When you think about the 2009 Buffalo Bills, the phrase "enviable depth" probably is not the first thing that comes to mind. With the offensive line in tatters and more than a handful of key players on injured reserve, the team is thin in depth nearly across the board. These circumstances only underscore the how lucky the Bills are to have two legitimate starters in the backfield. Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson have both shown they can lead an offense - so the question is what should we do with them?
When thinking about these two players, three major questions come to mind: who should start in the backfield, how should Marshawn and Fred be used this year, and how should they be used in 2010 and beyond?
1) Who should start now?
In his four games as the feature back (Games 1-3, 11), Fred Jackson has 364 rushing yards, 177 receiving yards, and three touchdowns. To put that in context, in those four games, Jackson has a 4.8 yards per carry average, which would put him at number 10 in the NFL in that category. That "stat" is obviously a bit of a stretch given the small sample size, but don't forget it also came behind one of the NFL's most porous offensive lines.
By contrast, in the seven games where Fred and Marshawn split the carries more evenly, Fred's yards per carry dropped to 3.5 and he scored no touchdowns. Even with that lower average, Fred has outperformed Marshawn in those games. Marshawn has 3.1 yards per carry on the season. For those of you who love percentages, Fred has rushed for more than 60% of his yards on just 53% of his attempts when he has been the featured back.
So what gives? The conventional wisdom is that a running back by committee keeps both backs fresh and the change of pace throws off the defense to the benefit of both backs. Fred provided his own take after this week's game, saying, "Running backs need touches to get into a rhythm. Whenever you do that with myself or Marshawn, it's one of those things that we feed off of."
Fred has proven to be the more effective back throughout the season, enhanced even further when he is used as a feature back. Fewell obviously recognized this in games and in practices and tested the theory this week. By all accounts it was a successful experiment and you have to expect that Jackson will continue to see the bulk of the carries through the remainder of the year - as I believe he has earned.
2) How should the two backs be used this year?
To contradict the stats and my previous statement, there is definitely value to having two quality backs. Even though Marshawn has not performed to his top ability this season, he has proven that he can be an outstanding running back in this league. As Fred mentions, if the Bills had given Marshawn the bulk of the carries, perhaps he would also show a signifiant improvement over his current stats. So then what to do with him?
This year, keep on sprinkling him into the mix. He is a play-maker and, if we have learned anything over the last few games, it's that if you want to win the NFL, you need to get the ball to your play-makers. For being a bruising runner, Marshawn has shown some soft hands and the ability to make guys miss in space. The biggest knock against him this year, in my opinion, is all of the dancing he does behind the line that results in negative yards. Use him in the short passing game where he can get out in space and make guys miss or just bowl over them. Also, I think all of us would be excited to see a little bit more of the two-back set. Even though Marshawn isn't having his best statistical year, you know he is still a player that puts a little bit of fear in opposing defenses. Why not get him on the field even if he isn't going to be the feature back?
And then, of course, there is depth. Injuries happen. Having a guy like Lynch coming off the bench is a luxury very few NFL teams enjoy. Which leads into the next question...
3) What to do in 2010 and beyond?
In my mind, this is the $64K question. Lynch is in year three of his five-year rookie contract. Jackson is in year one of a four-year contract extension he got this past spring. Jackson is making an estimated $2M a year to Lynch's $4M. From a contract standpoint, both guys are locked in for a few more years (at what I consider to be pretty reasonable prices).
But as much as I like him and as valuable as he is... I believe Lynch is a candidate for a trade. For a team with so many holes, having two starting (and maybe even Pro Bowl caliber) running backs is a luxury that doesn't quite make sense, particularly when you consider the fact that the two backs actually seem to play better without each other. Dealing a feature player is never easy in the NFL, especially one that has a good amount of off the field baggage. Even so, I believe that the next Bills front office should give a long hard look at the trade market as a potential solution to some of the team's current personnel gaps. When you are looking for a starting QB, a handful of offensive linemen, and maybe a couple of LB's, you have to consider spreading out your talent and putting it in places where they can all be on the field all the time. After all, you can't make plays from the sideline and for now that is the best place for Marshawn to be.
I will take a pass on all of the obvious follow-ups ( what do you do then for RB depth, do you go for a straight-up trade or target draft picks, is moving Marshawn even a good idea, etc) and leave those to you... so here is the question, what do you think we should do with Marshawn?