One of the narratives of the 2021 offseason surrounding this Buffalo Bills team is the potential for improvement from the running game. With the same offensive coordinator returning in Brian Daboll and an almost identical offensive line from 2020, the attention turned to running back additions leading up to the NFL Draft. Although a potential addition of former Clemson running back Travis Etienne kept Bills Mafia occupied through many podcasts and articles prior to April 29, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him in front of the Bills at pick 25 overall. While the conversation around Etienne centered around his dynamic skillset in comparison to the currently rostered Bills running backs, one thing that may have been glossed over in the conversation is whether or not the current Bills regime believes in the old-school, three-down, “featured workhorse”-type back on a philosophical level.
We know that Bills general manager Brandon Beane isn’t opposed to drafting a running back in the first round. He openly said so in his post-draft press conference. But even if the Bills came home from an opening night of an NFL Draft with a shiny new toy at the running back position, I’m not sure they’d be an 18-23 touch-per-game player. (Dalvin Cook led the NFL in touches per game in 2020 with 25.4, followed by Christian McCaffrey at 25.3, Derrick Henry at 24.8, Joe Mixon at 23.3 and James Robinson at 20.6 per Lineups.com.)
I’m simply not sure it’s something they believe in, barring a special set of circumstances.
In order to properly explain what I think about what the McBeane regime thinks, I’ll go through three distinct types of evidence: what they’ve SEEN (what has influenced them), what they’ve SAID (if expressly stated) and what they’ve SPENT (because actions speak louder than words). Putting these three buckets of evidence together can help me frame a belief I would argue isn’t lightly held by the decision makers at One Bills Drive.
WHAT THEY’VE SEEN
When discussing Brandon Beane’s influences, current New York Giants and former Carolina Panthers GM Dave Gettleman is most commonly referenced. However, Brandon Beane first became Director of Football Operations in Carolina in 2008 under then-general manager Marty Hurney. Prior to that in 2006, Hurney drafted DeAngelo Williams 27th overall and promptly had him back up incumbent running back Deshaun Foster for two years before breaking out in 2008. Ironically enough, Williams’s breakout 1515-yard rushing season happened right after Hurney drafted another running back to back up his starter at 13th overall in Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart. It wasn’t as if DeAngelo Williams had been a disappointment to that point; he rushed for 717 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry in the season immediately preceding the drafting of Stewart while still splitting time with Foster.
This “draft a talented running back high but don’t immediately make them the bell cow” behavior continued even after Dave Gettleman became the Panthers’ GM. He drafted Christian McCaffrey eighth overall in 2017 and he spent his rookie year playing the role of the third-down back behind Jonathan Stewart, catching 80 passes but only running the ball 117 times. In an age where running backs enter the league in their prime years to produce and the concept of “seasoning” a running back only serves to waste valuable rookie contract years, Beane’s two most recent front office bosses didn’t let even drafting a running back with a premium resource stop them from a timeshare beneath “workhorse” level of touches.
Lest we think that influences on Brandon Beane are the only influences that matter in this conversation, I would point out that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has had his philosophies heavily influenced through seven years as an offensive coach for the New England Patriots. The Patriots have been a thorn in the side of fantasy football owners for years with their refusal to commit to a singular running back on a game-to-game basis.
WHAT THEY’VE SAID
The most obvious points in favor of my assertion that the McBeane regime is not inclined towards the concept of a “featured workhorse” come from head coach Sean McDermott himself.
After the Bills had lost to the Houston Texans in the 2019 playoffs and had a situation where a clearly less effective Frank Gore was getting a bulk of touches relative to the rookie Devin Singletary, McDermott said, “I know this; it’s not good to have one back carry the ball every time. So you’d like to have two backs that work together.” The refusal to divert from that philosophy in the face of a clear efficacy difference is a strong endorsement of the running-back-by-committee philosophy.
Once the production gap between Singletary and Gore started to manifest itself, McDermott was asked if the impressive rookie from Florida Atlantic was the “feature back.” His response?
“Now we’re getting into the weeds here a little bit. Feature back; number one back? How about just running back?”
How about the declining Frank Gore?
“He’s one of our running backs.”
Pressed further, the Bills’ historically dodgy head coach stated, “We’re just trying to win games. Whoever helps us win games, that’s who our feature back is I guess.”
If you thought this regime’s mentality only applied in the Gore/Singletary situation due to the lack of a dynamic and obvious candidate for a workhorse-level role in the offense, let’s take our attention back to the Panthers version of Brandon Beane. In the 2017 Carolina draft room, when GM Dave Gettleman was soliciting opinions from members of his front office on then-Stanford do-everything running back Christian McCaffrey, Brandon Beane said, “He’s a great football player. Has Luke Kuechly’s DNA. Just a great overall fit.”
As you know, the Panthers ended up selecting McCaffrey and although he was a “great football player,” a “great fit,” and had the DNA of one of the best players in franchise history, Beane still saw him play second fiddle to an incumbent aging back during his first season. So this point counts as both an overt statement and an influence in how they tie together.
WHAT THEY’VE SPENT
Since Sean McDermott (pre-2017 draft) and Brandon Beane (post-2017 draft) have been making personnel decisions for the Bills, the following meaningful resources have been spent on the non-fullback running back position:
- Mike Tolbert: unrestricted free agent signing; 1 year, $980,000 contract
- Chris Ivory: unrestricted free agent signing; 2 years, $5.5 million contract
- Frank Gore: unrestricted free agent signing; 1 year, $2 million contract
- Devin Singletary: third-round draft pick
- Zach Moss; third-round draft pick
- Matt Brieda: unrestricted free agent signing; 1 year, $1.05 million contract
In addition to these expenditures, previous bell cow running back LeSean McCoy was released during final cuts in 2019, saving $6 million on the cap, which means that the sum total of all money paid out to non-fullback running backs who made the final 53-man roster and contributed on offense was only slightly higher than the cap savings recouped by the release of McCoy two years ago. The spreading out of resources at the position doesn’t lend itself to a mindset that believes in putting all your eggs in one bell-cow’s basket.
There hasn’t been any behavior from the regime that would indicate that a bell-cow touch hog is their preferred method of running back deployment. In addition, the behavior of their influences says the same. So although it may drive fun debate as to whether Devin Singletary, Zach Moss, or Matt Brieda will emerge as “the guy” for the Bills in 2021, it seems more likely that together, some combination of the three will end up being “the GUYS.”
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every week on the Buffalo Rumblings Podcast Network!