By Paul Wanecski
Honoring the 5th year anniversary of the Buffalo Bills shocking the entire Western New York area selecting Clemson running back CJ Spiller 9th overall, we decided to try and start a debate. The Facebook groups for Buffalo Bills Fans Only and Bills Fanatics absolutely exploded with chatter when asked to describe CJ Spiller’s career with the Bills in one word. So, to explore both sides of the argument, let’s talk.
Much of this is truly up to interpretation and unending debate, which can be both fun and exhausting depending on how seriously you stand on the issue. You can look at the stats, you can look at his character, you can finger point (if you feel that is needed) the coaching staff, the front office; the options are seemingly endless. I suppose that is what makes the fans of the Buffalo Bills the best in the world. The passion that this topic displayed on both social media fan pages was inspiring. So inspiring, in fact, that we will try to encapsulate both perspectives on CJ Spiller’s time with the Bills, “The Supporters” and the “See-Ya-Laters”
“Amazing, tremendous, gentleman, misused, explosive, thriller, class, excitement, heart”
CJ flashed game breaking ability and an elusive running style that had many fans thinking of players cut from the same cloth as Barry Sanders. He was quick and slippery. You would find yourself holding your breath watching a play develop and then explode down the sideline.
His success in 2012 was never duplicated after Chan Gailey was fired and this could have been for a variety of reasons (one of the many that has been discussed at great length during the podcast of Hashtag Sports was the loss of Ryan Fitzpatrick – he was solid at moving protection at the line and calling out of plays based on the defensive front, a skill that was under-appreciated until he left and a near identical offensive line struggled without his guidance the following year). We could look at an inexperienced coaching staff in Doug Marrone, an underachieving offensive line, a carousel of quarterbacks under center, a disruption in football operations with the move from Buddy Nix to Doug Whaley and of course, the passing of owner Ralph Wilson. Regardless of who was in charge, it is very fair to say that his skills were misused after a breakout year. CJ thrives when in space, something he was given none of the last two seasons.
Statistically, CJ stood out in certain categories in a way that other running backs on the roster just simply couldn’t. In 70 games, he averaged 4.97 yards per carry. Fred Jackson for his career comes in at 4.41 yards per carry. Even including his playing time in Seattle, Marshawn Lynch has a 4.28 yards per carry average. In 3rd down situations, he was able to rush for a first down 45.8% of the time.
CJ demands defenders take near perfect angles in pursuit at the second level. His 4.37 speed is on full display at all times on the field. What he lacked in power up the middle he tried to make for with game-altering agility. His skill-set, if used appropriately, can turn each of his 20 touches a game into a home run derby. He brought an electric, game igniting ability to the fans in the stands when he ripped a long gain or was able to break multiple tackles.
Above all this, CJ was seen by many fans as a supporter with multiple pictures on social media with fans, kids, signing autographs and smiling. He was never called a locker room distraction regardless of the number of touches he felt he wasn’t getting that he felt were deserved. He will have the ability to get behind a consistently top rated offensive line in New Orleans and work with a possible future hall of fame quarterback.
“Underachiever, hype, disappointment, injured, waste, finished, mediocre, overrated, bust”
As electric as CJ Spiller could be, he rivals any player in recent Bills history with how frustrating he could be. It seemed that he would break a 65 yard run and then touch the ball 10 more times for -5 yards. While that is an exaggeration of the actual statistics, I doubt many Bills fans would argue that it is a valid point. He only rushed the ball on average less than 10 times a game. Was it because he had the ability to rush for 2 yards forward and 76 yards laterally? He struggled to find the holes created by the offensive line and consistently tried to bounce to the edge. In the 2012 year that everyone refers to, CJs yards per carry was nearly double in the second half of games, most likely because the Bills were trailing most games at half and the opposing defense was seceding the run.
While the quarterback play didn’t help, it wasn’t the final nail in the coffin. His inconsistent play was the reason he couldn’t be depended on. Regardless of the score, CJ only touched the ball (rushing and receiving combined) 22 times in 70 games with fewer than 4 minutes on the clock, averaging 3 yards per carry and never scoring a rushing touchdown or securing a first down on the ground. Likewise in 3rd down situations, over his career, CJ had only 24 rushing attempts for 1 touchdown and 2.3 yards per carry. While Fred Jackson was able to wait for holes to develop in front of him, CJ was seen as impatient, slamming into the back of guards and bouncing to the perimeter if he was unable to move forward.
The scouting report on CJ posted by NFL.com has some interesting critiques, as you can say the same thing now as you could then:
Lacks the bulk to be a bell cow at the next level. Does not have the leg drive to be an effective short-yardage back. Dances too much in the hole and has too many negative plays. Struggles to sustain blocks in pass protection.
While it is easy to drink the Kool-Aid on a players potential, it is near impossible to be sipping the same cup for 4 years, but that is exactly what some people have been able to do. He has been labeled as an injury-prone player. Combine this with his hot and cold performance it makes you wonder why the Bills didn’t aggressively explore trade options for him as he may have been a target in 2014 had he not broken his collarbone.
The Bills have gained in LeSean McCoy what they thought they were getting in CJ Spiller - a player who can take over a game with dominating speed and field-carving moves. While Spiller could best be described as a player who might not have scratched the surface of his ability, it is best that the Bills allow him to try and do that scratching with another team
We all know the truth usually lies in the middle of opposite points of view. While some may be excited to see CJ relocate, others will watch his career closely for another “what if he had stayed” situation (insert the dead-horse comparison of Marshawn Lynch here). In either case, his time with the Bills has come to a close. While the impression that he made on the franchise is certainly debatable, the debate is what makes the passion for sports so much fun.