The Buffalo Bills have made the big-splash signing before. Hope always gives way to futility.
There was Big Bad Voodoo Daddy singing “Drew Bledsoe is going to take us … to the Super Bowl!” to the beat of “Jack & Diane” at Ralph Wilson Stadium in 2002. XFL-like jerseys were unveiled. Bledsoe disappeared and the wretched garb wasn’t far behind.
There was Marv Levy’s miserable run as general manager in which he shelled out $75 million in combined contracts to offensive linemen Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker.
There was the Terrell Owens Experiment. The $59 million Ryan Fitzpatrick contract.
This team has built through quarterbacks and receivers and linemen and the results never change. An identity crisis has bled on for 15 playoff-less seasons.
This summer, hope is in the air again in the form of 5-foot-11, 208-pound running back LeSean McCoy.
He’s electric. He’s elite. In six seasons, McCoy has already rushed for 6,792 yards and 44 touchdowns with another 2,282 yards and 10 touchdowns receiving. As other teams invest in $100 Million Dollar Quarterbacks, the Bills paid up for a 27-year-old running back.
To truly understand McCoy’s game – and the player he must become – speak to the best running backs in recent history. Ricky Watters is from the same hometown. Curtis Martin and Marshall Faulk are Hall of Famers. Roger Craig revolutionized the position. Bruisers Jamal Anderson and Jamal Lewis had two of the best single seasons ever.
In McCoy, they see a transcendent talent who can bring Buffalo back to relevance.
“For them to be successful,” Anderson said, “he’ll need to be a huge part of it. You’ll see those first couple weeks for the Bills, things are going to change very, very fast.”
So what does Buffalo have? One by one, they dissect his game.
Cut on a dime
To understand what makes McCoy different from every other back, start in Harrisburg, Pa. His running style is a direct reflection of his upbringing.
Every time Watters sees McCoy hit the brakes, shake, and redirect, he thinks back to Harrisburg. He’s from Harrisburg himself, had his number retired at Bishop McDevitt, just like McCoy. And he knows this element of McCoy’s game – “CutOnDime25,” as his Twitter handle says – was bred in the backyard. The violence, gangs and drug dealing dangerously blend into the nicer neighborhoods.
It was tough for Watters growing up there 19 years prior, but it was “tougher” for McCoy, he assures. Guns replaced fists. Real gangs replaced bullies.
McCoy needed to, well, cut on a dime.
His high school film resembled a video game. The way McCoy reversed field instantly reminded Watters of Barry Sanders.
“I know this is lofty,” Watters said. “But he’s Barry Sanders in the way he just makes people look silly. He’ll give you the right foot, bam! The left, bam! The next time it’s bam, bam, bam! And the next time it’s bam, bam, bam, bam! But he does it so quick that you have to go for one of them. And when you do that, he’s out. He’s the other direction.”
Said Anderson: “He’s got the best cutting ability of anybody in football. He’s No. 1. He’s the closest thing the league has right now to what Barry Sanders can give you with how he eludes defenders.”
And Craig: “Oh God, he can shake you. He’s a combination of Barry Sanders and my buddy Wendell Tyler. He kind of runs like him – pigeon-toed like him.”
Martin compares McCoy to a defensive boxer. He processes the game two, three moves ahead of the other 21 players on the field. For every action, Martin says, “there’s a reaction.” And McCoy’s feel for tacklers is Floyd Mayweather-esque. It’s impossible for defenders to land a punch.
It’s one thing to be quick; it’s another to be quick with a plan.
“A lot of people have the ability but they don’t have the vision,” Martin said. “His vision is incredible.”
So suddenly Watters found himself watching Big East football on Saturdays – “There’s no reason for me to watch the Pitt Panthers!” he jokes – in anticipation of what stunt McCoy would pull next. To him, McCoy runs in a calm “zone.” He slows down defenses the way he slowed down life in Harrisburg.
In this zone as a back, you watch film the next day and say “I did that? I didn’t even know that guy was there!”
Jamal Anderson puts himself in McCoy’s shoes. If the Atlanta Falcons traded him away without a courtesy call, he’d be livid.
“Listen, man,” Anderson fumes, “if you’ve done the things that he’s done in that city, you know? And then the way you find out? Boy, if you ever need to find out if it’s a business or not …”
The way Philadelphia traded him was callous. Borderline disrespectful. McCoy figured he’d need to restructure his contract, but later said the team never approached his agent. So Anderson believes such a rash exit – one team basically saying you’re on the verge of hitting the wall – will have a major effect on McCoy’s psyche.
Picture McCoy at the time of the trade, Anderson says. Picture his cell phone lighting up with hundreds of text messages.
“Whew,” Anderson said, “It would’ve been a very difficult thing for me. Can you imagine?”
In McCoy, the Bills inherit a very hungry running back with something to prove. Philadelphia shipped its franchise back off to Buffalo for linebacker Kiko Alonso.
“There’s no doubt you’re fueled by that,” Anderson continued. “You’re fueled by whether or not people think you’re an elite back. What happened last year? What’s going to happen this year? Is he still that guy? All of those things are going to fuel him and help him. That can be very powerful for your football team.”
Added Craig, “Shady’s going to bring it. He’s going to shock the world. He has a lot to prove right now. So he’s going to show everybody he’s the man. You watch.”
This is an extremely prideful position. Every back in the NFL has carried the ball their entire lives. Been The Man. Now, more than ever, teams are bidding farewell to 1,200- and 1,300-yard backs in fear that they’ll crash and burn. Several studies show that backs begin to fade at 27 years old.
Maybe the boxer in McCoy avoids the kill shot, but Shaun Alexander’s career took a nosedive after he rushed for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns at the age of 28.
Chris Johnson? The game’s fastest man is out of work.
The wheels can come off at any moment. Which is why you see New England’s Bill Belichick shop at Kmart for running backs as the Bills fork over five-year, $40 million contracts.
“Once his quickness goes, that’s it for him,” one NFL personnel executive said. “And who knows when that’s going to happen? It hasn’t happened yet. He’s always done a remarkable job of never taking a shot. Even when he gets tackled, it’s a glancing blow.
“I think he has a few more good years.”
Will McCoy prove Philadelphia wrong? Can he be the exception? Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk was. He stayed at an elite level for 11 seasons. The key, he said, was paying attention to every minute detail. Rest. Nutrition. Conditioning. He treated his body like a well-oiled machine.
Faulk calls McCoy a “playmaker,” a “special” talent who’ll hurt you in different ways.
No, he has no idea how many peak years McCoy has left. He does, however, stay in touch with McCoy and knows exactly how this running back is approaching 2015.
“He never expected to get traded,” Faulk said. “He didn’t have a bad year. I mean, that was a surprise to him. The fire is lit.”
Rex Ryan was the defensive line coach. Jamal Lewis was the running back. But that didn’t stop Ryan from storming over to him on the sideline with a chorus of F-bombs and a slap on the rear. When the two were together in Baltimore from 2000-06, Ryan loved Lewis’ mashing style.
“I can remember him coming to me on many occasions saying, ‘I’d give you the ball every damn time,’ ” Lewis said.
Ryan now brings his ground-and-pound battle cry to Buffalo. The two bruisers – Lewis and Anderson – believe McCoy can handle a heavy workload, too.
They don’t care that McCoy is 40 pounds lighter or that only two backs last year had 300 carries. Lewis says McCoy runs with “a lower center of gravity” and can “pack a punch” on third and 1. To him, Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and McCoy are the last of this dying breed. To him, the pros of feeding McCoy 20, 25, 30 carries should far outweigh the cons of overuse.
Much like a quarterback, running backs find a rhythm.
“You don’t change out a quarterback throughout the game because they get adjusted to the defense and establish that tempo,” Lewis said. “They get better as the game goes on because they get a feel for that defense. … They can pick out weaknesses in the defense and they can attack them later on.
“As the back, you can see what’s going on and then you can counter-attack that.”
That’s why Ryan chatted with Lewis during games. The quarterback play was as putrid then – think Tony Banks, Trent Dilfer, Kyle Boller — as it could be in Buffalo this year. Ryan would tell Lewis where defensive linemen were shading, where linebackers were cheating. Averaging 19.4 carries per game over his 10-year career, Lewis put Ryan’s advice to use.
The result in 2003 was a 2,066-yard season.
Then again, Lewis and Anderson were heavyweights. McCoy is more middleweight. Surely, this size/age combination gave General Manager Doug Whaley hesitation before signing on the dotted line.
Anderson dismisses any concern, saying McCoy “runs big.” He brings up Barry Sanders again. Sure, Sanders was dizzying, mesmerizing, possibly not human.
But pan down to his hamstrings and you’ll see tree trunks for thighs.
“A lot of people don’t realize,” Anderson said, “but his lower body was like mine. He’s like a 240-, 250-pound running back down there.”
And Lewis sees McCoy bonding with Ryan the way he did. The number of carries can be deceiving, Lewis said. It’s the “beating” a back takes that is more worrisome, and McCoy is rarely ever tattooed. Lewis estimates McCoy has four solid years left in the tank. McCoy won’t be lining up in a Power “I” formation all game like he did.
“The team will look for him to get out in space and make moves,” Lewis said, “versus just having him concealed behind the line of scrimmage.”
Because with a back like this, you open up the playbook.
The high-stepping Craig blazed a trail as the first true West Coast running back, a threat by air and ground in Bill Walsh’s innovative system.
Over his eight seasons in San Francisco, Craig rushed for 7,064 yards, but also caught 508 passes for 4,442 yards. Now, every team uses the West Coast offense to some extent. And in McCoy, Craig sees part of himself.
The same smooth route running. The same natural hands and acceleration upfield.
Craig is one of two players in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving in the same season. Faulk is the other. If used properly, he sees McCoy becoming the third this fall.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Craig said. “Easy. Easy. He’s a 1,000/1,000 guy, easy. Trust me.
“He’s dangerous. He’s a dangerous kid when it comes to all-purpose – he can change a game real fast. Once he gets into a rhythm, he can do anything. It’s like taking candy from a baby. It’s scary, it’s scary. He’s going to be a weapon that makes everybody else better.”
This is how Jerry Rice and John Taylor had so much one-on-one coverage, he said. Safeties had an eye on him all game. Thus, Craig expects Sammy Watkins to break out this year, too.
So blame the offensive line. Blame Eagles coach Chip Kelly. Blame the system. Anderson insists there was zero decline in McCoy’s game last season. One reason for the schism between coach and player could’ve been the fact Darren Sproles replaced McCoy as the receiving back. After averaging 54.4 receptions per season, McCoy had only 28 catches for 155 yards in 2014.
Anderson is incredulous.
“I couldn’t understand it!” Anderson shouts. “When you have the most elusive running back in football, how do you not let him get in the open field, man? There’s no way Shady McCoy doesn’t have specific pass plays in my offense.”
When asked which three backs he’d take right now, Anderson pauses for eight seconds and says Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch and McCoy. He’d take McCoy over the 1,845-yard back Kelly chose instead, DeMarco Murray, because of his Craig-like receiving ability.
McCoy adds pages to your playbook. He can’t imagine Buffalo ignoring those pages, too.
“If I had him,” Anderson said, “there’s no possible way I’m not utilizing him in the passing game.”
OK, so McCoy can cut on a dime. He can catch the ball. He’ll play with a snarl. He can handle 30 touches a game.
One other quality must rise above the rest: leadership. Curtis Martin knows this much.
He can still feel the palpable pressure of 1998, his first season with the New York Jets. Martin was in the exact same position McCoy is now. He inked a $36 million contract. He was asked to awaken a comatose franchise.
That season, Martin snapped both hard tendons behind his knee caps like rubber bands. He still remembers lying on the training table after the first one in August and seeing the Jets’ trainer give head coach Bill Parcells a thumb’s down. When the Jets started 0-2 and Martin fumbled twice in Game Three, the fans booed without mercy. He finished that win with 144 yards, played on and led New York to the AFC Championship Game.
More than any specific talent, this is how Martin turned around the Jets, and how McCoy must end Buffalo’s playoff drought.
“They didn’t just bring LeSean in to be a good running back,” Martin said. “They brought him in to be a good leader. That’s a huge part of his role in Buffalo.”
In New York, Martin’s actions had a galvanizing effect. His fight fed a team ethos. And the Jets – perennial losers – reached the postseason four times in Martin’s eight seasons.
He finished as the NFL’s fourth all-time leading rusher.
“I wasn’t the biggest, strongest, fastest or the quickest running back,” he said. “But in my mind, I wanted to be the toughest running back.”
Your move, Shady.
The Bills’ idea of leadership was not McCoy posting a public flyer on Instagram for a private “females only” party. If he struggles in home games, all 71,857 in attendance will let him hear it the way Martin did. Maybe he draws motivation from Harrisburg, from Kelly, from proving backs can last.
Martin believes McCoy possesses the necessary temperament to press on the way he did. “Basic math,” he says. McCoy has lasted six years already. Still, expectations are through the roof. It’ll boil down to how McCoy internalizes it all.
“When someone pays you that kind of money,” Martin said, “and you’re in the spotlight as much as he is, it comes with a great deal of pressure. For me, I fed off of that. I wanted to be in those situations.”
There was no concert held at Ralph Wilson Stadium for McCoy, but he might as well have performed alongside the Rolling Stones. The hype hasn’t been this maniacal since the team reached four straight Super Bowls.
In June, the team announced 57,500 season tickets were sold, breaking the team’s 1992 record. It’s on McCoy to do what past “saviors” never could the last 15 years: turn hype into results. Win.
Hall of Famers gush. The greats stutter and stammer in “Whew!” and “My God!” excitement breaking down McCoy’s game. Buffalo obviously has a special talent. Now, for the grand reveal.
As Western New Yorkers know, hype only goes so far.
“Listen, people get paid to talk and speculate,” Faulk said. “It’s his job to go out there and do his job.”