The Hall of Fame running back reaches out every week. Via text. Phone call. In person at practice. Thurman Thomas is always in touch with LeSean McCoy.
Thomas senses frustration, sure, but their most recent conversation Wednesday night had a punch of optimism.
McCoy told Thomas that, yeah, he’s disappointed. Nobody expected the Buffalo Bills to be 3-4 into the bye week and this hamstring injury has been infuriating at times. But the starting running back still sees the playoffs in reach, still sees hope in 2015.
“He’s a guy who, I can see sometimes there’s a little frustration on his face when things aren’t going well," Thomas said. "But mentally, he’s fine. Everybody can go through a little mental frustration on the field, in practice and it might look like he doesn’t care or whatever, but he cares. He cares a lot about this football team and he cares a lot about the players on this team.
“So I think he’s good for the city and he’s good for the team and he’s good for the organization.”
McCoy was ushered into town on a virtual chariot to be the Bills’ best running back since Thomas ripped through defenses en route to Canton. Buffalo traded away Kiko Alonso for the 27-year-old back and then gave him a five-year, $40 million contract in one of many bold moves made by General Manager Doug Whaley. Then, McCoy pulled his hamstring in training camp, tweaked it again when the season began and — six games in — has rushed for 304 yards on 78 carries with one touchdown.
Right before the bye week, the trademark burst was resurfacing. Running back to running back, Thomas cannot wait to see McCoy at full strength. At his best, he believes McCoy can be a workhorse in Buffalo for the next four, five seasons.
Searching for a silver lining through London letdowns, cringe-worthy Instagram posts and a head coach giving players a week’s vacation at the height of turmoil? Look no further than one of the best backs ever seeing potential greatness in LeSean McCoy these final nine games.
What makes McCoy different than all other backs? “That he can do it all,” Thomas says. Right here, is a back who’ll run inside, outside, pick up the blitz, catch the ball and lead.
“I can tell: the guy’s a player. He really is a baller,” Thomas said. “I’m surprised — to this point — that we even still got him. To me, you just don’t give up a guy like that. Obviously the guy has put up numbers and I know at the running back position, people say you’re going to hit that wall. He’s been injury-free, maybe missing games here and there but nothing like a knee ligament or needing surgery.
“Hopefully we can get him full go because I believe that, still at this point, he can be one of the best backs in the National Football League.”
The key, of course, is inching McCoy closer to 100 percent. He’s not there yet. As McCoy has explained to Thomas, he’s still not willing to cut it loose. To gear up without hesitation. These next two weeks, he told him, are crucial.
“It’s more of a mental thing for him right now,” Thomas said. “We’ve lost so many players. And he doesn’t want to be that guy. He doesn’t want to be that player on the injured reserve list and on the report every single week. So hopefully that hamstring can heal up a little bit quicker."
Typically, the two text through the week and then connect at practice for a day. It’s just the two of them. No coaches, no players. Just the Bills’ greatest back ever chatting with the one still chasing glory.
What about? Usually the upcoming opponent, tricks of the trade and McCoy’s role.
Two weeks back, the topic was McCoy's receiving ability. That’s one aspect of his game that hasn’t been featured much. Before the season, coach Rex Ryan boasted that McCoy could total 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 receiving, then the back hurt his hamstring. Once he returned to the field, Thomas and McCoy discussed his hands, his ability in space and McCoy even spoke up to coaches.
"It’s just something from my standpoint that I would like to see him do," Thomas said. "And I think the last couple weeks ago, he did mention something to Greg Roman, that he wanted to catch the ball a little bit more. Hopefully they’ll continue that.”
So there he was against Jacksonville, busting loose for 22 yards on a catch before fumbling at the doorstep.
As Thomas added, McCoy’s numbers “are not where he wants them.” His injury and the injuries around him haven’t helped. But he has been working closely with the offensive line to break down his aiming point on runs and more bodies should return against the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 8.
One aspect of McCoy’s game Thomas especially loves? His nastiness. His willingness to hit. For a moment in London, it looked like his season was over. After that fumble, McCoy laid on the Wembley Stadium turf for several moments before walking off and returning the next series.
As a three-down back, he’s also on the field to pick up blitzes. Another point of the game, McCoy took on linebacker Paul Posluszny with a jolt.
“Oh my God," Thomas said. "He drilled him. He drilled him so hard Posluszny went to his knees. ... He’s a tough son of a (expletive), man.”
Still, McCoy had six runs of zero or negative yardage — his cutback ability is a double-edged sword. Sometimes, he looks to make a play where there’s no play to be made. Some plays, Thomas saw bad blocking. Others, it was on McCoy. But this is something the Bills simply must live with in McCoy.
McCoy has a "Barry Sanders-type of burst," Thomas said, in that he'll break out for 30 yards at any moment.
No, he doesn’t want to hear your theory that running backs are disposable commodities in 2015, either. The lazy argument is to look within the division, to the New England Patriots. OK, so coach Bill Belichick turns other teams' trash into his treasures at the position every year. Whereas the Bills backed up the Brink's truck for McCoy, cast-offs LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis are making $1 million apiece this season.
But Thomas laughs.
“Belichick could have a 100-yard game with Tom Brady back there,” he said. “Yeah, I hate to hear that argument. It’s something I struggle with when I hear it because you can’t just pick anybody off the street. My thing has always been to have a guy who can play first, second and third down. I don’t want to be shuffling guys in and out. I want to have a guy out there who’s going to have a major impact in the game.”
Like Le'Veon Bell, he adds, who would go in the Top 5 if you re-drafted the 2013 class.
Like McCoy. When healthy.
Could injuries dull McCoy’s explosion? Backs his age notoriously hit the wall, fade, never to be heard from again. Thomas believes it depends on the type of back you are, echoing other NFL greats. He started to see his own play decline when Jim Kelly and Kent Hull retired, the line reshuffled and the 250-300 carries per season added up. Those Super Bowl years added a full season’s worth of mileage, so Thomas was OK with the Bills drafting a running back later in his career.
McCoy tells him he still has four or five peak years left.
"We talk about the contract that he signed," Thomas said, "and what age he’ll be when that contract is almost at the end. But he works out extremely hard. He’s very focused. I can see him still being that guy at the age of 30. Just because of the way that he moves, the way he runs the ball, he’s very elusive. He doesn’t take the big hit. So for him to go from a 4.3 to a 4.4, that’s not really much.”
A week off should help the hamstring and Thomas senses a palpable hunger in McCoy's voice.
Out of the bye week, the cut-on-a-dime human highlight from Philadelphia may return. It doesn’t all need to be on McCoy’s shoulders, Thomas cautioned. Sammy Watkins can help. So can Charles Clay. He doesn’t want to blame injuries for the sluggish start but there’s no denying the impact.
“It’s always ‘next man up,’ but man," Thomas said, "it’s next man up out of one out of 22, not six or seven out of 22.”
In McCoy, a rare talent, there's reason to believe the Bills can still contend.
The Bills hope the best is yet to come.