The Buffalo Bills have a rich tradition of fielding excellent running backs. The dynamic duo of Cookie Gilchrist and Wray Carlton helped Buffalo win consecutive AFL Championships in 1964 and 1965. O.J. Simpson set a single-season rushing record and was really the only player of note on some terrible Bills teams in the '70s. Joe Cribbs had some outstanding seasons in the '80s, and, of course, the gold standard is Thurman Thomas, a phenomenal all-purpose back now enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Buffalo is a blue-collar city. It's a city that prides itself on its "lunch pail" attitude - work hard, play hard, no excuses. Bills fans want their football team to embody those characteristics. Run the ball, play tough, physical defense. Winning ugly is fine, because glamor isn't part of the fabric of this city. Perhaps that's why running backs in particular are remembered so fondly in Buffalo.
The current Bills, struggling to find an identity offensively, have two dependable backs in Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson. Each player's running style, when they're on form, fits in with the mentality of the city and of its ideal football team - work hard until you're down, then get back up and work hard again. In 2007 and 2008, Lynch and Jackson established themselves as one of the better running back duos in the league. This season, thanks to a combination of factors, the two backs - and Buffalo's rushing offense on the whole - have been a tremendous disappointment.
Running by the numbers
Mid-way through the season, the Bills have the NFL's No. 19-ranked rushing attack. The Bills rush for an average of 110 yards per game - which, given the overall ineptitude of the offense, isn't nearly as bad as it could be. Jackson started the season out hot, rushing for 291 yards in the team's first three games. In the five since, he's picked up just 154 yards as he and Lynch began splitting carries.
Lynch served a suspension to start the season, and ever since his return in Week 4, he's struggled to get his game up to par. Lynch is currently averaging just 3.1 yards per carry on 70 carries. He has yet to rush for more than 69 yards in a single game this season.
The yards have been tough to come by, for certain, but touchdowns are a different animal entirely. Only two teams have rushed for fewer touchdowns than Buffalo this season: the 1-7 Kansas City Chiefs, and the 1-7 St. Louis Rams. Buffalo's two rushing touchdowns in eight games is pathetic enough, but it's made worse by the fact that receiver Terrell Owens scored one of those on a reverse. Lynch is the only Bills running back to find paydirt on the ground this season.
Reasons behind the decline
There are plenty of reasons why the Bills have struggled to run the ball this season, and there really isn't any need to flesh those issues out beyond bullet points.
- A completely re-tooled offensive line that is re-defining the term "inconsistent."
- Yet another season in which the Bills have been far too pass-happy offensively in key situations.
- No offensive identity.
- Lynch's three-game suspension delaying the ability to find a carry rotation that works.
- The inability of either back to "get hot" when both have been in the lineup.
Buffalo has clearly struggled to pass the ball this season, and part of the reason for that - besides the obvious issues of poor quarterback play and the offensive line - has been the lack of a threat from the running game. The Bills' opponents have not yet spent an entire game stacking the box and daring them to win the game over the top, because the Bills still, no matter which way you slice it, have two receivers that can kill you deep. Even while facing seven-man fronts on the vast majority of their snaps, the Bills still can't get their running game going.
During the bye week, sustaining drives was a key point of emphasis for the team. The offense has got to find ways to not only score more points, but to stay on the field to give their defensive teammates a chance to rest up. That's been an issue all season, and again, the running game is part of the reason; very infrequently do the Bills find themselves in third-and-manageable situations, because their running on first and second downs has been abysmal.
It's easy to overlook the Bills' rushing issues, because in general, Lynch and Jackson have been far less problematic for the offense than has the quarterback, offensive line, receivers dropping balls, and all of the other issues we've discussed to death over the last two weeks. But if you don't have balance offensively, you're not likely to do much damage on game days. Yes, Buffalo needs to make bigger plays in the passing game and play much better overall in that department, but it's just as critical that they finally live up to their promise as a rushing offense, as well.