Whether you're a fan of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's decision to uphold the three-game suspension of Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch, the undeniable truth is that the Bills have to deal with it. It's not that the team hasn't been dealing with it; quite the opposite, in fact. Dominic Rhodes was signed for a reason - the team wanted two capable backs (one to team with Fred Jackson) during Lynch's absence. The team, to their credit, saw this development happening.
Even still, the loss is a blow for Buffalo's offense, even if it's only a temporary loss. There should be no mistake, also, that Lynch will assume No. 1 back duties upon his return to the lineup - he is clearly Buffalo's most dynamic player in the backfield. Here's how Buffalo will cope in the interim.
During Lynch's suspension
This is, strangely, the easy part to figure out. Simply put, Jackson will be assuming Lynch's usual role in the offense, and veteran addition Rhodes will pick up where Jackson left Off as option 1A. In 2008, Lynch touched the ball 297 times in 15 games, a hair under 20 touches per game. Jackson will undertake that workload. Meanwhile, Jackson's 2008 workload consisted of roughly 10 touches per game. Rhodes will now get those touches.
It's really that simple. The idea that Jackson will become a traditional "workhorse" in Lynch's absence is highly unlikely; Jackson has logged double digit carries only seven times in his career, and has only crossed the 20-carry barrier once (in the last game he played, the season finale loss to New England). It's not that Jackson can't be a 20-plus carry per game back, it's that the Bills simply won't ask him to do that. Lynch logged more than 20 carries just four times in 2008. Jackson might not do it once in his three games as the starter.
In short, you'll see a lot of Jackson and Rhodes, just as we saw a lot of Lynch and Jackson last season. The only difference is that without Lynch, the Bills will lack any semblance of a home run dimension from their backfield. There shouldn't be a noticeable drop-off in any other area. There seems to be a public perception that Jackson is Lynch's equal; believe me when I tell you that's not the case. Jackson is an excellent football player. Lynch is, quite simply, just better. He does more for your offense, and he's a much more dangerous threat to put the ball in the end zone.
When Lynch returns
Fortunately for Buffalo, Lynch isn't gone forever. Theoretically, when Lynch returns, he and Jackson could return to their pre-defined roles - but where does that leave Rhodes? He's a capable playmaker, and no matter how deep you are at a position, you can't leave capable playmakers on the bench. Rhodes will see field time, even with Lynch and Jackson seeing field time as well. He's rarely played anything lower than second fiddle in his career; we're talking about a guy who touched the ball 267 times as an undrafted free agent in his rookie season.
One wrinkle the Bills have been playing with is playing Jackson in the slot as a receiver. He has a great set of hands, is a tough matchup for linebackers, and can turn it upfield after the catch. (Rhodes has this ability, too, but Jackson has been getting all the pre-season work in that department.) The team has also experimented with a Wildcat formation in which Jackson takes the snap, flanked by Lynch and Rhodes. The Wildcat is not, however, expected to be a big part of Buffalo's offensive attack, and with Roscoe Parrish the likely "quarterback" in those scenarios, this doesn't seem like a very realistic option to get all three backs playing time.
In reality, however, getting touches for all three players should not be a major concern. Running backs wear down. Lynch has yet to make it through an entire season healthy. Rhodes himself has been dinged from time to time. An abundance of riches is hardly a problem at the running back position. The only thing we know for sure right now, however, is what the rotation will look like while Lynch sits out.