SAN JOSE, Calif. — The most overworked-and-underpaid job in the entire NFL is that of a position coach. They're the ones spending countless hours watching film behind the scenes, the ones who make for the easiest scapegoats every January.
Was it former Bills fullback Sam Gash's fault that Eddie Lacy was overweight in Green Bay? Was Donnie Henderson the problem with Buffalo's defense last year? No and no.
Position coaches must be mobile, always willing to uproot their lives at a moment's notice.
So count Denver Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville as a success story. He has spent 19 years in the NFL and 15 as a running backs coach, including six in Buffalo (2004- '09). And through those six playoff-less seasons, he worked day to day with Willis McGahee, Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. Each back showed Studesville something different.
“It’s all a journey," Studesville said, "and you get better from every step of the journey and every stop of the journey. You learn things — good, bad, positive, negative and get better.”
While admitting with a laugh that he had some characters, Studesville calls himself "real, real lucky."
First, he inherited McGahee in 2004, the former Miami (Fla.) back who wrecked his knee in a gruesome injury against Ohio State in the national championship. Up close, Studesville saw what it took to recover from a brutal, brutal injury. Re-watch a knee pop where a knee should never pop at your own risk. The Bills drafted him in the first round anyway, he sat out one season and then rushed for 8,474 yards and 65 touchdowns through a 10-year career.
McGahee's 1,128-yard, 13-touchdown season in '04 nearly lifted the 9-7 Bills into the playoffs. They haven't come that close since.
So what did Studesville learn from him?
"Never underestimate somebody’s desire to overcome," Studesville said. "He had a horrific injury and nobody thought he’d have a successful NFL career. This guy had how many 100-games in Buffalo and became a 1,000-yard rusher. Never underestimate somebody.
“An unbelievable work ethic. Tremendous drive.”
As for Lynch, Studesville laughs. With "Beast Mode," he learned it's best to take a hands-off approach at times.
“Don’t mess him up. Give him what he needs and let him go," he said. "Let him go play because he’s a really, really good player. Don’t mess him up. … We coached things and talked about things but he’s an incredible talent. An incredible talent.”
Lynch had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in Buffalo, though was also arrested and later traded to Seattle.
And, of course, Studesville also worked with Jackson. Whereas McGahee and Lynch were first-round picks, Jackson was the overlooked, ignored, constantly-counted-out arena league back from Coe College who became the city's most beloved player.
“Tremendous work ethic," Studesville said. "Incredibly competitive. Very talented. Highly motivated. I had good guys, good guys. ... Competitive nature. And to find a guy who has a burning passion to succeed, just helping him.”
There were more losses than wins in Buffalo. The entire Bills coaching staff was let go after the 2009 season and the coach latched on with Denver. As Peyton Manning's arm strength began to fade, the Broncos started to win the old fashioned way. They've effectively paired a suffocating defense with a ground game despite lacking star power in the backfield. Ronnie Hillman (863 yards, seven touchdowns) and C.J. Anderson (720 yards, five touchdowns) have done enough as Studesville's latest pupils.
Said Hillman, “He just taught me the game and how to see things. Obviously, he was my first coach when I got here, so he pretty much taught me a lot of things that I know about the league. ... Just keys, what to see and what to look for and everything that a running back is supposed to go through in his progressions.”
The rougher times in Buffalo, Studesville added, helped. He "absolutely" still follows the team closely, too. He knows Dennis Thurman, Anthony Lynn, Greg Roman and others in the front office well, calling the Bills "a great organization."
"I loved my time there," Studesville said, "and loved my time in Western New York. ... They’ve got a good staff there. They’ve got good guys there in Buffalo. It’s only a matter of time. They’ll get it turned around.”
Asked if he hoped it would've worked out in Buffalo long term, Studesville smiled.
“I just hope I’m working next year. That’s it," he said. "In this business, you do the best that you can where you are and hope that it’s enough. There’s no such thing as a long-term deal.”
Guys like himself can't get too comfortable. But from Chicago to New York to Buffalo to Denver, a Super Bowl win on Sunday would probably make such a life all worth it.