This is the second of a nine-part positional review of the Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season. Today’s installment looks at the running backs.
By Vic Carucci
News Sports Reporter
By every account, the most dynamic move of the Bills’ previous offseason pretty much fell out of the sky and into their collective lap.
Hello, Bills, this is the Eagles. Who would you give us, straight up, for LeSean McCoy?
How about Kiko Alonso?
And from there, champagne corks popped on a yacht near the Boca Raton, Fla., home of Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula as they celebrated with General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Rex Ryan the arrival of the most essential piece to the “ground-and-pound” offense Ryan intended to employ.
At first, the Bills were a lot more excited to have McCoy than he was to have them. That eventually was fixed with an adjustment to his contract that boosted his pay from $10 million to $16 million in 2015.
How well did the investment pay off? The Bills finished first in the NFL in rushing, and McCoy made a significant contribution with his team-leading 895 yards.
But so, too, did quarterback Tyrod Taylor, with 568 yards, and rookie Karlos Williams with 517. The creative run-blocking scheme of offensive coordinator Greg Roman also did more than its share.
McCoy was the Bills’ lone Pro Bowl selection, although he was quick to acknowledge that he didn’t have a Pro Bowl season. Injuries had plenty to do with that.
And even though linebacker proved to be a weakness for the Bills, the injury-prone Alonzo had a forgettable enough year in Philadelphia to help contribute to the firing of Chip Kelly.
In the end, it’s fair to say, at least for one season, the Bills won the trade.
Exactly how large of a prize McCoy will prove to be in the long run remains to be seen.
The breakdown follows:
Signed: Boobie Dixon, FB Jerome Felton, Mike Gillislee, LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams.
Pending free agents: None.
What went right: McCoy finally overcoming the hamstring injury that he suffered during a joint training-camp practice with the Cleveland Browns in August.
It took the better part of five weeks, including back-to-back games that McCoy missed, but he began to consistently look more like the explosive back the Bills thought they were getting. Through an eight-game stretch, from Oct. 18 through Dec. 13, he averaged 90 yards per game and 4.8 yards per carry while scoring all three of his rushing touchdowns on the season.
In three of those games, McCoy had his only 100-yard efforts, hitting the 112-yard-mark in each. He also had five of his more productive games as a receiver on the way to catching 32 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns. McCoy became the third player in Bills’ history to generate 100 yards from scrimmage in seven consecutive games, from Week Seven through Week 14.
Williams immediately emerged as a powerful and impactful runner by averaging nearly 8 yards per carry while totaling 186 yards and scoring a touchdown in each of his first three games. He finished the year with an average of 5.6 yards per carry and became only the second player in NFL history to score a touchdown, rushing and receiving, in each of his first six games.
Gillislee’s breakaway speed and elusiveness were a revelation. Emerging from virtually nowhere, he managed to provide a late spark by averaging 4.7 yards per carry and running for touchdowns of 19, 60 and 50 yards after being activated from the practice squad for the final five games of the season.
What went wrong: McCoy and Williams not being able to stay healthy for the entire season. Besides missing the Oct. 4 loss against the New York Giants and the Oct. 11 victory against Tennessee after aggravating his injured hamstring, McCoy also sat out the final two games, victories against Dallas and the New York Jets, with an MCL tear.
Although Williams and Gillislee did a nice job of picking up the slack and McCoy had that strong two-month stretch, the injuries raise questions about whether the wear and tear of seven NFL seasons are catching up with his 27-year-old body (which will be 28 when he reports to training camp).
Williams ended up missing five games, the first three with a concussion and the other two with a shoulder injury. He also exited the season finale against the Jets early with an injured knee.
Where they go from here: The Bills are stacked at this position. If McCoy and Williams can stay healthy for most of next season, the Bills should have as dominant a rushing attack as any in the NFL – even without a 500-plus-yard contribution from Taylor. Ryan loves having a quarterback who is such a dangerous runner, but the Bills would prefer that he doesn’t have that many carries (he ranked second on the team with 104).
With Taylor still finding his way as a pocket passer, it seems likely the Bills will stick with their run-first offensive philosophy. In each of Taylor’s eight wins, the Bills ran more than they threw, and the quarterback attempted 29 or fewer passes. This formula makes the most sense for a team that still fully intends to win with defense, even if it did underperform on that side of the ball for the majority of the season.
Thanks to Williams and then Gillislee, Dixon became marginalized as a running back and made the bulk of his contributions on special teams.
For being one of the key targets in free agency and with salary cap number from a $9.2-million contract that jumps from $1.75 million to $2.3 million in 2016, Felton didn’t do a whole a lot, even as a blocker. He carried the ball once all season for 2 yards.
Next: Wide receivers.