We’ve started a series at Buffalo Sports Daily, highlighting the five biggest bright spots… and dark clouds on the 2011 Buffalo Bills season. Our biggest bright spots section has already featured the emergence of Scott Chandler at tight end and the surprisingly strong play of the offensive line. Today we move on to our third-biggest bright spot of 2011– the revelation that running back C.J. Spiller is not bust.
In what nearly became the defining play of his two-year Buffalo Bills career, C.J. Spiller lined up split out wide right on the first play of the third quarter in a game at Dallas November 13. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick took an Eric Wood snap and dropped back to pass. As he was doing so, Spiller blew past the linebacker assigned to him in coverage.
Heaving arguably his best long ball of the season, Fitzpatrick launched a flawless spiral in the direction of Spiller for what looked to be a highlight reel 83-yard pass and catch for a touchdown; a much needed one considering the Bills were already down 28-7.
There’s only one problem. Spiller lost his balance in such a lumbering manner it looked like he literally fell over the midfield mark. Things got worse as the ball sailed right through his wide-open hands as he plunged shamefully to the ground.
Indubitably the play became Spiller’s rock bottom in the NFL. While his teammate, former undrafted free agent Fred Jackson was running for 114 yards on 23 carries during the Dallas debacle, Spiller, the former ninth overall selection ran exactly one time for one yard. Without question, even the most ardent of supporters were ready to dust off the Buffalo bust label from the closet— adding Spiller as another in a long line of excruciatingly substandard early Bills draft picks.
But a funny thing happened on Spiller’s rapid travels towards taking up residence on Bust Boulevard. Jackson broke a bone in his leg the next week in Miami, forcing a ready-or-not Spiller into a far more prominent role. Over the final six games of the season Spiller became the featured back and by the time the season concluded at New England, talk moved from Spiller being a regretful addition to the team into evolving into the exhilarating, home run type back Buddy Nix hoped he landed in April 2010.
Over Spiller’s last six games the former Clemson product scampered for 446 yards on 86 carries and scored three times. He also caught 24 passes for 187 yards and added two more touchdowns. In total, Spiller averaged 5.2 yards per rush and amassed 105 total yards from scrimmage per contest in Jackson’s absence.
It’s quite the turnaround from a rookie campaign that saw him run for merely 283 yards on 74 attempts while adding just 157 yards in receiving.
It was the lack of production early in Spiller’s career that had scores of fans seething at the direction Nix took on Draft Day 2010. It’s hard to argue Spiller not coming across as a luxury pick when the organization already had Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson in tow.
To make matters worse, offensive tackle Anthony Davis was taken two picks later by San Francisco and has become a beast on their line while New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (six picks later) has been even better.
Doesn’t that always seem to be the case with Buffalo?
The good news is while Spiller’s distinguished draft position may never be fully justified, at least he showed the ability to turn most critics dark perceptions over the last half of the season. No longer does it seem a question if Spiller is resilient enough to get tough yards between the tackles. Spiller not only demonstrated the breakaway speed everyone knew he possessed, but also had several hardy, natty runs that had fans, critics and the organization uniformly impressed.
Spiller finished the season in such stirring manner that it could affect the leverage Jackson had built towards getting a monster contract extension. Jackson was one of the best running backs in the league at the time of his injury last season and wholeheartedly deserves a new deal, but Spiller’s solid play late may have taken away Jackson’s ability to use his formidable talents as hostage to get far more than the Bills might want to fork out.
There’s been such an ugly run of early Bills draft picks during their extended playoff drought, it was effortless and ostensibly imminent Spiller would join the unimpressive list of early busts and/or non-factors; a collection that includes Aaron Maybin, Leodis McKelvin, Donte Whitner, John McCargo, J.P. Losman, Mike Williams, Erik Flowers, James Hardy and (now seemingly) Torrel Troup among others.
Fortunately for the franchise, it now appears that Spiller is the real deal and provided he continues to get the opportunity, is poised to have a breakthrough campaign in 2012.