Sean McDermott couldn’t help but notice this week that every question about LeSean McCoy follows a pattern.
“I know you guys like to mention that every time – he’s 30,” the Buffalo Bills’ coach said.
It’s an inescapable fact. McCoy is at an age for running backs that usually means the end of the line is near. So it’s understandable if fans are a little uneasy that he has been limited in practice in the week leading up to Sunday’s third preseason game against Cincinnati.
“There’s always a concern, there is,” McDermott said. “LeSean is a big part of what we do, and so I know he’s going to maximize those treatment opportunities. He’s a pro. He knows how to handle the medical part of it in the training room and we’ll just take it one day at a time now. We’re always concerned anytime a guy is not up to 100 percent.”
The reality is, the Bills don’t need to see McCoy against the Bengals. They know exactly what he’s capable of.
“It certainly makes me more comfortable, knowing what he brings to the table,” McDermott said. “He’s shown in the three to four weeks of camp that he’s off to a good start and he’s in shape. You don’t want to be out too long – there’s something to be said for getting tackled – that said, I’m going to err on the side of caution with respect to LeSean and we’ll keep building him up.”
That means Bills fans might not see McCoy again until the season opener Sept. 9 at Baltimore, since it’s a virtual guarantee he won’t play in the fourth preseason game.
McDermott made it clear during training camp that McCoy won’t have a pitch count in 2018, going so far as to say he looks “quicker and faster and more powerful than last year.”
That’s a testament to the work McCoy puts in during the offseason. On the first day of training camp, McCoy said he weighed 225 pounds in the spring, but reported to camp at 212.
“So I’ve been training hard, working hard,” he said. “I’ve been training with Frank Gore, a crafty veteran and trying to learn from him, get different tips, staying in shape, being effective and productive. I want to prolong my career, so still on top of things.”
That’s the last we’ve heard from McCoy, who declined an interview request Friday and has not spoken with the media in a month. Undoubtedly, that has something to do with the ongoing police investigation in Georgia centering on the alleged attack of McCoy’s ex-girlfriend in a house he owns in suburban Atlanta. The Bills are operating like McCoy will be available to them when the regular season starts.
“I’m extremely blessed to even be here, to play this game for as long as I’ve played it for,” McCoy said on July 26. “I think as ball players, sometimes we take things for granted. … Every day, you go out there and practice, play with my teammates in the locker room, talk to the guys, lace the cleats up, interact with the fans; all of that’s a blessing. I never took any of those things for granted.”
In some ways, McCoy has already bucked the trend for running backs. An ESPN study in 2014 looked at all running backs who played at least four NFL seasons since 2001 and had a minimum average of 75 carries per season. It concluded that running backs peak at age 27.
McCoy actually peaked at age 25, when he carried the ball 314 times for 1,607 yards for the Eagles, an average of 100.4 yards per game.
At 27, his first year with the Bills, those numbers plummeted to 895 yards on 203 carries – a 45 percent decline in production – as he played in just 12 games, averaging 74.6 rushing yards per contest.
It would have been fair at that point for the Bills to be concerned about McCoy’s longevity, as he had just finished the first year of a five-year contract. Those concerns were erased, though, when McCoy bounced back to rush for 1,267 yards on just 234 carries in 2016 – an increase of 41 percent over 2015. His 5.4 yards per carry in 2016 is the best of his nine-year career. That’s at a time when ESPN found that running backs typically decline by 15 percent at age 28, 25 percent at age 29 and 40 percent by the time they hit 30.
McCoy’s decline was more gradual last year, and can be attributed at least in part to an offensive line that struggled to find its groove in the early part of the season. He finished with 1,138 yards, but needed 287 carries to reach that total. That came out to just 4.0 yards per rush, which is a career low. That may be the No. 1 cause for concern with McCoy heading into 2018, because the offensive line has to deal with the losses of Eric Wood, Richie Incognito and Cordy Glenn – all opening-day starters a year ago. Still, McCoy was 27 percent ahead of his age 27 production as a 29-year-old last year.
Lacking confidence is not a problem for McCoy. Back on July 3, he tweeted “7-12-88 a super star was born,” a reference to his upcoming 30th birthday. On the first day of training camp, McCoy said, “I think I’m probably untouchable at about 210 (pounds).”
Whether that will be true remains to be seen. If it is, he figures to add to a rather exclusive list. According to data provided by pro-football-reference.com, there have been only 49 seasons in NFL history of a running back who is at least 30 years old rushing for 1,000 yards. The best-ever season by a running back 30 or older was turned in by the New York Giants’ Tiki Barber in 2005, when he rushed for a whopping 1,860 yards. He followed that up with 1,662 rushing yards in 2006 – the fourth most for a player 30 or older -- before retiring at age 31. So that’s the gold standard for McCoy.
Hall of Famer Curtis Martin is No. 2 on that list, with 1,697 yards in 2004 with the New York Jets. That’s just ahead of the great Walter Payton, who had 1,684 yards in 1984 with the Chicago Bears. Both were 30 at the time. Payton also is No. 6 on the list, gaining 1,551 yards as a 31-year-old in 1985.
The oldest a player to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season has been is 35, by Washington’s John Riggins in 1984 (1,239 yards on 327 carries in 14 games) and Pittsburgh’s John Henry Johnson in 1964 (1,048 yards on 235 carries in 14 games).
It’s no surprise that McCoy has looked to Gore as a source of motivation at 30. Gore has rushed for more than 1,000 yards three times since turning 30, and narrowly missed that total twice more, rushing for 967 yards with Indianapolis in 2015 at 32 and 961 yards last year as a 34-year-old.
It’s still a mystery why linebacker Keenan Robinson retired at the age of 29. He did not respond to phone calls and a text message seeking comment on what went into his decision.
“It was kind of personal,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “I’m sure at some point, he’ll speak to the media if he already hasn’t and share what those reasons were. I have a lot of respect for him as a player and as a person. He did a great job for us in the time that he was with us and we wish him nothing but the best.”
Was Robinson’s decision a surprise to Frazier?
“I can’t say that I saw it coming,” he said. “It’s no different than probably any of our players. As I mentioned, we just wish him the best.”
Robinson appeared to be moving up the depth chart during training camp when he received a handful of first-team reps. That was just two weeks ago.
“Honestly, I wish I could have come here last year when I had the opportunity," he told The Buffalo News at that time. "I think this is a great situation for me to be in."
Clearly, something changed from that point.
Promotions, giveaways planned for 2018
Here’s a look at who the Bills will honor – and what they’ll give away – during regular season games this season at New Era Field.
Week 2, vs. L.A. Chargers: Hometown heroes will be honored in a pregame ceremony, while at halftime a local youth football organization will scrimmage. The gate giveaway is a rally towel.
Week 5, vs. Tennessee: As part of the NFL’s “Crucial Catch” campaign, local cancer survivors will be honored in a pregame ceremony. Hispanic Heritage Month will also be honored in a pregame ceremony that will include the presentation of the 2018 Hispanic Heritage Leadership Award. A flag football scrimmage will take place at halftime, while the gate giveaway is a Yowie.
Week 8, vs. New England (Monday Night Football): Running back Thurman Thomas’ No. 34 jersey will be retired at halftime. The gate giveaway is a Thomas jersey rally towel.
Week 9, vs. Chicago: As part of the NFL’s “Salute to Service” initiative, the Bills will honor the six military branches during a pregame ceremony. A flag football scrimmage will be held at halftime, while the gate giveaway is a dog tag.
Week 12, vs. Jacksonville: “Family Day” will feature packages that include four tickets, four hot dogs, bags of chips and Pepsi products for $160. In support of the NFL’s Play 60 initiative, students who completed the Play 60 Challenge and Fitness for Kids Challenge will be recognize in a pregame ceremony. The gate giveaway is a winter headband.
Week 14, vs. New York Jets: Players will promote their chosen charities as part of the “My Cause, My Cleats” program.
Week 15, vs. Detroit: The Bills will honor a local high school coach of the year (one from the Buffalo area and one from the Rochester area) during a pregame ceremony.
Week 17, vs. Miami: The annual Fan Appreciation game will feature several prizes given away during the game.