If you have not yet picked up your copy of the 2012 Football Outsiders Almanac, do yourself a favor and get one. Particularly if you like NFL preview magazines, FO's offers unique insights and tidbits that you won't find anywhere else.
One such tidbit from this year's edition: did you know that the Buffalo Bills were actually better running out of two-back sets (6.2 yards per carry) than they were out of one-back, spread formations (4.9 yards per carry)?
A couple of things here: first, this might give us a clue as to why Chan Gailey is anxious to expand the role of the fullback in his offense. Second: if the Bills only ran from two-back sets on 21 percent of their runs, what percentage of those two-back sets forgot the fullback altogether and featured both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller?
"We don't have that specific information, but my sense from watching the games was that not many of those runs occurred when Jackson and Spiller were both in the lineup," says Sean McCormick, who authored the Bills chapter in this year's Almanac.
Okay, fine. The Bills ran well out of two-back sets, and most of those featured a fullback. This little statistical gem, then, doesn't help Gailey accomplish one of his trickier goals for the season and get Jackson and Spiller on the field simultaneously. How, then, does that happen? I asked McCormick for his opinion.
"Ideally you would see Spiller as a moveable chess piece in the mold of Reggie Bush or Darren Sproles, which would allow him to line up as a receiver while Jackson operated out of the backfield," McCormick writes, "but Spiller hasn't established himself as a consistent route runner yet. Jackson was actually the better receiver of the two last year, but both finished the season in the top twelve in Receiving DYAR by running backs."
My question for the masses today: if Jackson is the better receiver (and I think most fans could agree with that using a simple eye test), why not use him at receiver and leave Spiller lined up in the backfield? It's a look we've seen before, a look that the team has already practiced in camp this year, and one that, in some ways, may be more logical.
If Gailey's goal really is to get Spiller and Jackson onto the field together more often, splitting Jackson out wide may be a great way of saving his 31-year-old star running back a little wear and tear. Letting Spiller log carries while leaving Jackson in a position to utilize his most underrated asset - his route-running and receiving abilities - may also be the best way to use the duo when they're in the same personnel package. It's been the common theme for the smaller, quicker back to play receiver in this type of role - McCormick mentions Sproles and Bush as prime examples - but in Buffalo, the opposite has been true before, and may be the smarter play.
Either way, FO may be onto something here: the Bills spread the ball to run, and the novelty of the two-back set in that system may be the reason for their success running from it. But with such excellent production from that particular package, it's worth further exploring heading into the 2012 season - particularly as the team plans on salting away more games late in the fourth quarter.