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Happy and healthy in Buffalo, Bills RB LeSean McCoy chasing history

LeSean McCoy won’t be relaxing under a cabana poolside in Vegas on Sunday.

He won’t be lounging on a beach in Costa Rica or even hanging out in his old stomping grounds of Philadelphia, either.

Instead, the Buffalo Bills’ running back will be inside Frontier Field in Rochester, hosting a charity softball game that raises money for the the LeSean McCoy Foundation, which provides “education and resource programs to disadvantaged youth.” Process will also raise awareness and provide support for individuals battling ALS, a cause close to McCoy’s heart after the death of his grandmother, Maryann Branch, because of it.

McCoy is spending more time in Western New York these days, and that’s no accident. A little more than two years ago when he arrived with the Bills via a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, his No. 1 priority was finding a way out of Buffalo at the first possible chance.

But now, like so many professional athletes before him have learned – and anyone who’s lived here all their life can attest – Buffalo has a way of winning over even the most hardened skeptics.

“It’s a big difference,” McCoy said of his views of Buffalo now as opposed to when he was traded here. “Hanging around Buffalo, there are times where I hang out on the weekends here, you know? Where before, every chance I got, I tried to leave and get out of here. Even just like family members coming up.

“You go from a place where you’re always there to somewhere else, you’ve got to adjust and adapt, and I’ve done that. This is like home to me.”

McCoy’s displeasure at being traded to the Bills was no secret. He had spent his entire life in Pennsylvania, growing up in Harrisburg, going to college at Pitt and then starring for the Eagles. Leaving his comfort zone – even for the relatively short trip to Buffalo – wasn’t easy. There was also the reality of a team he had given many good years to telling McCoy they no longer wanted him. That can’t sit well with any athlete, but particularly one with McCoy’s confidence. And let's face it – coming to Buffalo could be viewed was a tough sell for an NFL star with no ties here. The weather is the weather (when's summer going to start, anyway?), and the longest playoff drought in the league is an anchor dangling over the franchise.

The start of McCoy’s time with the Bills thus got off to a rocky start. There was the infamous “females only” party invitation prior to his first training camp that made plenty of headlines, and a controversial interview with ESPN in which McCoy said former Eagles coach Chip Kelly got “rid of all the good black players.” Asked to clarify whether he believed racism was the reason for that, McCoy defiantly responded “I don't have to explain myself to nobody. Nobody. I don't. I said what I said, said what I felt at the time and I'm done with that.”

After his first season with the Bills, McCoy was involved in a bar brawl in Philadelphia that started over ownership of a bottle of champagne. During the fight, two off-duty Philadelphia police officers suffered injuries that left them hospitalized. After a lengthy investigation, the city’s district attorney’s office declined to bring charges against McCoy or three other suspects.

Partially because of how much has changed in Buffalo since McCoy has arrived, those transgressions feel like a long time ago. To his credit, McCoy was up front about how he can’t let the situation that happened in Philadelphia occur. On the field, he made his second straight Pro Bowl after a dominant 2016 season in which he was far and away the engine of the Bills’ offense.

Now, he’s hoping for more at a time when running backs are traditionally past their prime.

Chasing history

McCoy will be 29 when the 2017 season starts. Traditionally, that has been thought of as being over the hill at the position. A study by ESPN in 2014 found that, among running backs who played at least four NFL seasons since 2001, with a minimum average of 75 carries per season, their peak age is 27. After that, their rushing totals drop by 15 percent in one year, 25 percent in the second year and nearly 40 percent by the time they are 30.

McCoy already bucked that trend last season. After gaining 895 yards in 12 games in 2015, McCoy's production shot up to 1,267 yards in 15 games last year. He did so with just 34 more carries (203 to 234) and saw his average yards per rush increase by a full yard (4.4 to 5.4). The analytics website Pro Football Focus credited McCoy with forcing 61 missed tackles, which ranked third in the league behind Arizona's David Johnson (71) and Miami's Jay Ajayi (63).

McCoy now has seven straight years of at least 200 rushing attempts, playing 12 or more games in every one of those seasons. That's remarkable durability at such a rugged position.

"I mean, I don't really take a lot of blows," he said. "Since I've been 20 years old in the NFL, that's never going to change in my playing style."

That durability has led to some monster production. McCoy currently sits at 8,954 career rushing yards, which ranks 38th in NFL history. He's got a realistic chance at topping 10,000 career yards this season if he stays healthy – a milestone only 29 running backs in history have reached.

Those who follow McCoy on social media know he's aware of the significant of the number. He ends several of his posts on Twitter with the hashtag #10kchase. He also uses #12kchase, which shows he's got his sights set even higher. Just 15 running backs in NFL history have ever reached that number, and 13 of them are in the Hall of Fame.

McCoy joked last week that Derek Boyko, the team's new vice president of communications, does a good job of reminding him about his place in history. Boyko has a previous relationship with McCoy from their time together in Philadelphia.

"I remember when I first got into the NFL as a rookie, he didn’t talk to me that much. Then my next year, when I was playing, he always would tell me that I have a shot," McCoy said. "I have a shot, as a talent, to be a Hall of Famer. So that was kind of his motivation for me. Now we’re here and he feeds me the numbers and stats. The only thing we’re missing is a couple more years, a couple more thousand yards, and some winning games. You know, that’s what every player strives to do is have a great career. The only thing I’m missing is a ring and some more yards.”

Based on McCoy's career average of 76.5 rushing yards per game, it would take about 40 more games for him to reach 12,000 yards. Of course, if he's able to match or exceed his 2016 production, the number could be in reach sooner. McCoy's contract with the Bills runs through 2019, although the team can get out of the deal after the upcoming season if his production drops.

"I still feel young," McCoy said. "Guys out here will tell you it's been hard to cover me and catch me in drills and practices that we've had."

McCoy only needs to look to Indianapolis to show that it can be done. Colts running back Frank Gore, one of the 15 players to reach 12,000 yards, has rushed for 4,226 yards since turning 30.

In the Super Bowl era, however, running backs in their 30s have reached 1,000 yards rushing just 46 times in 51 seasons.

Being smart

If McCoy is going to get there down the road, the Bills will have to monitor his workload.

"That's something coaches have to figure out," McCoy conceded. "Nowadays with all this technology, they've got to find a way to make it work. If the workload is too much, it's too low, they know. Some of the stuff they put us through, calculating how many reps – they'll figure it out.

"And if I can't go, I'll tell them. One thing I've learned here is the bigger picture. I've played games where I was hurt and I should have sat out, and it kind of hurt us and it hurt me. So I'll just be smart. But I'm healthy and I feel good."

The Bills lost a valuable insurance policy this offseason when backup running back Mike Gillislee departed for New England after the Bills declined to match the Patriots' restricted free-agent offer.

"I hate that I had to lose a viable backup," McCoy said. "There's time where Mike made some plays and I might sit out (an extra) play or two because he's playing so well. I'm sure the guys behind me, they'll step it up, but losing Mike, that's a blow. But now you wait this year to see how the guys respond.

"And I can't blame him. I mean, who can? Guy that came in the league undervalued, worked extremely hard, from practice team to playing, gets $4 million in one year, I'm happy for him. I really am. We still talk all the time."

It remains to be seen who will emerge as the No. 2 running back among a group that includes Jonathan Williams, Cedric O'Neal and Jordan Johnson.

"It's hard to tell, because we don't have any pads on," McCoy said. "Training camp, pads on, is live bullets. Small mistakes in the coach's eyes are big mistakes. Even Mike, he didn't even get a shot early, then once he got his moment, he blew up. So it's really hard to tell, but they all look good."

An expanded role

No matter who the backup is, the reality won't change: McCoy is still going to be a workhorse. That includes in the passing game.

"That’s something I’ve been a part of, but it’s been a while since I’ve actually got the ball a lot in the air," he said. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is "big on that. You look at all the successful running backs that’s been in his offense, from Arian Foster, who I’m a big fan of, he did it on the ground and in the air."

Catching the ball out of the backfield is certainly part of McCoy's game. He has averaged 48 catches per season over his his eight-year career, and had 78 in 2010, tops among all running backs that year.

Over the last three years, however, he's averaged just 37 catches per season. That number is likely to go up under Dennison, who does a good job disguising whether the offense intends to run or pass.

"As a defense, they look for alignments, they look for different cheats, different formations, and everything looks the same in our offense and it’s hard, if it’s a pass or run, you can’t tell," McCoy said. "Being a part of that, is special to me because you don’t know what it is, and then the ability to get the ball to your running backs in open field with routes against linebackers, it’s an easy win."

McCoy has reviewed film of Foster, who played under Dennison with the Texans, and came away impressed.

"There's holes," he said. "Should I go left, right? There's holes either way. That's all you can ask for is the opportunity."

Of course, it's not as if the Bills need to fix something that's not broken. The team has led the NFL in rushing yards the last two years.

"I'm blessed to have a great offensive line. You know, if you look at the guys around the league, I'm sure everybody would put them in the top five. And that's big for this league," McCoy said. "The cool thing is, actually a lot of the good runs we had last year, we're putting that together. So that's like a kid at the candy store. You couldn't ask for anything better."

His age hasn't scared away national experts from expecting big things out of McCoy in 2017. A pair of writers predicted recently that McCoy will win the rushing title this upcoming season.

"The Buffalo Bills will continue to be a ground-and-pound team," former Bills receiver Bucky Brooks wrote. "Even though a new coaching staff is coming over, Rick Dennison is bringing in a zone-based system that has really helped running backs flourish. McCoy is a perfect fit in the I-formation and should have a lot of success behind a big offensive line. Plus, defensive-minded head coach Sean McDermott wants to make sure the offense controls the ball and keeps the defense off the field."

Brooks' colleague, Alex Gelhar, concurred, writing: "When taking a stab at projecting the rushing leader, my thought process is to find a talented back in a solid offense who should see a high number of touches. McCoy checks all those boxes and has thrived in a brand new offense before: Shady led the league in rushing in 2013, his first year with Chip Kelly."

Getting comfortable

While the Bills could return the exact same offensive line in 2017, McCoy will have to get used to a new fullback. The Bills replaced McCoy's good friend, Jerome Felton, with Patrick DiMarco.

"Rest in peace to Jerome Felton, that's my guy," McCoy said. "I think that Pat had a lot of success in Atlanta. Hammering the ball, won a lot of games. He actually does a lot better than Jerome in the passing game. We'll use him in different ways. As far as blocking, he's been in this offense for quite some time. A lot of the things, he's teaching me, because I'm new to it and he's kind of around been involved with it. We'll work out fine."

The Bills also added hybrid fullback/running back Mike Tolbert, previously of the Carolina Panthers.

"With Mike, don't let his size fool you," McCoy said of the 5-foot-9, 250-pounder. "He can run the ball. I'm sure they'll work some things out where, he'll take some of the short yardage, you know the goal-line reps."

McCoy was sure to emphasize "some" – making it clear he'd still like to get some carries around the end zone, but understanding it won't be every one. That willingness to sacrifice personal stats for the betterment of the team is something McCoy has come around on.

"You want to win games. You don't want to be selfish," he said. "I understand. I talked to a lot of professionals about it. I had a conversation with" LaDainian Tomlinson "because at first I didn't like it. ... I'm getting all the carries through the whole game, getting most of the yards, getting all the praise, but I'm not getting the touchdowns.

"That doesn't mean I'll be happy if I get zero goal-line touches. I'm sure we'll work something out."

Selfishness doesn't seem to be an issue with McCoy. On Mother's Day, he posted a video to Instagram delivering a new Jaguar to his mom. He also bought his offensive linemen $10,000 watches after the 2016 season.

The Bills' spring practices have been an opportunity for McCoy to sort through those types of things.

"This is what it's for, kind of learning the plays and learning the personnel," he said. "I'm lucky to have Sean McDermott, and knowing him from Philadelphia, but a lot of these guys haven't."

Toward the end of a disappointing 2016 season, McCoy was vocal about players needing to be more accountable. The expectation under McDermott is that will change.

"That's probably one of the biggest things that they looked forward to when hiring a coach," McCoy said. "The type of discipline, the accountability from the coaches and the players, you could tell that was a big reason why they hired him. And I know him, so that's one of the things he preaches to his players. He's a guy that's not about yelling too much. He's strict and stern in what he wants. As a player, you know that, you respect it. You want to play, you want to have a good, successful year."

At least off the field, he's off to a good start in that regard, giving back to those less fortunate in the community he now calls home.

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