The last time C.J. Spiller eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in a season, he was a senior at Clemson University.
The running back was the prime target of every opponent’s defensive game plan. So he recalls well how proud as a group, he and his blockers, had been of Spiller’s 1,212 yards that season, and their run to the 2009 ACC championship game.
Today, the Buffalo Bills running back is 56 yards shy of passing that mark for the first time in his three-year NFL career.
The 5-8 Bills take on the 8-5 Seattle Seahawks on Sunday in Toronto, fighting nearly-impossible odds for the final AFC playoff spot in a season so far filled with disappointment.
Fans have been screaming to see Spiller carry the ball more. Fred Jackson, the other half of the team’s two-back tandem, suffered a season-ending knee-injury last week, so it seems an obvious opportunity to give Spiller more touches in the last three games.
“Talking to the offensive line guys, they are really excited for me to reach the 1,000-yard mark, and I want it for them. I think it will show that they are getting after guys and doing a great job,” Spiller said, fiddling bashfully with the strings on his Clemson sweater while sitting for an interview Friday at the Bills practice facility. “They know exactly how much more I need, and they are rooting for me to get it this week.”
Spiller’s 6.6 yards per carry average this season is second in the NFL behind Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III among players with 50-plus carries, and the highest in Bills’ history for a single season.
Yet, Spiller only has 144 carries. He has had 20-plus in just one game this year. It’s one of the key factors that has Bills head coach Chan Gailey in the hot seat.
Would Buffalo be any closer to a playoff berth if Spiller got the ball more?
Gailey and Spiller said they “cleared the air” in a lengthy conversation after the coach suggested last week that Spiller often “gets winded.”
The 25-year-old insists he doesn’t begrudge being part of a two-back tandem and knows that has kept him fresh. The ninth-overall pick in 2010 admits it has taken patience to wait for carries, but he is grateful for what he has learned about game prep from the veteran Jackson.
“I’m more of a patient runner this year, and I understand from doing better film study what defences are trying to do,” Spiller said. “And I also know that it’s hard for teams to duplicate in practice what guys like [Tennessee Titans running back] Chris Johnson and I do on the game field in practice. There aren’t many guys walking around with that kind of God-given speed.
“They see the film and they know you’re fast, but in games they see it’s a different kind of fast. I’ve had guys come up to me after games and say, ‘Man, you’re a whole lot faster on this field than you are on the film.’”
The Bills beat Washington 28-0 last year in Toronto, the only victory in four regular-season games hosted at Rogers Centre since 2008. This is the last instalment of the initial $78-million, five-year agreement between the Bills and Rogers Communications Inc., but the two parties may still renew it. Spiller and teammates hope the possibilities of more carries for him are one factor that can keep some playoff hope flickering.
“He came in ‘Lightning Spiller’ out of college and started slow here, but he kept grinding and now he’s about to be a 1,000-yard back. So much respect to him,” Bills receiver Stevie Johnson said.
“He used to get the ball and just hit the hole fast and run into the linebackers or the line. But now he’s patient and sees where the holes and cutbacks are. It’s simple: When C.J. gets the ball more, we move the ball easier.”