Second-year Buffalo Bills running back C.J. Spiller - a player that had already been labeled a bust by many members of this fan base - had a career-best game in yesterday's loss to the Tennessee Titans. Spiller finished his second start as Fred Jackson's injury fill-in with 83 rushing yards on 14 carries, 102 total scrimmage yards, and a touchdown.
Spiller was on fire in the first half. In addition to the 30-yard run and subsequent fumble recovery for a score, he had a 41-yard scoring jaunt - easily the best-looking run of his professional career - negated by an iffy holding call on Corey McIntyre. He also had a 25-yard run, and caught a fluttering Ryan Fitzpatrick pass and turned it into a 12-yard gain. At halftime, he had 11 carries for 80 yards, and 93 total yards.
The second half, however, was a different story. With the Bills playing from behind (but certainly not so far behind that abandoning the run was justifiable), Spiller carried just three times for three yards, and also dropped two passes - including a potential touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Chan Gailey is taking heat today for abandoning the run and not getting Spiller involved in his team's comeback bid, but I think there's room for debate on whether or not Spiller needed more touches in the first place.
For one, even though Spiller was running better than he had since graduating from Clemson, there were still shaky moments for the runner. His scoring play was one of them; racing down the left sideline with Titans safety Michael Griffin hot in pursuit, Spiller didn't switch the ball to his outside hand, leaving the ball inside for Griffin to poke out. Spiller saved that play with an impressive recovery, but sans that final effort, that's a play that only adds to Spiller's degrading reputation he carried entering yesterday's game.
There was also a point in the second quarter, with the Bills trailing 17-7, that Spiller was left off the field in favor of Tashard Choice. After opening the drive with four straight touches (three carries for 30 yards and a 12-yard reception), Spiller stood on the sidelines for the next five plays while Choice logged 15 rushing yards on three carries. On the sidelines, Spiller was visibly gassed, and the team is clearly not ready to place the type of workload that Jackson handled on him.
People also seem to dismiss that Spiller didn't play particularly well in the second half. The two dropped passes were disconcerting, especially the second of the two, which came on a third-and-goal play deep in Titans territory. That looked like another missed opportunity for Spiller in a clutch moment, but Stevie Johnson saved his bacon from the court of public (negative) opinion on the next play with a touchdown grab.
In the end, however, Spiller is just like any other running back: he's used to a big workload, playing and producing more consistently when the touches are plenty. I believe that the idea that Spiller hasn't been getting consistent touches throughout his career - other than in roughly a game's worth of action - is a legitimate argument, and could also be the cause of his poor second-half effort yesterday. I also believe that the Bills may be smart in easing him into a starting role; even though they lost, Spiller's performance was a confidence-builder after 25 rough outings to open his career. It may make sense in the long run to preserve that status, rather than force-feeding him and complementing a great half with another ugly one.
Here's my plea: before vilifying Gailey for Spiller's low second-half production, consider all the factors. Spiller is still very rough around the edges, and still very much a work in progress. Yes, he played well. Maybe that's the only step he could've taken yesterday, and maybe he contributed all he was going to contribute. It's one game. I'm still waiting to see if Spiller can be smarter and engender more confidence in his coaches before ripping Gailey to shreds for being cautious with his approach here. Gailey must walk a thin line in developing Spiller; it's entirely plausible that he saw the idea of more touches yesterday as counter-productive to his progress.