I've got to get a few things off my chest before I get into more detailed arguments of why I think the Buffalo Bills should have traded Marshawn Lynch, and why I think they'll move him next off-season.
Fred Jackson is not 30. People need to stop calling him a 30-year-old running back. A handful of months ago, Fred Jackson was 28. He'll still be 30 when Lynch's contract expires. Jackson is one year older than backs that nobody would consider old, like Ronnie Brown and Michael Turner. Two of the top ten runners last season were practically in their mid-30s (Ricky Williams and Thomas Jones). Jackson is 29, will be 29 for the entire 2010 season, and is really unlikely to hit the 30-year-old wall that speed backs or players who have spent their whole career as the feature back tend to hit.
I don't hate Marshawn Lynch. The thought process behind this article is, I hope, entirely rational. There's no vendetta here. There's no emotion in this conclusion. That Lynch has been arrested twice or that I believe he doesn't really get it off the field are small pieces of why I think he's got more value as a couple of mid-to-late-round picks then he does as a Bill. Please don't respond to this post by asking me why I don't like Marshawn Lynch, because I don't really care whether he's a saint or a moron off the field one tenth as much as I care about what he does on the field.
I don't want to cut Lynch. My goal here isn't to convince people that the Bills are better off without Lynch. I simply think that the smart play at this point is to take some picks, if you can get them, and not only continue to build for the future, but build with players who want to be in Buffalo and are definitely here long term.
The first thing I'll attempt to establish is that Jackson is the better running back. I've been shocked to see how many people think that Lynch is the best traditional running back on the roster. People who think Lynch is better suited to handle a traditional feature back role might be surprised to see that the numbers don't back that belief up.
First and ten. Marshawn has 353 career carries that have come in the standard first down and long scenario. He's averaged 4.26 yards per carry in that situation. Jackson has 218 carries on first and long and has averaged 4.56 yards per carry. That's a fairly substantial difference, considering how big the sample size is and that first and ten should be a starting back's bread and butter.
Wearing defenses down. Another false belief is that Marshawn can wear a defense down and is better suited to handle a large workload than Jackson is. In the first five carries that Lynch receives in a game, he's averaged 4.5 yards per carry, while Jackson has only picked up 4.15 yards per carry. That's with almost 200 carries for each player being recorded, so it's a large sample. In carries 6-10, Lynch's average drops way down to 3.49 yards per carry, and that's over 177 career carries. Jackson's numbers trend upwards, as he averages 4.62 yards per carry in that area.
This is where Jackson's sample starts to shrink, as he's picked up 4.56 yards per carry on 66 carries that register as carries 11-15 through a game, and he's averaged an impressive 5.69 yards on carries over 15 in a game, although he's only had 52 career carries in that circumstance. Lynch's numbers continue to be all over the place, as his average bounces back up to a total of 4.06 yards per carry on 140 career carries on 11-5, but drops back down under 4 yards per carry on every carry past 15 in a game. Lynch has averaged 3.93 yards per carry over 136 carries when he's already had 15 carries in a game.
Is there any chance that Lynch's tackle-breaking style wears him down more than it wears down the defense, and that Jackson's slippery, hit-avoiding style keeps him fresh throughout the game? Jackson is more effective on first down and more effective as the game goes on than Lynch is. He's the player more suited for a traditional 15-carry-per-game role, while Lynch is apparently at his best with a lighter workload. If anybody is curious, here's the breakdown in table form, and I've also included second downs to highlight that Jackson is better in the bulk of the starting running back's roles. Let's also consider that Jackson had most of his carries in a tougher situation than Lynch had most of his. In Marshawn's supposedly good season, he had semi-decent QB play and an OL that returned its starters, stayed pretty healthy, and was a better group than what Jackson ran behind last season.
Another argument against Jackson is that he's not a big play guy. That's completely true, with Jackson only gaining 20+ yards 11 times in 425 career carries. Problem is, Lynch is even worse. Marshawn has got 13 carries of 20 plus yards, and he's got 650 carries. If anything, those numbers point out that the Bills need to use Spiller. I don't understand why some people around here have resigned Spiller to a bit role of 100 carries per season or less. The Bills need to use Spiller as a running back, and every time he touches the ball can't be on a gimmicky situation or as a returner or slot WR. That leaves me wondering how people think the Bills can actually use both Jackson and Lynch in prominent roles. To me, it seems impossible. When has a team ever successfully utilized three backs in significant roles on a game-to-game basis? New Orleans didn't do it last season, as Reggie Bush averaged fewer than three carries per game when both Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas were healthy. Any argument along the lines of "the Bills will find a way to use them all" or "they can play the hot hand" is a cop-out. How long in each game will it be before Buffalo knows who has the hot hand? If they give each back five carries, then it's already the third quarter before they know who is running well. And I've already pointed out that Lynch has gotten worse over the course of games, while Jackson has gotten better. The Bills will get about 25 carries per game, and that isn't enough for three players to share without carving out specific roles.
Everything other than Lynch's draft status points to Marshawn being this team's short yardage back next season. Depending on what we consider to be short yardage, that ends up being about 10-20% of the rushing attempts. Over the last few years, Jackson and Lynch have been inside the 10-yard line or in short yardage situation for about 10% of their carries. If we were to expand Lynch's role to everything inside the red zone, then it's in the 17-20% range (and those could be optimistic numbers). In my opinion, that right there is what Lynch will realistically offer this team, and why it's too late to move him now. That's a role that somebody has to play, and it's not a role that anybody on the roster other than Lynch is likely to excel at. Unless people want to see Joique Bell on third and one or Spiller near the goal line, let's not overreact to any potential Lynch shenanigans and start screaming for the Bills to cut him.
I would have traded Lynch because I think that short yardage role would have been a very easy one to fill. Just glancing around the situational stats from bigger runners who are used in that role and also play FB or back up a starter, a lot of players can do what I believe Lynch will be asked to do, and many of them can do it better than Lynch. I think a trio of Jackson, Spiller and a late round rookie like Anthony Dixon or Jonathon Dwyer, or a free agent like Mike Bell, would be every bit as productive as the Bills' current backfield. So, why not get a third-rounder or a four and a five for Lynch if, statistically, Buffalo's running game could have been the same without him?
Everybody who doesn't want to trade Lynch will respond to that argument by claiming that he's better than a third-round pick, but that's not how value works. If the Bills had a young Peyton Manning, he'd be invaluable, right? A team wouldn't have enough players and draft picks to pry him off your roster. But what if you had two young Peyton Mannings? Wouldn't what you would be willing to accept be significantly less? Lynch's value is comprised of 50% what he could offer to a team looking to acquire him and 50% what his role would be here in Buffalo.
Brian may be unwilling to predict the likelihood of Lynch re-signing in Buffalo, but I'm not. I think it's highly unlikely that the currently disgruntled RB who, at best, will have a tough time reaching the performance incentives in his contract, has already requested a trade, and would be re-signing to still share a backfield with Jackson and Spiller, will want to return to Buffalo. In my opinion, Marshawn already feels slighted by Buffalo. I think he feels like he was very underpaid and under-utilized last season and that feeling could grow until it morphs into something that is literally unhealthy. Lynch has made statements about how he feels the police treat him differently here and how they, along with his neighbors, don't understand him. For me, his age becomes irrelevant, because I think he's a goner after this contract is up. Buffalo can hold on to Lynch and hope for the best, but I thought it was time to trade a short yardage back who will only be here for a couple (losing) seasons for something that could actually be of value down the road. Even if something like a fourth-round pick only has a 10-15% chance of being a great player, I'll roll the dice with that and another pick to replace Lynch's role.
I'll end with a question as to why Lynch is different. Jason Peters wanted out of Buffalo and that was met with venom and hatred. People were furious that Peters would dare hold out. I wasn't emotional with the Peters situation, but I'm still confused as to where that emotion is with Lynch? We've got a running back who has been arrested twice. Lynch seems to have this superstar ego where he doesn't understand that he has to play by the same rules as everybody else. He didn't understand why the cops would give him a hard time for bringing his own alcohol into a bar. He doesn't understand why he would get pulled over for pumping up his stereo to levels that 99% of the community would find annoying to the point of being rude. He doesn't understand why other people in his condo can own a dog, but he's not allowed to own a pit bull. Why are people so defensive over a four-yard-per-carry running back who doesn't seem to get it off the field, and doesn't want to be in Buffalo or play for the Bills? If Lynch was some third-round pick who played linebacker, wouldn't people despise him? But since he plays a high-profile position and looks great doing it (even if it's only because his tackle breaking is more noticeable than Jackson's balance, instincts and vision), people defend him. He doesn't want to be a Bill. Why do people want him to be one? I guess I just don't get it.