If there were any lingering doubts, this should make it crystal clear that Rex Ryan is serious about installing a “ground and pound” offense, and that he will have a major say in personnel decisions as the Bills’ new head coach.
Trading for LeSean McCoy – assuming the trade goes through when the new NFL season officially gets underway next week – also reinforces the notion that the Bills are very much in win-now mode, and that Ryan expects to make a playoff run in his first year as the head man.
Granted, McCoy has a steep price tag. He’ll have a $10.25 million cap hit in 2015, a major reason that Eagles coach Chip Kelly wanted to swap him for linebacker Kiko Alonso. McCoy’s production last season fell off from his all-Pro season of 2013, when he led the NFL in rushing (1,607) and yards from scrimmage (2,146).
But make no mistake, McCoy will be a significant upgrade at running back. Anyone who thought the Bills should re-sign C.J. Spiller has to be thrilled with this bold move, which makes it certain that Spiller has played his last down in Buffalo.
McCoy is a bigger, more durable version of Spiller, a runner with breakaway speed and the ability to handle the workload of a featured back. He had more than 300 carries in each of the last two seasons. Two years ago, he had 52 catches for 539 yards, a 10.4 average.
I was surprised by this move, I must admit. It’s not difficult to find a serviceable running back in today’s NFL. There were 10 NFL rookies who gained more yards last year than Fred Jackson, who led the Bills with 525 rushing yards. The upcoming draft is again deep at the position.
But McCoy is no ordinary back. It’s not every day that one of the top runners in the league – he was second to DeMarco Murray over the last two seasons – becomes available on the trade market. McCoy, who will turn 27 in July (he’s a year younger than Spiller), was third in the NFL in rushing this past season with 1,319. And critics in Philadelphia saw it as a disappointment, a step back.
Ryan would love to deal with such disappointment. The Bills were expected to use a running back committee next season. But the committee has a new chairman. Don’t worry about Fred Jackson. He’ll still be a factor. But McCoy will be the workhorse, the clear No. 1 guy.
McCoy should play the role that Thomas Jones did in 2009 with Ryan’s first Jets team, which led the NFL in rushing and reached the AFC title game. Jones ran 331 times for 1,402 yards that season. The Jets ran the ball 607 times (tops in the league), so there were plenty of carries to go around for the backups.
“I love the fact that we got an every-down back who can stay on the field and do everything,” said Hall of Fame back Thurman Thomas. “And he can take the pressure off whomever is at quarterback.”
Two years ago, McCoy had a season that compared favorably with Thomas in his prime. Thomas led the league in yards from scrimmage four years in a row and had a career-high 2,113 in 1992, roughly what McCoy had in 2013.
The Bills haven’t had a back like that since, though Spiller seemed on the verge of similar things when he gained 1,703 combined yards in 2012. But Spiller’s nagging injuries and unwillingness to run inside caused him to fall out of favor in two years under Doug Marrone.
McCoy has also been criticized for running east-west at times, for dancing too much when he doesn’t see a hole immediately materialize. It drove Kelly nuts at times and came to a head in an Oct. 13 game against Tampa Bay, when McCoy hesitated to hit a hole.
When McCoy came to the sideline, Kelly yelled to his star back, “Hit the damn hole, Shady!”
“There was no damn hole!” McCoy shot back.
McCoy was given the nickname “Shady” because of his shifting moods (which also inspires fond memories of Thurman). He’s a proud man who talks about achieving the superstar status of Adrian Peterson and making the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
You don’t carry the ball 300 times two years in a row if you’re not willing to go between the tackles and take a featured back’s physical pounding. Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley are banking on it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t invest $9.75 million in a back.
Kelly, who got total control of Eagles personnel in a power struggle in January, considers many positions replaceable. Running back is perhaps the most replaceable in the game today. Kelly said he wanted McCoy, but it was also clear that he wanted McCoy to restructure his contract.
The Bills are in a position to overpay for a running back of McCoy’s caliber. In this case, it makes more sense than overpaying free agent Jerry Hughes, a very good player who put up great statistics playing on a defensive line with three Pro Bowl talents.
This deal tells me Ryan feels the same way. Once the Bills decided not to slap a franchise tag on Hughes early this week, the negotiations for McCoy began to heat up. It seems like a reasonable calculation: McCoy was more truly elite at his position than Hughes was at outside pass rusher.
The Bills will still have $17.583 million in cap space after acquiring McCoy. They’re not going to throw big money at a quarterback. They’ll go after an experienced, mid-level free agent like Matt Moore, Jake Locker or Mark Sanchez. Considering their commitment to the running game, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they went after another offensive lineman.
Alonso might blossom in Philadelphia, but he was coming off a knee injury and hit the wall in his rookie season. The Bills didn’t miss him last season. They’re deep at inside linebacker. And they can address the need for another outside rusher and inside linebacker in free agency or the draft.
The bottom line: Ryan’s football vision is guiding the operation at One Bills Drive. He believes you win with a dominant, attacking defense and a strong running game. They gave a little on defense here, but they just added one of the top running backs in the league.
That sounds like a winner to me.