The running game is the only cause for optimism in yet another otherwise dismal season for the Buffalo Bills.
Their strength at the position is thanks to an intriguing battle between a dependable, late-blooming veteran and a spectacular, yet inconsistent, young upstart.
Playing the role of experienced hand is 31-year-old Fred Jackson. Since 2009, Jackson has been the lone bright spot for a Bills' team short on solid, playmaking talent.
In 2009 he eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the first time and followed it up with two seasons posting over 900 yards. It's that level of consistency which defines Jackson as a player.
He has established a niche as a reliable between-the-tackles runner. Jackson runs with deceptive initial quickness and above-average power.
The six-year pro is the kind of workhorse a coach can trust in clutch situations. Yet as good as Jackson has been, he is facing increasingly intense competition from fleet-footed youngster C.J. Spiller.
Taking advantage of Jackson's injury at the start of the season, Spiller dominated in the first two weeks. He needed only 14 carries to rush for 169 yards against the New York Jets in Week 1.
The next week Spiller outran the Kansas City Chiefs' defense on his way to 123 yards on only 15 carries. His yards per carry average numbers for both games, were phenomenal.
Against the Jets, Spiller averaged 12.1 yards every time he ran the ball and 8.2 against the Chiefs. Those figures reveal the one quality that sets Spiller apart from Jackson and that's speed.
It's a quality that scares defenses more than any other and lends true big play potential to an offense. With Spiller on the field, the Bills' running game has the potential to stretch the field on any given play.
Against the Jets traditionally stout rush defense, Spiller showcased his knack for the big play, by taking an inside handoff and sprinting through for a sudden 56-yard score. Spiller in full flight is a sight to behold and no defender is going to catch him in the open field.
Yet since Jackson's return, he has been limited to only 19 carries. A shoulder injury has played its part, but it's also clear that the Bills don't quite trust Spiller as much as Jackson.
That's because Spiller has only shown his talent in fits and starts. The Bills would surely have expected more consistency from a player they drafted with a first-round pick in 2010.
The 25-year-old has instead endured durability and ball security issues. Spiller has lost two fumbles already this season and his slight frame does not inspire confidence in him as an every-down back.
Contrast that with Jackson, who runs with a natural toughness and has averaged over four yards a carry, every season since 2008. However, in the harsh world of the NFL, a 31-year-old is a senior citizen, particularly among featured running backs.
Jackson has also suffered fumbling and injury problems of his own. What recommends him to the position of featured back is the three-down skills he possesses.
The 6'1", 216-pounder is a decent blocker and a competent receiver out of the backfield. In the interest of a smooth and efficient offense, Jackson is an obvious choice as the Bills' regular starter.
Yet Jackson is more a jack of all trades, solid in every phase of the game, without truly excelling in any one area. Spiller offers that big play talent and game breaking ability the Bills simply don't possess in any other area of the team.
Concerns about the diminutive speedster's ability to handle the wear and tear of an every-down load have to be answered at some point, or else why use a first-round pick on him?
Ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers' great Warrick Dunn was subject to same kind of skepticism, regarding lack of size, but eventually proved his bona fides as a three-down back. More recently, Miami Dolphins' star Reggie Bush has easily passed a similar examination.
Spiller is the one thing the Bills don't have, a playmaker capable of dominating on the field, as well as the highlight reel. His nimble-footed agility, elite acceleration and ability to smoothly transition at top speed, make Spiller capable of stretching any defense.
The 2-3 Bills need those big plays more than they need efficiency and that's why now is the time for head coach Chan Gailey to elevate Spiller ahead of Jackson as his featured runner.846075