There is little question that C.J. Spiller has established himself as a great talent in the backfield for the Buffalo Bills. He is without a doubt one of the most exciting and dynamic players we've seen in Buffalo in a long time. But when Fred Jackson returns – possibly as soon as this Sunday – statistics suggest Chan Gailey should return to his system of using both Spiller and Jackson rather than name No. 28 the full-time starter.
Last week, Spiller had a solid 22 carry for 91 yard performance against the Miami Dolphins, who are one of the better rushing defenses in the NFL. In one way, you could look at Spiller's Thursday night game as proof that when Jackson returns, the former first-rounder should receive a higher percentage of carries than the current near 50-50 split. A closer look, however, indicates that Spiller is a more effective running back and that the Bills' offense is more productive when both runners are in the lineup.
For starters, when Spiller has been a starter – which has only been when Jackson is out – he has rushed 134 times for 693 yards (5.1 yards per carry) over the past two seasons. When he and Jackson have both been in the lineup, Spiller has 82 runs for 591 yards (7.2 yards per carry).
Surprisingly, it isn't necessarily the traditional run situations that are causing Spiller's YPC to dip. On 1-and-10 he is averaging 6.0 YPC (just 0.6 under his overall YPC) as opposed to Jackson's 3.9. It is more likely the workload that causes the dip when Spiller in YPC is the full-time back. That isn't to say that Spiller can't handle the load physically. It's also possible that teams begin to adjust to him rushing the ball over and over.
Speaking of the workload, consider that in carries 1-10, the former Clemson standout averages 7.1 YPC, but after his 10th rush of the game, that number dips to 5.2 (which is still excellent, but nearly two yards less per carry). Last season, carries in carries 1-10, he averaged 5.6 YPC and 4.1 after the 11th rush.
The reasons that the Bills should stay the course with their Spiller/Jackson split extend beyond Spiller's reduced effectiveness when taking on a heavier load. Keep in mind the simple fact that the Bills' running game with Spiller and Jackson both healthy has been highly effective.
Buffalo ranks second in the NFL in Yards Per Carry at 5.2, only 0.4 behind the San Francisco 49ers. Look at the league's best over the past five years:
2011: Carolina 5.4
2010: Philadelphia 5.4
2009: Tennessee 5.2
2008: NYG 5.0
2007: Minnesota 5.3
There have only been four teams in the past six seasons to have more effective running games than the Bills, yet we are suggesting they should divert from their current strategy?
The Spiller/Jackson combo has been even more effective than the YPC stats show because both backs catch passes out of the backfield. Take a look at the Yards Per Touch for the duo in the past three games in which both were completely healthy (earlier in the season both Spiller and Jackson were battling injury)
vs. Titans: 35 touches for 211 yards 6.0 YPT
vs. Texans: 22 touches for 127 yards 5.7 YPT
vs. Patriots: 31 touches for 276 yards 8.9 YPT
TOTAL: 88 touches for 614 yards 6.9 YPT
To put this in context, the best team in the NFL in terms of Yards Per Play is the Atlanta Falcons at 6.1 YPP. You could say that when the Bills give the ball to either Jackson or Spiller on the ground or through the air, they are, on average, 0.8 yards better than the most effective offense in the NFL.
Earlier this month on the John Murphy Show, Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas suggested the combo see the ball 40 total times per game. It's hard to disagree considering its effectiveness. To further the point, on pass plays to both alone on those three games, Spiller and Jackson combined for 33 catches in 39 targets or 84.6 percent.
When Jackson has been out, Spiller's out-of-the-backfield receiving game has all but disappeared. In games as a substitute, he has 23 catches (nearly 4 per game), while as a starter only eight receptions (or two per game).
And, as an additional note, in the three games since Jackson has been fully recovered from a knee injury which forced him to wear a brace, he has averaged 5.5 YPC – the same average as his Pro Bowl caliber 2011 season.
Certainly the effectiveness of the Spiller/Jackson combo does not take Gailey off the hook for a group of questionable decisions such as only handing to Spiller and Jackson a total of 12 times against the Houston Texans or using Tashard Choice in the red zone vs. Miami or electing to pass over and over on third-and-short.
Follow Matthew Coller on Twitter @matthewwgr