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Bills’ Fred Jackson feels the burden of proof

It’s another new coaching staff, a new offense, new quarterbacks, a whole new regime. But some things you can always count on. As the Bills approach a new season, Fred Jackson is singing an old, familiar refrain.

“I’ve got a lot to prove,” the veteran running back declared Wednesday after the second day of mandatory minicamp.

We’ve heard that one before, haven’t we? Jackson has been proving people wrong since his high school days in Texas. He played at Coe College, a Division III school. Dismissed as too small for the NFL, he spent two years playing indoor football and another year in NFL Europe.

Jackson was underestimated when Marv Levy gave him a shot in the NFL. He had to prove he belonged, then he had to prove he was worthy of starting. As soon as he established himself as a featured back, people said he was getting old. Then the Bills drafted C.J. Spiller in the first round.

In February, Jackson turned 32, which is old for his position. But barely 18 months ago, at age 30, Jackson was a leading MVP candidate and threatening to break O.J. Simpson’s team record for scrimmage yards when he broke his leg and missed the last six games.

Even at that, it was a year to remember, a career year. But Jackson still thinks about that season, about how it felt to perform at his absolute athletic peak, and what might have been if he’d stayed healthy.

“All the time,” Jackson said. “That’s the number one thing. I know what I’m still capable of doing. I’m sure that the ‘He’s too old’ thing will be out there. ‘Is he at the end of his career?’ Which is all the more reason to go out and prove people wrong.”

Jackson isn’t likely to have a year like 2011 again. Doug Marrone says there’s an open competition for every job, but you know he’ll want to get more touches for C.J. Spiller, who gained 1,703 yards from scrimmage and reached 1,000 yards rushing in the fewest carries of any back in 78 years.

There’s also the injury issue. Jackson missed six games with right knee injuries and a concussion last year. He has played 10 games in each of the last two seasons. Last year, he averaged 3.8 yards a carry, a career low.

Jackson says he was sickened by what happened a year ago. He said it was the worst year of his career. But he said his knee is “100 percent ready to go.” He knows there’s an imperative to get Spiller more work. But physically, he believes he can be the player he was in 2011.

“Without a doubt,” he said. “I still feel like I can play at a very high level, and all I need is the opportunity to do so. Yes, I had some injuries last year, but I feel without those I could have done some things for us.

“That’s not to take away from C.J. He did some phenomenal things last year. He’s a tremendous player. They’re expecting big things of him. But I feel like I can still compete, still do whatever I need to get out there and make plays. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

The Bills are eager to find out. Finding enough touches for Spiller and Jackson is a problem, but it’s a good problem. There’s been a lot of talk about the rookie wide receivers, but fans shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that running back is the team’s best position.

For two years in a row, the Bills have led the AFC in yards per rushing attempt. The problem was, Chan Gailey didn’t run enough. So for all the talk about inventive passing schemes, Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s primary concern should be maximizing the production at their best position.

“For anything we’re doing, we always want to hand the ball to a back,” said Hackett, the 33-year-old offensive coordinator. “We want to have the running backs carry the load. That’s always the case. We’re very lucky because we have both of those guys. When in doubt, give it to a back. That’s our motto.”

Invariably, there will be questions about giving both running backs enough touches to keep them in rhythm.

“Run a lot of plays,” Hackett said. “Run a whole lot of plays so everybody gets a lot of touches. That makes everybody happy.”

Jackson said he’s impressed with the new coaching staff. He likes their energy and the fact they expect to make the playoffs. He loves hearing Marrone say he’ll ride his backs and use them in multiple roles.

“We think that this offense should go through us,” Jackson said. “We feel we’re capable of making plays for this team and taking us where we want to go. We have to set the tone early. If we get the running game going early, it takes a lot of pressure off a lot of different people – whether it’s Kevin Kolb or EJ Manuel, or the receiving corps.”

Personal achievements matter to Jackson. He hates seeing that 3.8 per carry next to his name in 2012. But winning is the ultimate goal. If you knew you would make the playoffs as a backup, I asked, would you take that?

“Without a doubt,” he said. “I’m a team player first and that’s what this is all about, getting the opportunity to win a championship. Of course, I want to be out there making the plays that get us to the playoffs. That’s why we play. You don’t want them to say you didn’t contribute.

“As long as we win football games and get to the playoffs, I’ll play any role they want me to.”

Jackson has been saying for years that he’s young for his age, that getting to the NFL late saved some wear and tear on his body. As usual, he has to prove it. But the new coaches should make sure they find out for sure just how much this consummate pro has left in him.

It’s an old story, I know, but the man has been underestimated before.