking back and goal-line specialist. That wasn’t the case Sunday. He was a dual threat, a pounding inside runner and a threat in the passing game.
Jackson has been diplomatic about his situation. He knows Spiller is the star now. He’s not going to squawk about playing time. But he can demand it with his actions. His play in the opener screamed, “Don’t forget about me.”
“I’m going to have to do what’s asked of me,” Jackson said. “I can’t control what they decide to do with carries. But I’ll be ready, whatever my role is. I’ve always felt I can contribute, and when I get the opportunity … I’ll be ready.”
During the offseason, Hackett said two good backs are a good problem to have. He loves to hand the ball off in his fast-paced, no-huddle offense. On the opening series of the second half, the Bills showed how the no-offense can flourish when it emphasizes the run and gets into a steady rhythm.
The Bills marched 80 yards in 11 plays to take the lead. Jackson, alternating with Spiller at tailback, was right in the middle of it. He picked up three first downs on the drive – a 2-yard dive on third-and 1, a 10-yard romp on first down; and a critical 11-yard reception from Manuel on third-and-6.
Watching the no-huddle function at a high level, you realize how useful it is to have two solid running backs. When you’re playing that fast, it’s a lot to ask a single tailback to carry the load for an entire drive. And seeing a fresh back every few plays can test the resources of a weary defense.
“The drive we had coming out in the second half was a perfect example of what we can get done,” Jackson said. “As long as we don’t make penalties … that’s the type offense we can be.”
Spiller is the future, a budding superstar, as any fantasy player could tell you. But remember, Jackson was voted a captain by his teammates. He commands respect from players and coaches alike. Gailey underused Spiller in part because he had such high regard for Jackson.
“Fred is an extremely productive player, one of our better players, all-around great player, willing to do anything for us,” said center Eric Wood. “That’s a dude I’m going to battle with every time. I love having Fred Jackson on my team.”
Jackson won’t be around forever. He’s not a natural fit for a rebuilding program. But he’s the ultimate team guy. He’s more of a veteran leader than, say, Stevie Johnson, who dropped a critical pass Sunday and bolted the locker room rather than face the music.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is never to underestimate Jackson. And why would you count him out, when his coaches keep finding reasons to put him in?