MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Earlier in the week, Fred Jackson had talked about belief.
It didn’t matter if fans were writing this off as a transition year, or if people thought EJ Manuel’s injury had taken the steam out of the season. Jackson insisted that every person in the Bills locker room still believed they were serious playoff contenders.
“As far as keeping guys motivated, I don’t have to do anything out of the ordinary,” Jackson said.
Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of “ordinary.” When you examine Jackson’s statistics from Sunday’s game, they don’t jump off the page. Jackson had 11 carries for 36 yards. He caught four passes for 49 yards. Nothing extraordinary about that.
But stats don’t always reflect the impact a player has on a game. Mere digits on a score sheet can’t capture what it means for a respected leader to put his battered body on the line in trying circumstances, and lift his team to a desperately needed victory.
Jackson did that here in the Bills’ 23-21 victory over the Dolphins. On the Bills’ third offensive play of the game, he reinjured his left knee at the end of a 21-yard reception. Watching him writhe in distress on the visiting team sideline, you figured he was through for the day.
They brought out the cart, assuming Jackson would go to the locker room for treatment. He wanted no part of it. Fred moved around on his knee and wanted to go right back in. The trainers wouldn’t give him his helmet. They told him to sit out a series or two and see how it felt.
Two series later, Jackson was back. He slammed in from the 3-yard line for the touchdown that made it 14-0. He wasn’t much of a factor for the next three quarters. Late in the first half, he limped off after getting another whack on the knee. Again, you wondered if that was it for the day.
But when the Bills needed him most, Jackson was there. With 2:48 left in the fourth quarter and the Bills trailing, 21-20, Mario Williams stripped the ball away from Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, giving the Bills the ball at the Miami 34.
The Bills, compensating for injuries to Jackson and C.J. Spiller, had been rotating tailbacks all day. But now it was time to get serious. Jackson, who hadn’t played in the fourth quarter to that point, got the call.
Jackson gained a yard on first down, 5 yards on second. Miami called timeout after each run. The Bills were at the 28, in field-goal range with 2:37 left. But on third and 4, Jackson made the biggest run of the day, powering behind Frank Summers and Kraig Urbik for 10 yards and a critical first down.
“He was hurting after that,” said backup running back Tashard Choice. “He told me to go finish the game off.”
Choice went in for Jackson and ran into the line three times to set up Dan Carpenter’s game-winning 31-yard field goal. The Bills held on after allowing a scary 44-yard kickoff return, raising their record to 3-4 by winning their first road game in nine tries against an AFC East foe.
“We needed it,” Jackson said. “Getting an opportunity to ice the game, I relish those moments. Our offensive line and Frank Summers did a tremendous job of giving me an opportunity to beat somebody one-on-one, and we converted. So that was a great team effort.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” Jackson said of his early injury, “but I wanted to get back out there. I knew it was going to take all of us to win this game and I wanted to be a part of that.”
It was a nice team-building win, the sort of victory that can toughen the competitive character of a young squad. Maybe losing Manuel took some of the momentum out of the season, but the Bills rose above it and showed that a team’s evolution is about more than the franchise quarterback.
The Bills shuffled in four different running backs. They got a strong game from quarterback Thad Lewis, who was two weeks removed from the practice squad. They got two huge sacks from Mario Williams and a strong game from an improving secondary – including an interception for a TD by Nickell Robey.
“It triggers something,” Choice said. “All our losses this year have been close. So to win one, to get over that edge, it’s huge for the whole team, our energy will be different. The perception is, we’re close, we’re a pretty good team. But we want to get on a roll, man.”
The Bills have a tough roll ahead. Their next two games – next Sunday at New Orleans and at home against the Chiefs – are against teams that are a combined 12-1. Splitting those two would be an achievement.
They expect to win them all. Why not? They’ve been in every game so far. Every game has been decided in the final minute. They’re now one of only two teams in the NFL – along with Denver – to score at least 20 points in every game. Considering their troubles at quarterback and running back, that’s amazing.
They’re fortunate that Jackson is back on top of his game at age 32. He said last spring that he had something to prove. He’s doing it.
“Oh, my goodness! He’s a legend,” said Stevie Johnson. “He’s a real-life legend. He got injured, came back, leg’s messed up, still running and making first downs and touchdowns. Everybody can see what he’s doing, battling the injuries and everything. He inspires me, seriously.”
Jackson’s knee injury – a sprain of the left medial collateral ligament, or MCL – isn’t going away overnight. As long as he keeps playing on it, the knee will continue to be an issue.
“It’s going to be something I have to deal with, for I don’t know how long,” Jackson said. “But it’s something I’ve got to manage and, hopefully, I can keep it under control and stay out there for my teammates.”
Jackson said he burns to be on a playoff team. It’s his most powerful motivating force, the thing that drives him to put his body on the line, week after week.
“See, you can’t judge Fred by his age or his speed or this and that,” Choice said. He pointed to his heart. “He’s got something inside of him. He’s a ballplayer, a baller, and that’s why I like him. He’s a freakin’ ballplayer!”
“People talk about age and years with Fred,” said Bills coach Doug Marrone. “But shoot, he’s as strong and tough as any rookie we have.”
Yeah, Jackson is a young 32. It’s his eighth year in Buffalo. He’s been through a lot of losing. He sees great promise in the young team growing up around him. You want to believe he’s just young enough to be part of it when the Bills do make a run.