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Why some running backs excel at dashing through the snow

LeSean McCoy didn't tell his teammates beforehand.

Even four days after the fact, his eyes darted around the Buffalo Bills' locker room. He whispered.

"I didn't say anything to the guys," McCoy murmured Thursday as if revealing covert data, "but mentally I knew I was going to have a solid game."

McCoy's secret wouldn't keep that Sunday afternoon: He obviously loves to run in the snow.

Snowvertime instantly became a signature Bills event. Conditions were unprecedented even for Western New York. Eight inches of snow fell on New Era Field during the 13-7 overtime defeat of the Indianapolis Colts.

"That was the worst weather game I've ever seen in terms of snow," said Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure, "and I grew up in Detroit, went to Michigan State and played for Cleveland and Buffalo."

The NFL doesn't postpone games for inclement weather except for emergencies, and sometimes those apparently won't stop the action. Lightning and thunder were recorded around Orchard Park during last Sunday's game.

But the players trudged onward, some better than others.

The Bills couldn't have run any better in the snow if Currier and Ives lined up in an I-formation.

"I could tell he was having fun before the game," Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas said of McCoy. They chatted as the snow began to accumulate. Thomas told him not to bother texting later if McCoy didn't dominate.

"He knew this was something he was going to remember for a long time," Thomas said, "just like the fans will remember for the rest of their lives."

Successful snow runners must make psychological, physical and geometrical adjustments. Players on offense and defense are confused about what size cleats to use, where to line up, what angle to take.

New Era Field probably won't be blanketed for Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins. The weather forecast projects temperatures around freezing with a low likelihood of precipitation. Lake Erie, of course, can be unpredictable.

Forecasts aside, talk of last week's spectacle continues to drift into conversation.

Asked what he was able to glean from a Colts-Bills game film with near-zero visibility at times, Dolphins coach Adam Gase replied, "Nothing. Shady McCoy is really good."

Many would assume a whiteout equalizes competition, but it's a magnifier for talented runners such as McCoy or O.J. Simpson, who also thrived in the snow.

That leads us to another McCoy secret: He would prefer to play all 16 games in the type of snow we saw last week.

"For some reason I can run in the snow," McCoy said. "I just run better than everybody else, I think. I don't know why.

"You get a lot of carries in the snow. The cool thing also is the impact of the hits are not that bad. Everybody is moving a step slower, and you're falling on soft snow."

McCoy's vision quest this year has been to reach 10,000 rushing yards. He's 39 yards away from becoming the first in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards, average 4.5 yards a carry, catch 400 passes and score 75 total touchdowns.

But had he played more games in the snow we might be talking about cracking 12,000 rushing yards Sunday.

McCoy established himself among the greatest snow runners in NFL history, and who's to say he's not the greatest?

"The only two times I remember a game with that much snow, Shady was in both of them," Thomas said.

McCoy ran through snowdrifts a career-high 32 times for 156 yards, including the winning 21-yard touchdown.

Pair that with his 2013 performance in similar elements for the Philadelphia Eagles -- 29 carries for a career-high 217 yards and two touchdowns against the Detroit Lions -- and McCoy has a track record in the snow beyond just actual foot prints.

"You couldn't even see the guys' ankles," Thomas said, "and they were out there running in it! There's probably not a lot of film on anybody who's ran in stuff like that."

Dolphins defensive coordinator Matt Burke was the Lions' linebackers coach in 2013. The Lions felt so helpless afterward head coach Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham convened a staff meeting to draw up some sort of plan to handle a similar calamity in the future.

"I never thought I'd see it again, honestly," Burke said. "We kind of came off the field and we were like 'Man, that's never going to happen again.' "

Burke indicated the Dolphins have concocted a contingency plan in case of snow in Orchard Park.

Miami's training staff ought to be ready, too. Playing in the snow is tantamount to swimming for the first time in 10 years. You use muscles you didn't know you had.

Snow neutralizes a defender's footwork more than it does a skill player's. The offense knows the snap count. The quarterback knows his receivers' routes. The running back knows when he's going to juke.

Another Bills back, Fred Jackson, went for 212 yards and averaged 6.4 yards a carry in an apocalyptic 2010 season finale against the Colts. Jackson is the alum who'll lead the Bills onto the field Sunday.

The main concern for a ball carrier isn't his feet, but his grip.

In perhaps the finest postseason game in the snow, Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant fumbled twice early but rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns to beat the Seattle Seahawks.

"When there's bad traction it's an offensive game," DeLamielleure said. "Blocking is easy because the defensive guys can't really come off the ball. You get a good shot at them."

Make a skittish defender miss in the snow and he'll slide into oblivion.

Imagine how much tougher it was for would-be tacklers on old Rich Stadium's artificial turf, with that ungodly drainage crown. It's a wonder players didn't slide right down to the sideline.

DeLamielleure was a rookie but already a devastating blocker in 1973, when Simpson recorded two gallant snow-game performances.

Simpson ran 22 times for 219 yards and a touchdown against the New England Patriots in the deepest snow for a Bills home game before last week.

"We had a deep defensive line, but it was a long afternoon," former Patriots defensive end Rick Cash said from his home in Plymouth, Mass. "You have to play your keys and be aligned and in your stance. You're constantly trying to make adjustments.

"We starting slanting and shifting and trying to guess which way Simpson would go. Even when we were right, we couldn't stop him."

The next week on Shea Stadium's snow-encrusted grass, Simpson ran 34 times for 200 yards and a touchdown to break Jim Brown's season rushing record and become the first to rush for 2,000 yards.

In the 1975 finale, notorious for Bills fans hurling snowballs at the Minnesota Vikings and knocking Chuck Foreman out of the game with one to the eye, Simpson ran only 12 times but for 57 yards and caught three passes for 66 more. Simpson's two touchdowns gave him 23, breaking Gale Sayers' record.

"O.J. had his best games in the snow," DeLamielleure said. "My theory is that he was flat-footed. Even though he was a great sprinter, he had a shoebox for a foot, and he never slipped. It was unbelievable."

Thomas over-enunciated the same adjective when describing the trait that makes McCoy so sublime in the snow.

"His balance is un-be-lievable," Thomas said. "It's beautiful to watch."

Thomas said he never played in weather like last Sunday's, not in college or the pros. When he did play in slick conditions, he would line up 6 yards behind the line instead of his usual 7 because he needed to move more slowly to maintain his balance.

McCoy, with experience from four years earlier, made the same adjustment toward scrimmage.

"The quarterback's footing is not the best," McCoy said, "and some of the linemen might not be able to hold their block as long. So I want to be closer to get the ball faster, and I can go while the linemen are holding their blocks.

"I figure I can make them miss better than they can hold their block in the snow."

McCoy seems to have snow figured out better than those at all the other positions.

The Bills need to go at least 2-1 over their final three weeks to have legitimate chance at the playoffs.

Two of those dates could feature snow, and if those become games of inches, then McCoy won't need to keep it a secret that he can shovel them out.

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