Once can be written off as a fluke.
Twice as dumb luck.
But three times is enough to make people take notice of Mike Gillislee.
That’s how many rushing touchdowns Gillislee, an off-the-street free-agent signing last month by the Buffalo Bills, has scored in as many weeks. It’s also as many as starting running back LeSean McCoy has this year.
“Mike is certainly a guy that has just burst on the scene,” Bills coach Rex Ryan said.
Gillislee’s 50-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Cowboys sealed the Bills’ win. It also marked the first time since Antowain Smith did it in 1997 that a Bills running back has had touchdown runs of 50-plus yards in back-to-back weeks. Gillislee had a 60-yard rushing touchdown against Washington in Week 15.
Only nine running backs in team history have had two rushing touchdowns of at least 50 yards – and Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas isn’t one of them.
“The offensive line did a great job opening it up. … I knew if I got to the sideline that I could pretty much take it to the house,” Gillislee said, sounding like a player who’s done exactly that dozens of times in the NFL.
Not quite. Gillislee’s three-game streak – which started with a 19-yard score against Philadelphia in Week 14 – are the first three touchdowns of his career.
A fifth-round draft pick of the Dolphins in 2013, Gillislee logged just six carries for Miami in two years. All of those came as a rookie in 2013 – he missed all of last season on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury.
Gillislee started training camp with the Dolphins as the team’s fifth-string running back and was cut prior to the start of the regular season. He spent a month on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad before joining the Bills’ taxi squad Nov. 4.
“I’ve always had this confidence, it was the matter of opportunity and the Bills gave me a hell of an opportunity,” Gillislee said after Sunday’s win, in which he made his first career start in place of the injured McCoy. “I’m taking advantage of it.”
So much so that he’s gone from being a nice story at the end of a lost season to someone the Bills hope can contribute to the 2016 team.
“I would absolutely agree with that,” Ryan said. “We’ve fallen short in a lot of areas, but … I think we’ve run the ball the way we expected to or even exceeded what we wanted to. We’re running at a great clip.”
Gillislee has been a big part of that since being promoted from the practice squad to the active roster prior to the Bills’ game against Houston in Week 13.
On his first carry as a member of the Bills, he ripped off a 30-yard gain. In four games, he’s gained 239 yards on just 23 carries, a robust 10.4 yards per carry. He’s also caught six passes for 29 yards.
“This guy has been nothing but impressive in meetings, behind the scenes,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said last week. “At practice, he’s 100 miles an hour, full speed mentally all time.
“A guy like that can play for me any day. I know the team is really pleased with what he’s done. He’s hit some big plays for us and done a lot of little things, too.”
It begs the question: What took Gillislee so long to carve out a meaningful role?
Ryan speculated after Sunday’s game that it had something to do with his performance at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. He clocked a time of 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which tied for 11th among 15 running backs in attendance.
“I don’t know what happened, if he had to run with a piano on his back or what?” Ryan joked after Sunday’s game. “He’s the fastest slow guy I’ve ever seen. … That’s two games in a row he’s housed a couple of them. The kid just does a tremendous job for us and really gotta tip your hat to him. I mean, even in protections, all that stuff you gotta learn as a back. He’s done it.”
Gillislee was once a top-10 running back recruit in the country, choosing to play for the University of Florida. His college career was steady, if unspectacular, as he carried 389 times for 2,072 yards and 20 touchdowns. The bulk of that production came as a senior in 2012, when he rushed for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns on 244 carries.
“Yeah, I got faith man,” Gillislee said after Sunday’s game when asked whether he could have imagine his career progressing like it has in the last two months. “I knew it was going to be one of these teams. The Bills gave me a chance and it’s all happening.”
Gillislee is set to become a restricted free agent after this season, so the two sides will need to work out a new contract if he is to return. If that happens, at least on paper, the Bills have decent depth at the position, with McCoy, Karlos Williams and Gillislee.
If the players in front of him stay healthy, Gillislee will likely compete with Boobie Dixon for the third-string running back job. That could mean bye-bye, Boobie. Dixon is headed into the final year of his contract and the Bills could save $1.15 million in salary-cap space by releasing him.
Before doing that, they’d likely have to be comfortable with Gillislee playing a bigger role on special teams, which is expected from a team’s third-string running back.
“That could definitely be something that we look into,” Ryan said of eventually expanding Gillislee’s role with the special teams. “There’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be a good special-teams player.”