We all had criticisms of Chan Gailey. He stuck with a quarterback who couldn't cut it, he refused to kick makeable field goals, he called some of the most bizarre timeouts ever and misused C.J. Spiller.
Or did he?
Last season, Spiller had an historically effective season. The former first-round pick averaged 6.0 yards per carry, totaling 1,244 yards on the ground. According to AdvancedNFLstats.com, he was the No. 1 back in the NFL in terms of Estimated Points Added – a system that calculates how much closer a player's events bring the team to scoring.
While criticism of Gailey for not handing him the ball more often - especially in games which he carried the ball under 10 times and spun off big gains - was correct, there was an under-appreciated aspect of the ex-coach's usage of Spiller: The screen game.
Spiller averaged 10.7 yards per catch last season, catching the ball 43 times in 56 targets and adding two touchdowns – one of 66 yards. He gained a total of 19 first downs via the pass game.
So far this season, play-caller Nate Hackett has handed the ball to his Pro Bowl back more often (except against Cleveland while battling an ankle injury), but with less effectiveness in terms of yards per carry at 4.2 per hand-off.
The dip in YPC isn't a huge surprise – it's difficult to maintain an historic pace. But the failure of Hackett to properly utilize Spiller in the passing game has been surprising. The Clemson product has 11 catches for 29 yards and a long of eight yards. He currently ranks 70th in EPA.
Now, Spiller has been injured. And while he's been limited, Fred Jackson has stepped up. Jackson has 75 carries for 344 yards and has been much more effective in the pass game with 21 receptions for 166 yards.
Combined, the Bills attempted screen passes for Spiller or Jackson 41 times and gained 206 yards (targets/yards) – or 5.02 yards per play. Last season, Gailey's offense attempted screens 98 times for 6.89 yards per play.
Why the difference? One explanation that can't be ignored is that Jackson doesn't have the explosiveness of Spiller. When he receives a screen, there's a far lower chance he'll break out for 20-plus.
But there's more to it. A look at screen passes under Gailey and under Hackett reveals a high level of creativity in the ex-Bills coach's screen plan that hasn't been used thus far by the current staff.
First, watch Spiller line up in the slot. On his longest catch last year, a 66-yarder against the New York Jets. On the play, he's lined up as a wideout. He fakes a flat route, the cuts hard back into the middle into more of a traditional screen area. All the while, the offensive line is taking off to begin downfield blocking.
The Jets have no idea what hit them, as you'll see the defender who was supposed to cover him come in way too late and he explodes to the endzone.
Hackett did line up Tashard Choice in the slot vs. Cincinnati, but had no deception or pre-snap movement in the route, leading to an easily read play by the D.
The creativity using Spiller in the slot was impressive throughout last season. On this play against Kansas City, Stevie Johnson comes in motion and Spiller runs a delay slant. The Chiefs' defense loses track of him entirely and the play turns into a huge gain.
Traditional screens were effective, too. On this play, the center and left guard let their man go and form a wall for Spiller, who catches the ball on a quick turn, then bursts forward behind is lineman.
Hackett has used this one, as you'll see here:
But he's also used some that look like this:
The middle linebacker reads the play easily, flys over and makes the routine tackle. There was no deception. There is a chance the play was a check-down, but the second angle shows the lineman on the move, which would suggest it was by design.
Hackett's job has not been easy. He's had to deal with injuries to both running backs, his starting quarterback(s) and No. 1 wide receiver. Not to mention playing with a starter at guard who was eventually released and a tough schedule against difficult defenses in New England, Carolina, Baltimore and Cincinnati.
While it can be said that the screen game has lacked creativity and hasn't been used enough, it's also a very small sample. Every play by every team is on video, so it's wise to keep some plays up the sleeve, so to speak. Maybe that's Hackett's plan. It seems very possible it will become a much bigger part of the offense as we go along and as Spiller gets healthier. But so far it hasn't been good enough.