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Conversation: 'Beast Mode' is back, but what role awaits?

jri111: Marshawn Lynch has missed the first three games of the 2009 season thanks to a suspension handed down by Commissioner Roger Goodell this past off-season.  The suspension is now over, and Lynch returns just in time to help the struggling Buffalo Bills (1-2) this Sunday against their hated division rivals, the Miami Dolphins.  Although Lynch may now be eligible, his old position hasn't just been sitting around waiting for his return.  In 2008, Lynch led the team in carries (250), yards (1,036) and touchdowns (8), serving as the team's primary back.  In contrast, Lynch's backup, Fred Jackson, had all of 130 carries in 2008.  But this is 2009, and Freddie Jackson has been one of Buffalo's top playmakers in the first three games of this young season.  Jackson is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (291), is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and leads the team in receptions (15).  As Buffalo's primary back, Jackson has forced defenses to account for him.  It is clear that Buffalo's success this season will have a lot to do with Jackson's ability to play at a consistently high level.  With Jackson's success, what does that mean for Lynch when he returns to the playing field on Sunday?  Will he now play second fiddle to his former backup?

poz: It is necessary to start by acknowledging how difficult it is to send a player who has played as well as Fred Jackson to the bench after such a stellar three weeks of action. Nonetheless, for all the stats you pointed out on Jackson's behalf, its just as difficult to keep a guy like Marshawn Lynch off the field after his two-year performance. Never playing a full 16-game slate, Lynch has still produced at least 1,036 yards in each of the two seasons of his young career, given the team 16 scores, and has only fumbled the rock twice and lost one in each of his two first years. By contrast, Jackson has already fumbled twice and lost a fumble in just three games! Let's also remember that Jackson, for all his numbers, has yet to score a ground touchdown in three games. This is not to put down Jackson; I have a signed picture of him in my house. Rather it's a reminder of how important Marshawn is to this team - he can also break out the big one on a far more frequent basis than Fred, and given our Jekyll and Hyde passing attack, that is crucial. In my opinion, Marshawn should get fewer carries this week, but by the Browns game, it's time for an even 50/50 split. From there, you have to remember one more essential stat to this discussion: Marshawn is only 23 and while Fred's lack of wear and tear makes him a young and fresh 28, he will nonetheless be 30 in two years. Do you risk isolating Lynch by not giving him more carries than Fred?

jri111:  All points well taken, but I believe there is another element that you may not have considered:  Buffalo has a new offense this year.  Yes, the terminology may be the same and the plays are similar, but the tempo has changed drastically.  Lynch is a between-the-tackles runner, and although he was touted as a great pass-catcher out of college, he has only displayed marginal receiving skills over the past two seasons.  Not really the ideal back for a fast-paced, no-huddle offense.  Jackson, on the other hand, is a runner with a slicing style and soft hands, arguably a much better fit for Buffalo's offense.  All said though, you are right.  Lynch and Jackson should split the carries about 50-50, which in my mind, is a win-win.  Less carries means more rested ball carriers.  If Alex Van Pelt plays his cards right, he will have two fresh backs to pound a tired defense late in fourth quarters.  Now if only he can get his two prized receivers involved... 


poz:  Interesting concept that Jackson is a better fit for AVP's scheme, and while what you say has some truth to it, I think your last comment may be the most telling of why we need Marshawn to get more carries. As you pointed out, AVP needs to find a way to get our two receivers the ball, and the fact that he hasn't may indicate it's because teams are still all over them and willing to give Jackson the quick passes he has proven to be so good at working with rather than let Terrell Owens and Lee Evans run wild. Marshawn can change that precisely because he is a between-the-tackles runner who can break a big one at any time. Let's not ignore the fact that at the end of the day, Fred averaged 5.8 ypc on the ground against the Bucs, while against New England and New Orleans, he put up 3.8 and 3.9-yard averages. Against the Bucs is when he broke out for a 43-yarder, too, while his longest against NE and NO were 16 and 12, respectively. Fred is an amazing playmaker, but he seems to do his best damage through the air and fighting for tough small gainers - and teams appear willing to concede that. Until teams start fearing our ability to smash them up the gut and punish them for long runs repeatedly if they don't play more disciplined football, they will continue to shut down T.O. and Lee. Remember, Lynch can rattle off 28, 18, and 24 yarders in the same game if teams don't respect him; we have seen him do it in the past. At the end of the day, we are going to need them both. Like you said, two fresh runners will destroy defenses late, and I'm betting two of the toughest, never-say-die runners in the league will both churn out big gainers if they are both rested.

jri111:  I think you overestimate Marshawn's big play ability.  Lynch's career long is only 56 yards, and I don't think I have ever heard anybody use the phrase "home run threat" to describe him.  Also, Lynch added over ten pounds to his frame this past off-season.  I did not see all of his pre-season snaps, but from what I saw, he looked noticeably slower.  I have mentioned this before in passing, but I fear the extra weight will ultimately be a bad thing for Marshawn. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Beast Mode and there is no denying that Buffalo's offense is better with Lynch in the fold, but it will be a much more reduced role than it was in 2008 (where he had nearly twice as many carries as Jackson).  Lynch and Jackson are both playmakers and the Bills needs to find ways to get them both the ball.  That's on the offensive coordinator and the quarterback.  It sounds relatively simple and a "good" problem to have, but I'm betting T.O. would disagree right about now.

poz:  Extra weight on a successful running back is always scary.  Am I correct in that Adrian Peterson was going to do a similar thing but was talked out of it? My final plug for Marshawn will be to say that when he was in the game, we never had the problem of lacking an offensive identity. He was going to get the rock, he was going to jam it down your throat, and you had to bring two or three guys to bring him down. I think our offense has been without an identity this year, and his return could do wonders for the play action and T.O. Here is my vision for what the offense should look like with Marshawn back: I can see us frequently running a pro set, substituting out the fullback split behind the QB with a second RB (essentially placing Marshawn and Fred split out behind Trent while using Lee and T.O. on opposite sides of the field) and allowing us to put in Derek Fine or Shawn Nelson depending on whether we wanted to help the tackle with blocking or put out the threat of a third pass-catcher. This can be used in the no-huddle while continuing to run our normal plays and having Marshawn and Fred running in and out of the game and using them interchangeably on the rest. They are both good pass catchers and tough runners so they won't require us using them for specific purposes; I just hope we can use them simultaneously on at least a third of the offensive plays called. Is that asking too much? What's your vision for this offense with Marshawn back?

jri111:  Ultimately, I'm up for any offense that puts points on the board.  I would love to see them in the game at the same time, but I don't think it's necessary to have a potent offense.  Whether it's Jackson, Lynch, or both in the game, the Bills need to put the ball in the hands of their playmakers.  In the end, this rests on the shoulders of another Bills offensive player that has barely been mentioned in our conversation: Trent Edwards.  Of course, that's another conversation for another time!