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Jackson has shown he belongs

Alex Van Pelt has been an offensive coordinator for two games in the NFL. He's learning on the job, and bound to struggle along the way. But after Sunday's win over Tampa Bay, AVP left no doubt that he's the man in charge, that it's his offense now.

On his way out of the dressing room, Van Pelt was asked if the word "backup" was likely to appear in front of Fred Jackson's name again. He answered without hesitation, "No, I don't think so."

Van Pelt was quick to add that the Bills have two, make that three, solid running backs. Still, he made it clear that Jackson, who ran for a career-high 163 yards against the Bucs and is second among NFL running backs in yards from scrimmage, will continue to have a large role when Marshawn Lynch returns from suspension on Oct. 4.

Whatever you think of the circumstances surrounding Van Pelt's ascension to the job, he has instilled a new attitude in the offense, a swagger. Van Pelt has done a nice job of mixing up the plays and displayed surprising faith in the NFL's youngest offensive line.

So what if three starting linemen hadn't played a down in the league before this year? They went on fourth-and-1 from their 36 on Sunday, and made it. In the second half, Van Pelt used some empty backfield, trusting that the line would stand tall, even without Brad Butler.

When Lynch returns, it should make the offense even better. It's silly to suggest that the Bills are better off without him. Jackson has been a revelation, but Lynch is a very good back, a punishing runner who wears down defenses. As a tandem, he and Jackson could be among the most effective in the league.

But on an offense with a new attitude, Lynch's attitude will be in question. If he can accept a lesser role and share the spotlight with Jackson, it will be a lift for a young team. But if he pouts and complains, it could divide the team.

In Terrell Owens, the Bills have a player with a history of pouting if he feels he isn't getting enough touches. Lynch is on thin ice in this community. Buffalo fans are a forgiving lot, but they have limited tolerance for Lynch's antics.

Jackson has proved he can carry a heavy workload, but the offense will be better off if he doesn't have to touch the ball 27 times a game.

"He's sore, I'm sure," Van Pelt said Sunday. "We need to be mindful of that and protect him a little bit. It'll be a good thing when Marshawn gets back."

In recent years, more and more NFL teams have gone away from the one-back system. Few backs nowadays can carry 20 times a game and be fresh at playoff time. They've become like pitchers in baseball, whose teams limit their innings to add years to their careers.

Through the first two weeks of the NFL season, a running back has carried more than 20 times in a game only 11 times. It's now commonplace to have two backs split carries, the way the Jets do with Leon Washington and Thomas Jones, or the Panthers with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

Jackson is second among NFL running backs in scrimmage yards with 328. His 54 touches are tied for first. He leads the Bills in rushing and receiving.

If Lynch's return presents a problem, it's a good one to have. Jackson's skill as a receiver gives Van Pelt more options. He's used them together, moving Jackson out to a variety of receiving roles.

I don't know how the carries will be divided. But Jackson can do a lot of damage with, say, 12-15 carries and five catches. Lynch can hammer away at the opposition when he gets the call, softening up defenses and making the no-huddle attack more effective.

Again, it depends on Lynch's willingness to sacrifice. He talks about being a team player. The offense has a refreshing new attitude. We'll know soon enough if Lynch does, too.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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