Running backs have been an oft-discussed subject here at Buffalo Rumblings over the last calendar year. The Buffalo Bills, under head coach Sean McDermott’s tenure, seem to maintain a strained relationship with running the ball in its most traditional and basic form.
You’d be hard-pressed finding someone who doesn’t believe this to be true, even if they acknowledge that the Bills found success on the ground last season (2,232 total yards) in fielding the seventh-ranked rushing attack. That’s because Josh Allen is an elite dual-threat quarterback who makes up for Buffalo’s lack of production out of traditional running sets, with 3,087 yards on the ground in his young career — including 763 and 762 yards each of the last two seasons.
Running back Devin Singletary served as Buffalo’s lead running back each of the four seasons he played for the club, but he’s no longer a Bill — having moved on to play for the Houston Texans. Yet despite Singletary compiling the most yards rushing, there always seemed to be a lot of meat left on the bone — at least from the running back room. Quarterback Josh Allen masks a lot of deficiencies, including his team’s inability to run the ball to keep defenses honest.
The Buffalo Bills’ last elite running back was of course LeSean McCoy. He was the team’s last 1,000-yard rusher and he was a force to contend with every down. McCoy’s time also lines up with the last time the Bills lacked a true franchise quarterback.
In fact, it wasn’t until Josh Allen came on board that the franchise really struggled to traditionally run the ball. Historically, the Bills boast some of the pro game’s greatest running backs: Cookie Gilchrist, O.J. Simpson, Joe Cribbs, and Thurman Thomas might be the Mt. Rushmore of RBs. Even players after Thomas such as Antowain Smith, Travis Henry, Willis McGahee, Marshawn Lynch, Fred Jackson, and the aforementioned Shady all had their turns at wrecking defenses in featured roles.
Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly knows all this and the importance of a running game for the QB, as he should having played with fellow Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas. And Kelly believes Josh Allen needs his own workhorse back to help reduce some of the pressure on him.
“Josh Can’t do everything by himself, and I hope they find a way to get a star running back,” said Kelly in a video posted to Twitter by News 10 NBC Rochester Lead Sports Anchor/Reporter Jackson Roberts. Kelly continued by saying “But I always thought Singletary was pretty good. I just didn’t think we used him enough.”
"Josh can't do everything by himself."— Jackson Roberts (@JrobertsTV_) March 30, 2023
At a charity event today, Bills legend Jim Kelly said he hopes the team can find a star RB to "take some of the pressure off" of Allen.#Billsmafia pic.twitter.com/PeEr4zghHA
Allen performs a one-man-show all too often, especially when he can’t find wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Yes, there have been times in recent seasons where the offense would commit to running the ball — almost to a fault. But for each of those situations, one can point to countless other instances where the running game went ignored. What has further limited the effectiveness of Buffalo’s run game is the constant rotation of players — and running backs are among those most in need of repetition for success.
While the league has shifted from the type of game where players like Marcus Allen, Eric Dickerson, Thurman Thomas, and Marshall Faulk ruled the field, theirs might be a game and model that would best-serve offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey’s play book.
It’s more than possible that general manager Brandon Beane has been on a quest to find a featured running back since he entered One Bills Drive. He’s invested heavily through the draft, with selections of Singletary, Zack Moss, and James Cook all joining the team as second- or third-round picks. Maybe that player is Cook, but the jury is still very much out on his ability to carve out a featured role as he heads into his second season with the team. Buffalo also brought in free-agent running back Damien Harris, and has Nyheim Hines, so their options aren’t limited to Cook.
It would seem that most NFL Draft analysts feel the same way about Beane and the team’s need at running back, with so many early mocks sending a perceived generational talent to the Bills in Bijan Robinson. Robinson, to my eyes, could see a trajectory similar to Thomas or Faulk, becoming just as deadly a receiver as a runner.
While Kelly was candid in speaking about the lack of a running game, he did reiterate his confidence in the team and OC Ken Dorsey.
“When you’ve got a guy as good as Josh Allen, you tend to probably get a little greedy and want to use him more than you probably should, but Ken Dorsey’s doing a great job. And, Josh, I just hope that we get that running game going to take some of the pressure off him,” said Kelly in closing.
The need for a running game was never more evident than during the Bills’ 2022 NFL Divisional Round home playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. From the start, Buffalo was blown off the field by the Bengals’ offensive firepower, and they were never able to battle back when Cincinnati could key in on the team’s one-dimensional attack.
While unlikely that a player the caliber of Bijan Robinson falls to the Bills at the end of the month, it’s hard to deny what his talent would mean for Josh Allen and the offense. It’s also important to note that a huge part of success in passing and running at the NFL level comes down to the offensive line. Improve there, and much of the conversations about adding player x or y at numerous skill positions may fall by the wayside. But that’s a conversation for another day.
(All stats provided by Pro Football Reference)