Fred Jackson understood when he came out of tiny Coe College that he wasn't going to waltz into the NFL and become a starter right away. He understood when his playing time was limited during his first two years. He even understood playing behind Marshawn Lynch last season despite overwhelming evidence that showed the Buffalo Bills had it backward.
Jackson has been productive for several years, which explains why he's losing his patience amid feelings he's in limbo with the Bills. How many times does he need to prove he's a No. 1 running back? How many times will they tinker with him on the depth chart for reasons not entirely clear? What will it take to gain their respect?
The latest jolt came last Thursday, when he was told that former first-round pick C.J. Spiller would be starting in front of him against the Denver Broncos in the second preseason game. Jackson wasn't on the bench for long Saturday, but he was still angry and confused about the decision after practice Monday.
"I was shocked," Jackson said. "I feel like a No. 1 back, and I should be treated like one. As far as what's going on, you would have to ask them. I'm going to come out here and compete. I feel like I have been competing. I feel like I have done everything I can. It's been like that for two or three years, and nothing has changed."
Jackson believed he had established himself as the Bills' best and most consistent running back over the previous two years. In 2009, he led the Bills with 1,062 yards rushing, and he had 46 catches for 371 yards receiving in 11 starts. He proved he was an effective runner and dependable blocker. He's known as a class guy and good teammate.
He came back with another strong season last year, and his effectiveness was one reason the Bills traded Lynch. He had 927 yards rushing on 222 carries and another 215 yards on 31 catches over 13 starts last season. The former undrafted free agent was one of their few bright spots when the losses were piling up in the first half of the season.
Jackson was anticipating another good year with the idea that, finally, he would become a marquee running back. There's no denying that more playing time means more touches, which eventually translates into more money.
Jackson has two years remaining on a four-year contract worth $8 million and is the 40th-highest paid running back in the NFL. Now, he's not sure where his career is headed. He could ask for a trade if the Bills hand his job to Spiller.
"If that's an avenue I have to take, I would definitely be open to it," Jackson said. "I want to play as much as possible. Like I said, I feel like I'm a No. 1 guy and should be getting touches like a No. 1 guy. Let me know what's going on. I don't feel like I should be kept in the dark on anything. I have no idea. I would like to know where I stand."
Bills coach Chan Gailey appeared surprised when told about Jackson's dismay. He acknowledged Monday that Jackson was "a little bit ahead" on the depth chart. Jackson is worried that the Bills were intent on making Spiller, who has been mostly ineffective, the top back in order to justify their decision to select him ninth overall in 2010.
"It's a definite possibility," he said. "It's something that I thought about."
The change in the starting lineup Saturday merely intensified his fears.
"I told him what we were going to do," Gailey said. "Nothing has changed on our thoughts with Fred and where Fred is for our football team. He's a major part of what we're trying to get done here. I would hate for somebody to feel [underappreciated] because it's not true from my standpoint."
Jackson's feelings of resentment toward the organization had been building throughout training camp, and they could be contagious. Several players were unhappy with the decision to trade away popular receiver and leader Lee Evans. The Bills' prospects for a good season appear to be dwindling with two preseason games remaining.
Once the regular season begins, things could actually get worse.
Spiller has continued to struggle behind a weak offensive line in a sloppy offense. He had 10 yards on six carries against the Broncos on Saturday. Take away his 14-yard run, and he had minus-4 yards on five carries. It fell in line with much of what he showed as a rookie last season. At one point, he had 16 negative plays during a stretch of 68 touches.
Jackson, meanwhile, gained 34 yards on four carries against the Broncos and has been better in the two preseason games. He continued to share the No. 1 spot with Spiller during practice Monday for reasons he no longer understands. His patience was wearing thin.
"It's very frustrating," Jackson said. "All I can do is continue to do what I've been doing. Hopefully, something changes."