By Sal Maiorana - Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
ORCHARD PARK - The debate has raged for weeks in Buffalo regarding Chan Gailey's use of running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson.
WEB EXTRA: Adam Benigni looks ahead to the Bills vs. Dolphins on Thursday night. Click on the video links on this page for thoughts from Sal Maiorana, Ruben Brown & Andrew Peters.
The consensus among media and fans has been that the coach has made a tactical error in not giving Spiller the bulk of the load, especially given the fact that he leads the NFL in yards per rushing attempt at 7.3.
Well, it's a moot point at least for this week because Jackson is out with a concussion, and Spiller will be the featured back when the Bills host AFC East rival Miami on Thursday night in the nationally televised NFL Network game.
"He's shown what he can do time and time again ,so I think we're all excited for him to get out there and get some extended time," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said.
And they should be. Fitzpatrick said the other day - with no disrespect intended for Jackson - that the Bills needed to find ways to get Spiller more touches. By default, that will happen Thursday, and now Spiller has to take advantage of the opportunity.
"I'm ready to be the starter," Spiller said. "We had a playmaker go down, but it is what it is and we'll get him back hopefully soon. I've learned so much from him and I'm going to take what I learned from him and apply it on Thursday."
Some of what Spiller does, though, cannot be gleaned from learning. His playmaking ability, the uncanny way he makes tacklers miss, the way he can run past even the fastest defenders, is God-given.
"I know the expectations were high," Fitzpatrick said, recalling the day the Bills used the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 draft to grab Spiller. "Everyone's seen the YouTube clips of him at Clemson and stuff that he did on the field was insane. Every game, opponents are coming up to me and talking about the guy. That's something that doesn't happen too much."
When Spiller takes the field for Buffalo's first prime-time game since 2009, and its first at Ralph Wilson Stadium since 2008, he will do so with 632 rushing yards, 14th-best in the NFL.
However, with only 87 carries (fewest among the top 24 running backs), his sparkling average of 7.3 yards leads the NFL.
He's also second in rushes of at least 20 yards with seven.
Coupled with his 297 yards receiving, Spiller is ninth in the NFL in yards gained from scrimmage with 929, but his 8.1 yards per touch leads all running backs. For perspective, Adrian Peterson of Minnesota, the league leader in rushing and yards gained from scrimmage, averages 5.7 per touch.
"He's an explosive player and a really talented guy, and you want to get him more touches," said center Eric Wood. "When he touches it, he's making plays."
Last week against New England, Spiller made a dazzling 25-yard run with a screen pass where he made the Patriots look silly as they tried to bring him down.
"That was pretty crazy," guard Kraig Urbik said. "There were 2-3 times I thought he was tackled and he keeps breaking the tackles."
For the game, Spiller piled up 131 yards from scrimmage and averaged 10 yards per touch. It was the fourth straight game he has had at least 100 yards rushing and receiving combined.
Wood recalled one of Spiller's great plays in the Cleveland game when he took a short pass and weaved his way for a 32-yard touchdown by turning a Browns safety into a spinning top.
"That's something that happens in college and in video games, but it doesn't always happen in the NFL," Wood said. "He's made explosive plays from everywhere."
It was last November when Spiller announced to the world that he was ready for the rigors of the NFL.
In the first Miami game down at Sun Life Stadium, Jackson went down for the season with a knee injury and Spiller became the No. 1 back. In those last six games of 2011, he topped 100 yards from scrimmage four times, including a 167-yard outburst (91 rushing, 76 receiving) in the loss to Miami at the Ralph.
"The biggest thing with C.J. is his confidence," said Fitzpatrick. "He's always had the athletic ability, but his confidence is at another level right now and that stems from how he performed at the end of last year."
This year, Spiller and Jackson have been a two-headed monster, combining for 930 yards rushing and 480 yards receiving, but while Spiller's plays have been more electric, he has typically been on the field less snaps than Jackson.
Last week, Jackson played 42 snaps, Spiller 34.
Thursday, Gailey won't have to worry about regulating the usage; Spiller's the guy.
"He did it last year, he can do that," Gailey said. "That is not an issue. If he needs to run it 20 to 25 times a game for us to win, or 30 times a game for us to win, that's what we'll do. We're not afraid to do that. We don't think he's a fragile player or anything like that. We think he's a strong player that can carry it as many times as we need to carry it to win."
There are many folks in western New York who will be happy to hear that.