I need to get a few things off of my chest, in order that my comments here are put into perspective as it relates to Chan Gailey and the Buffalo Bills offense. Let me start by saying that, having watched the Bills since the mid 1960s (perhaps I cannot remember the early 1960s but I was kicking something around the house even then), I remember many bad offensive teams, and I remember fewer good offensive teams, and even fewer great offensive teams.
But I do know this, the running game has always been central to the great offensive teams the Buffalo Bills have fielded. Jim Kelly, I believe, would not have been a great Quarterback were it not for an outstanding running game and pass receiving running back in Thurman Thomas, and his great backup for many years, Kenneth Davis. OJ Simpson was the Bills offense for many years under mainly Joe Ferguson, who could throw a good ball, and often did.
Teams in the NFL need to win most of their games at home in order to have a winning record, and the Bills could win all of their games at home given their familiarity with the extreme nature of the weather in Buffalo (lots of wind, rain, snow) for the second half or more of the season. Hence, it should be common sense for any coach worth his weight in wins, to develop the best running game possible, and rely heavily on that running game no matter what the defense attempts to do to your offense.
Below, I discuss a few of the key elements that the current Buffalo Bills offense has, good and bad, that reinforce this perspective on running the ball and running backs in winning football games and winning championships.
The current head coach of the Buffalo Bills, Chan Gailey, has demonstrated a creative offensive mind. He has also demonstrated a tendency to lose his mind during the heat of the battle, such as occurred this past Sunday in Arizona against the Cardinals with his now infamous wildcat bomb late in the 4th quarter, which almost cost the Bills the game. One of the obvious criticisms of this decision was that the Bills had run the ball well against an excellent run defense in the Cardinals.
Gailey's stock response has always been: when they bring their safeties down in the box we do not like to run it, and they were bringing their safeties down into the box closer and closer as the game went on, hence the decision to throw the wildcat bomb, which Gailey thought would be wide open down the middle of the field. We know the results of that play.
But I am less concerned with revisiting the details of why that wildcat bomb failed and more concerned about why Gailey feels he needs to respond with the pass when the other team brings the safeties down closer into the box. Indeed, watching the highlights of the game, it is quite clear that one of the dangers for the defense in bringing their defensive backs too close to the line is when CJ Spiller breaks free: there is no one to catch him. CJ Spiller juked the Cardinals safety Wilson several times during the game within 5-6 yards of the line of scrimmage, with one for a TD and another for a big gainer.
Closer examination of the game would be required to determine what the Bills were averaging on the ground when the Cardinals were cheating against the run, but it is also the case that with a fake reverse to CJ Spiller, even Brad Smith had a 16 yard run, one of his few carries, down to the one yard line, setting up a one yard plunge with Kyle Williams inserted into the lineup as an additional goal line blocker, by Freddie Jackson. This all goes to show that Gailey has shown an ability to run well even when the other team is expecting it. He does not need to throw the ball when the other team is cheating against the run, he chooses to do so for other reasons.
Even though a runner like CJ Spiller presents problems for a defense overloading the line of scrimmage, there is another elegant, simple, and successful solution to the problems created for the offense when a team is overloading the line against the run: the more regular use of the fullback as an extra blocker.
Indeed, last week, against the great run defense of the San Francisco 49ers, the NY Giants, reigning NFL Champions, used their fullback close to 50 percent of the time on offensive plays. They destroyed the 49ers defense on the run and the pass. Of course, they have an elite QB in Eli Manning, but still the point should be clear: if the best team in the NFL with an elite franchise QB thinks it is wise to run their offense with a fullback almost 50 percent of the time against an elite defense like the 49ers, why not the Buffalo Bills?
"Full Back: Henry Hynoski, NYG (+2.0)
Seeing nearly 50% of the Giants’ offensive snaps, Hynoski was exceptional getting to the second level and winning his battles with the 49ers’ inside linebackers."( Player of the Week at Fullback -Pro Football Focus)
The essence of the idea is simple: when you do not have an elite franchise QB, and you have an elite running back or two (as is the case for the Buffalo Bills), you should do everything in your power to exploit your offensive strength, and minimize the risk of becoming dependent on your offensive weakness (in this case the medium and long passing game).
Moreover, it seems clear that the Bills offensive line is very good, and even better as run blockers than pass blockers. With CJ Spiller running for almost 8 yards per carry, it seems laughable that Chan Gailey chooses to abandon the run because the other team brings an extra safety down into the box.
I say, let them bring nine men into the box, utilize your fullback as a lead blocker, and run the ball down their throats.
Because when the wind blows, and all hell freezes over in Buffalo in December, I want the Bills to be pounding the rock, with relentless efficiency, no matter what the defense does.
If history is any guide, the running game and running backs win championships for the Bills in Buffalo, and with a decent defense, make the team close to unbeatable at The Ralph.
Chan Gailey has the smarts to design creative offensive schemes to move the ball for the Bills, even without an elite QB. But the question many fans and pundits are asking is the following: does Chan Gailey have the wisdom and strategic and tactical sobriety to accept the power of the historical record: running the ball, no matter what, remains the first and best option for winning football in Buffalo.
Given the additional fact that Chan Gailey is blessed to have arguably the best running back since Thurman Thomas, and the most dynamic and explosive runner since OJ Simpson in CJ Spiller, there are no excuses at this stage of the process. Chan Gailey must develop a scheme, or set of schemes, to take advantage of his running backs and his running game when the other team brings additional defensive backs down close to the line of scrimmage.