There could be worse problems for Nathaniel Hackett to have.
But as the Buffalo Bills take summer recess before training camp, one of their offensive coordinator’s homework assignments will be coming up with an answer to the question: How do you keep four running backs happy sharing one football?
Hackett won’t be graded until September, but he’s already started looking for the solution. One way to get C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon involved, Hackett believes, is to convert more third downs.
“If you look at us last year, that right there is going to extend so many more drives,” he said. “We have to continue to be better at that, and it’s something I’ve really challenged the guys with. Third down and red zone situations, that’s what we need to work on and that’s what’s going to get us more plays.”
The Bills last season finished 29th in the league in third-down conversions, moving the chains just 34 percent of the time.
“That’s been a big emphasis since we’ve been back, because in reality, we were terrible,” Spiller said. “We’ve got to fix that. In order for us to be the offense that we want to be, we have to stay on the field.”
On the surface, the Bills’ offense did have a lot of opportunities last season. The team ran 1,116 offensive plays, an average of nearly 70 per game that ranked third in the league. Buffalo’s 546 rushing attempts led the NFL.
But digging a little deeper into the numbers shows how the offense was inefficient. According to advanced statistics website Football Outsiders, the Bills averaged just 5.52 plays per drive, which ranked 22nd in the league. They also went three and out 25.6 percent of the time, which was 26th.
“It’s how long those opportunities are. When we would go on a 12- or 15-play drive, it was awesome and those guys got in a rhythm and they got touches and they got a good feel for how the defense was playing,” Hackett said. “When you go three-and-out, or four- or five-play drives, that’s when they can’t get that. … Converting on third down can extend a lot of drives for us.”
The Bills had a drive success rate, which Football Outsiders defines as a drive resulting in a first down or touchdown (kneel-down drives excluded), of 63.1 percent, which was 28th in the NFL. Buffalo’s average time per drive was just 2:12, again near the bottom of the NFL at 31st. Going fast on offense can be a great way to wear out the opposing defense - but it can also backfire and wear out your own if you’re not staying on the field.
“If we want our defense to be dominant, like we know they’re capable of being, we have to be able to take some of the pressure off those guys by not putting them out there series after series,” Spiller said. “We’re taking that upon ourselves.”
Jackson has long said that a running back gets better within a game the more touches he gets. Spiller agreed with that assessment.
“As a running back, that’s the No. 1 rule. Once you get into a good groove, everything becomes more natural to you,” he said. “You’re able to just go out there and play. If you’re touching it two times then coming out, you’re never able to get into that groove and kind of get synched up with what they’re trying to do defensively.”
Hackett is confident he’ll be able to keep spirits high among his running backs.
“Their time will come as long as we get those plays and keep being able to feed people,” he said. “We had two 900-yard backs last year. Just a couple plays here and there and we could have had two 1,000-yard backs.”
The physical pounding the position is subject to also makes good depth a necessity. Spiller missed one game last season and played through several others with a nagging high-ankle sprain, while Jackson played through a knee injury.
“Even though we were No. 2 in rushing, we weren’t able to expand the offense the way we wanted because of injury,” Spiller said. “We understand that we want to try to keep each other fresh. Even though I might be in a nice groove, we want to get Fred in there, so he can get rolling. Because I know that once both of us are going, it definitely helps our offense.”
That selflessness should also help. Both Jackson and Spiller are team-first guys.
“They’ve done a good job of just helping me understand the offense,” said Brown, who came over in a trade from Philadelphia. “It’s completely different terminology, a completely different offense. That’s probably been my biggest struggle here, just trying to learn the offense. They’ve sacrificed their time and efforts.”
Both Brown and Spiller bring an explosive element to the offense. Each player has a run of at least 60 yards in each of the last two seasons. Jackson is a workhorse who can be trusted in all situations, while the 233-pound Dixon should help in short-yardage situations (he converted 9 of 10 runs on third and 1 or 2 situations the last four seasons for San Francisco) and special teams.
“We understand that everybody in our room has different, unique styles of playing. Everybody brings something totally different to the table,” Spiller said. “My thing is you just take advantage of each and every opportunity that you get. I’ve never been a guy that worried about touches, said how many I want or complained about it. Whenever your number is called, make the most of it. Hopefully if you do that, they’ll give you more opportunities.”
Spiller said running backs coach Tyrone Wheatley has set that tone. Come training camp and the regular season, how the carries are divided will ultimately come down to who’s running well.
“Everybody’s first off pushing each other, you know, holding each other accountable,” Brown said. “When you’ve got four great guys, when you’re stacked that deep, you get what you can in practice and just hope that it carries over to the game.”