C.J. Spiller says he’s feeling more like his old self again. He’s making sharper cuts, feeling the explosion in his legs. He’s getting close. How close, the Bills’ running back couldn’t say.
“No, I can’t give percentages,” Spiller said. “I was commanded by my chief not to give percentages anymore.”
He’s still not 100 percent. Spiller said he hasn’t been fully healthy since spraining his ankle against the Ravens on Sept. 29. I asked him how long it might be before he was all the way back.
“I’m still the same C.J.,” he said. “I try not to look at what I’ve done in the past. Being injured, it is what it is. That’s nothing I can control.”
Still, it’s fair to ask, which is the real C.J. The runner who terrorized defenses last season and reached 1,000 rushing yards faster than any back in 78 years? Or the guy who has put up single-game rushing totals of 9, 11, 23 and 6 yards this year and virtually disappeared from the passing game?
A high ankle sprain is a nasty injury, especially for a runner of Spiller’s gifts. But he’s no longer on the injury report. If the Bills hope to make a playoff push, they need their star back to play like one over the last five games. Coach Doug Marrone talks about building a team that can run the ball in tough, wintry conditions. The Bills must be wondering if Spiller is the right fit for such a team, and whether he will be their featured back a year or two down the road when they expect to be a real contender.
Early in his career, Spiller showed little skill at running between the tackles. Last season, he was a more forceful inside runner who gained yards after contact. This year, he has often seemed to run away from contact.
In recent weeks, Marrone seemed to question Spiller’s toughness. After the loss in Pittsburgh, he criticized Spiller for running sideways. When Spiller was visibly frustrated with the blocking against the Jets, Marrone suggested he get in the faces of his linemen.
Marrone said he expects Spiller to be more assertive down the stretch, to take the available three or four yards rather than look for the big run.
“When you have success and you make a lot of big runs, sometimes you tend to keep looking for that,” Marrone said. “I’m not saying that’s C.J.’s issue at all, but what you want to do is keep that discipline, keep that structure and keep running in there.”
Spiller has 603 yards on 144 touches, including a measly 96 yards on 21 receptions. Last season, he had 1,084 yards on his first 144 touches — 80 percent more production. He has 50 carries of 2 yards or less on first down. That creates a lot of second-and-long situations for an offense.
Dan Fouts, the Hall of Fame quarterback who is an analyst for the NFL on CBS, has worked two Bills games this season. Their issues on first down weren’t lost on him.
“The game for running backs now is give me four yards, and if we get a home run at the end, great,” Fouts said. “If not, we’re second-and-6. You’re looking at one cut, stick it up in there hard and no negative yardage. You don’t need a superstar back to do that.”
Fouts seemed to be describing Fred Jackson, who has been his old reliable self as a runner, receiver and pass-blocker. Jackson was expected to give way to Spiller this year. Offensive coordinator Nate Hackett promised to run Spiller “until he throws up.” There were visions of 2,000 scrimmage yards.
It hasn’t happened. The injury has been a big factor. Still, Spiller’s decline revives questions about his prospects as a featured back, and whether the Bills will make a long-term financial commitment to him over the next year or so.
Spiller, the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft, is in the fourth year of a six-year deal for $21.5 million, $11.8 guaranteed. There’s an opt-out clause, so Spiller could become a free agent after next season.
So if Spiller expects a lucrative new deal, he needs to finish strong. The Bills could extend him early, as they did with Eric Wood last August. They could let him play out the fifth year and leave as a free agent, like Andy Levitre. They could go the franchise route, as they did with Jairus Byrd.
There’s virtually no chance they’ll pay Spiller the franchise rate for running backs, which was $8.22 million this season. That number was inflated by extensions for Adrian Peterson ($13.7 million average salary), Chris Johnson ($9.33 million) and Arian Foster ($8.7 million).
Last year’s market was more reflective of the current value of top backs. All were in the $7 million salary range: LeSean McCoy ($7.6 million); Matt Forte ($7.6 million); Marshawn Lynch ($7.5 million) and Ray Rice ($7 million).
As the NFL becomes increasingly a passing league, teams are less willing to invest top money in running backs. Their franchise tag value is higher than only safeties, tight ends, kickers and punters. Passing yards are at an all-time high, rushing attempts a historical low. Salaries will reflect it.
In last year’s draft, no running back went in the first round for the first time in 50 years. The first six picks were offensive tackles or defensive ends. There were 12 defensive backs or wide receivers chosen before the Bengals’ Giovani Bernard became the first running back taken at 37 overall.
You still need a strong running game, but backs are easy to find. Many of the top runners have been hurt or seen their production drop. Peterson, Spiller, Rice, Chris Johnson, Lynch, Rice and Jamaal Charles are all down by half a yard a carry or more.
It’s a lot easier to find a solid running back than, say, an elite guard or rush linebacker. Of the 32 NFL teams, 14 have a leading rusher who was drafted in the third round or later, or not at all. A lot of teams use multiple running backs. It doesn’t seem to matter who the Patriots, Saints or Broncos send out there. Their offenses don’t miss a beat.
“Running backs still have value,” Fouts said. “Don’t get me wrong. You need at least two. That means you won’t have as many premier running backs as in the past. It’s just too brutal a game. They take such a pounding.”
The Bills will have to decide how much pounding Spiller can take, and whether he’s worth a long-term investment. Marrone believes in the running game, but the Bills should evolve into more of a passing offense as EJ Manuel develops and his fast young receivers mature.
There’s only so much money to go around. They’re more likely to invest big bucks in a young defensive tackle, Marcell Dareus, than a running back. You don’t need analytics to figure that out.
The NFL is moving away from the highly paid, superstar running back. Spiller better start moving soon if he expects to keep up.