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Lynch, Jackson, Rhodes remain heartbeat of Bills offense

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Even though NFL pre-season games are largely meaningless, the Buffalo Bills' first-team offensive unit - oh, heck, the offense as a whole, really - has been the centerpiece of a media hailstorm surrounding their lackadaisical pre-season performances.  Three points in nine drives (four of which ended in turnovers) for the starting offense will do that.

While most of the attention has been focused on QB Trent Edwards, the receiving corps that is currently stumping along without its own centerpiece (Terrell Owens), and a re-shuffled offensive line that is still very much a work in progress, very few people are talking about the running back stable - a trio that ranks amongst the NFL's deepest and most experienced running back units..

Set aside the fact that Marshawn Lynch will miss the first three games of the season.  Forget about Fred Jackson's wrist injury, too; barring a setback, he looks like he'll be ready for the Bills' September 14 season opener in New England.  Lynch, Jackson and Dominic Rhodes - who himself has missed time with a knee injury he has since recovered from - have been equally unproductive when compared to the rest of their offensive teammates.  Veterans all, the general sentiment is that when the footballs start flying for real, this trio will perform as they always have as individuals - admirably.  They'd better perform - with all of the change going on with the rest of the offense, these three running backs carry added importance into the 2009 season.

Pre-season production woes
I suspect that many will point to the aforementioned offensive line and its various inconsistencies as the main reason for the below three stat lines.  Is it unfair to expect much more production from the running backs without first seeing improvement in the trenches? Either way, these stat lines are hardly fun to look at:

Lynch (3 games): 14 carries, 29 yards; 3 catches, 8 yards
Jackson (3 games): 15 carries, 38 yards; 3 catches, 22 yards, fumble lost
Rhodes (2 games): 11 carries, 51 yards, TD; muffed punt

I spent a good chunk of this morning talking up the idea that opinions shouldn't change based on pre-season performances.  I firmly believe that.  As such, I'm still confident that this group will be able to produce yardage when the real games begin, even as Lynch serves his suspension.  For two years, amidst some truly horrifying offensive performances, Lynch and Jackson have been the only offensive players that produced consistent, hard-earned results.  (Rhodes is cut from the same cloth.)  That counts for much, much more than some sub par pre-season performances.

Yet there are - and in Lynch's case, have been for some time - some reasons for concern that have little to do with the pre-season.  There is unquestionable talent and depth at this position, but how much can reasonably be expected of any back playing behind a work-in-progress offensive line? How much will Jackson's wrist injury hamper his ability to handle the ball early in the season? Is Rhodes capable of handling the full rushing load if Jackson's injury flares up? How will the three backs deal with reduced roles once all three are available full-time?

Ball-carriers remain heartbeat of offense
Amidst an offense that underwent some seriously radical changes this off-season, the running backs have remained the constant, even if they've received further fortifications in the form of Rhodes.  Edwards is commanding a no-huddle attack; his responsibilities have therefore changed dramatically.  Once Owens' sprained toe allows him to return to the lineup, the receiving corps will look drastically different.  No one's sure yet exactly what the role of the tight end will look like in this offense.  We've mentioned the line enough.

While all of that change takes its time to gel into whatever it turns out to be, the running backs will be counted on to carry the offense - again.  Lynch and Jackson are still the same players - tough, physical, diversely skilled, and difficult to bring down.  Rhodes gives the team a third option that can do many of the same things, though time will tell if he's got as much fight in him as either Marshawn or Freddie.  They are the heart and soul of this offense - and, as this team isn't going anywhere without a productive offense, an argument can be made that they're the heart and soul of the team.

It therefore confuses me that the running game is left out of discussions.  Hence this post.  This is a crowded backfield at the best of times, but to start the season, there are legitimate question marks.  How do you perceive the running back situation at the moment? Do you see any potential issues? What are your thoughts on each back's pre-season performances?