Gut Check No.321: Boobie and Bryce

How to proceed with the Bills' backup RBs. 

Why A Spiller-less Bills are a Better Team

Buffalo is 4-3, second in the AFC East, and they have a legitimate shot of going 10-6 with the Broncos, Packers, and Patriots as the only clear favorites in their remaining match ups. The Bills have very real shot at the playoffs despite the fact that Fred Jackson's groin muscle is detached a centimeter off the bone and C.J. Spiller is out for the year. In fact, Buffalo's chances might be better without the talent of Spiller -- a conclusion that head coach Doug Marrone was headed towards in recent weeks.

Read this column for any length of time and you've known that Spiller is an explosive player who carries the football with a mentality akin to a punt return specialist than a savvy interior runner between the tackles. Spiller knew he was often the most explosive athlete on the field since high school, but what he didn't realize was how much the gap in quickness closed when he left Clemson and entered the NFL. The young star is accustom to bouncing plays to the perimeter at will, but professional football is far less forgiving of trips to the corner store.  

DeMarco Murray learned this lesson by the time he became a sophomore at Oklahoma. LeSean McCoy needed a season in Philadelphia to develop more judicious decision-making (and because of his line woes this year, he might need a refresher course). And Laurence Maroney and Isaiah Pead, two athletic talents with a lot of strong instincts that were well-suited for the pro game, never figured it out and their careers fizzled.

"Figuring it out" as a running back isn't solely about the logic of reading the line of scrimmage within the context of the down and distance of a situation. It's also about learning to recognize one's limitations and submit to them. This is not an easy thing for an athlete to do when he is heralded for his speed, acceleration, and agility, and he's hired by a professional team to produce big plays. 

Though he had some of the craziest zig-zagging runs in college football history, Reggie Bush had it figured out at USC. He knew how to hit smaller creases and demonstrated the maturity to take the tough interior yardage over the potential breakaway in certain situations. The Saints' first-round pick had huge expectations entering the NFL -- none higher than Bush had for his own play.

Although Bush rediscovered his decision-making maturity when he moved to Miami and he has been a quality starter ever since, he initially lapsed into a savior complex as a runner. He tried too hard to bounce runs outside and reverse field in situations where the smaller gain was a better course of action for the offense and Bush's overall stamina. The Saints' scheme benefited from the "threat" of Bush on the field as much as it benefited from Bush touching the football.

However, New Orleans was fine with letting Bush walk when his rookie contract expired. In addition to the injury history that factored into its overall assessment of Bush's tenure, the Saints probably disliked the inefficiency of its running back's performance. The number of big losses that offset big gains that the offense earned from Bush when the ball was in his hands -- as well as the mere threat of Bush getting the ball -- was probably not as great of a win for the team to award its draft pick a second contract. 

Whether it's Reggie Bush, Tavon Austin, or Percy Harvin, the desire to create an offense that showcases the versatility of a single player has been a difficult temptation for NFL teams to ignore. Despite the appeal, the success of these schemes has been a mixed bag.

Austin hasn't been as versatile or as dynamic and it appears that the Rams have transitioned Austin into a bit player in favor of a power running game with tall, physical receivers as the primary targets. Harvin is much-maligned as player without a position and "overrated," but Brett Favre targeted Harvin like a traditional NFL receiver and Harvin performed well in this capacity.

Between Favre and Russell Wilson, Harvin hasn't had a good quarterback. I also wouldn't be at all surprised if Seahawks' offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell or Pete Carroll were tempted to get too cute with the "build-around-Harvin" scheme after Bevell worked with the playmaker from 2009-2010, and was very much aware of Harvin's huge season in 2011.  Of course, Harvin wasn't healthy enough for Seattle to give it a real try and their balance as a unit was a big part of its success. 

Spiller never had an offense fully revolve around him in the NFL, but his ability might still make it a temptation for an organization when he's a free agent at season's end. Nonetheless, Buffalo has been patient with Spiller's quest for the big play after one strong season where it appeared the big-play artist was figuring it out. The downside of this patience means incorporating "player-specific" plays into the scheme that at worst, become predictable and limiting for the offense.

There's nothing like watching an offense earn three consecutive gains of at least five yards with one running back on a variety of plays and then insert a different runner who the defense knows it can stop by a) making this runner play with discipline that he hates to display or b) good scouting of the limited range of plays where this runner is featured.

Defenses didn't always stop him, but this more often had to do with a lack of discipline as a unit than Spiller beating a good game plan. Spiller has the athleticism to command fear from opponents, but his overall skills only generated respect. When a defense respects an opponent, it knows that a disciplined approach will stop him. When a defense fears an opponent, it has concerns that there's no prescribed remedy -- no matter how prepared. 

Doug Marrone arrived at this conclusion in recent weeks and began introducing Anthony "Boobie" Dixon into the backfield to spell Fred Jackson, crowding Spiller from significant touches. While Spiller -- and E.J. Manuel -- have the athleticism to turn a bad situation in a great one, the Bills realized that neither player has the consistency to keep the team in position to win because they are "all or nothing" producers.

When neither player hit the big play there were too many minimal or negative outcomes, and it often put the offense in a hole. An offense that has to dig out of negative plays isn't in a position to put the rest of its talent in position to do what it does best. It's why Kyle Orton has been able to do more positive (and less negative) work with the Bills receivers on a per play basis than Manuel. 

Unfortunately, Fred Jackson is out of commission for at least a few weeks and the two runners with the first shot to replace Jackson and Spiller are talents with Spiller-like tendencies. Speaking purely on the basis of potential, there's not much of a drop off between the pair of Anthony Dixon and Bryce Brown and Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. Neither have capitalized on early opportunities in the league, because they lean too much on their feet and not enough on their brains. 

Don't Discount Dixon

The obviously fantasy pickup this week is Brown, because he has elite NFL RB talent. Fred Jackson called Brown a feature back on Monday. But if this is the case, why was Brown inactive and Dixon earning playing time?

Dixon sustained a playing career in San Francisco with his special teams play after failing to carve a niche as a contributor on offense. Brown is not a special teams contributor and it made more sense for Bulffao to active Dixon over Brown when both of its front-line contributors on the depth chart entered the Vikings game healthy.

Although the Bills brought Dixon to Buffalo because of his skill covering kicks, the former 49ers and Mississippi State Bulldog has all the tools to produce from the backfield. A rookie preseason darling, Dixon flashed the burst to get to the perimeter despite having a bruiser's frame.

 

These higlights reveal a lot about what made Dixon a bell-cow runner for Mississippi State: 

  • Small-back feet to vary his stride and pacing to avoid defenders in space. 
  • Short-area explosiveness to leap over the pile or reach the perimeter on designed plays. 
  • Enough explosiveness to bounce some plays outside. 
  • Size to lower the pads, punish defenders, and earn yards after contact. 
  • Flexible hips to bend and/or execute sudden cuts at a good enough rate of speed to produce in a zone blocking scheme. 
  • Balance to run through the hits of defensive backs in the open field. 
  • Soft enough hands and agility to win in the screen game. 
  • Stop-start agility to make the first man miss. 

Dixon failed to win a role in the San Francisco backfield because he relied too much on bouncing plays outside. When you're 233 pounds and playing like a small back for Mike Singletary, it's an affront to the football sensibilities of a Hall of Fame middle linebacker. Dixon played at least one season at Mississippi State a shotgun offense where the bread-and-butter play was a counter. 

The counter is a gap play where the creativity of the runner's decision-making is limited to one gap the pulling guard opens. The "counter punches" to the counter play in this college offense was the option pitch to the perimeter and the draw. 

Watch the 49ers highlights and you'll notice that a lot of Dixon's plays in this preseason game were perimeter runs or draws and delays from the I-formation. When Dixon was asked to make more sophisticated decisions, especially on short-yardage plays the Mississippi State runner didn't show the maturity for the 49ers to rely on him.

During Singletary's tenure in San Francisco, Dixon spent a lot of time in the staff's doghouse. It didn't help that Dixon was among the first of several backs who failed to unseat Frank Gore's stranglehold on the job. Being the first to fail in an effort like this one often generates the perception that you're not very talented. However, hindsight should be a little kinder to Dixon when considering that Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James also failed maintain a foothold. Brandon Jacobs and Brian Westbrook didn't do much as free agent additions, either. 

Dixon saved his career in San Francisco during the Singletary-Jim Harbaugh changeover when he developed his skill on special teams, and it's why he earned the free agent contract with the Bills. Even so, Dixon has the versatility and athleticism to give Buffalo a chain mover. He still exhibited too much of a desire to play "small back" on a few plays against the Vikings last weekend, but he could turn out to be the lesser of two evils and worthwhile consolation prize on this week's waiver wire as a low-cost addition. 

Expect Dixon to earn at least a 50-50 split with Bryce Brown this week. If he displays the upside he's always been capable of exhibiting without succumbing to his baser tendencies (or Brown performs at his worst), then Dixon will at least earn another game or two of looks that will make him a potential bye-week flex play.  

Brown: A Potential Stretch-run Stud

The runner that Jackson called a feature back was a five-star high school talent who let the celebrity of his ability cloud his judgment during his college career. Brown thought he was bigger than the team at the University of Tennessee and when he transferred to Kansas State he tried the same routine with long-time coach Bill Snyder, who might as well be college football's St. Peter at the pearly gates -- there's no way you're going to bully or sway him. 

Brown learned this fast, quit the team, and then had to apologize and ask for an opportunity to work out at the Kansas State Pro Day. The Eagles took Brown in the seventh round despite having LeSean McCoy. It was easy to see why Andy Reid took a chance on Brown: His talent might have been the best of a 2012 class that includes Trent Richardson, David Wilson, Doug Martin, Ronnie Hillman, Lamar Miller, and Alfred Morris.

Big, strong, swift, and a talented receiver with flashes of great vision, Brown has everything you want from a feature runner except two things: ball security and decision-making maturity. Both are correctable and Brown made strides during his two-year career with the Eagles.

He handled the ball 128 times as a rookie and lost 3 of 4 fumbles that year. However, he didn't have a single fumble the following year on 83 touches. The writing was on the wall for Spiller when the Bills traded a conditional fourth and also a seventh round pick to acquire Brown. Now, the third-year runner, who is only 23 years-old, gets a shot to win a long-term role in Buffalo. 

Brown's first two starts in Philadelphia were scintillating. 

 

Brown has Jackson's power and size and C.J. Spiller's cutback ability and acceleration. If he can demonstrate that his ball security woes are behind him -- and 85 touches without a fumble last year is a good start -- he could easily earn the majority of the carries ahead of Dixon. Here's a display of some of his freakish skills as a second-year NFL runner

If he plays well enough, Brown could also split time with Jackson and relegate Dixon to the No.3 role. It's also possible that Brown does well enough that the Bills encourage Jackson to take more time with his rehab.

The Jets and Chiefs will be a good test for Brown's fantasy fitness. Neither team allows more than 14 fantasy points to running backs, which makes them among the better fantasy defenses against RB depth charts this year. If Brown can perform to his ability, the Browns, Broncos, Packers, and Raiders allow between 19-23 points per RB depth chart -- a favorable schedule for a back with the potential to become a 15-20 touch player.

The best thing about Brown and Dixon is that like Jackson, they are good enough for the offense not to be too selective with its play calls when they're in the game. Ronnie Hillman and Tre Mason will likely be the hottest free agent pickups at the position this week, but if they're already on rosters or you know you'll have less to spend, Brown could be that difference maker at running back at a cheaper price. 

The risk is obviously smaller with Hillman and Mason, but the reward of having one of the Buffalo backs could be surprisingly strong. If Sigmund Bloom is correct with his Upgrade-Downgrade assessment, Dixon may be the more expensive of the two. However, savvier competition will likely take the bigger shot on Brown. As much as I've always appreciated Dixon's potential, Brown is every bit the talent of any back in the NFL today.

What we're about to find out is if he's ready. If you're playing to win rather than "not to lose," Brown has more upside than Mason and possibly equal to Hillman. If I had to choose between Brown and Hillman, I'd take the Broncos runner who has less downside in Peyton Manning's offense. However, both runners may see the return of a starter that cuts into their time on the field down the stretch. 

If you're running back needy or a strong team with enough of a budget to add a game-changing player without ditching a valuable option on your roster, see what Brown can do for you.