Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL, Bills

January, 5, 2014
Jan 5
5:00
AM ET
Quick-hit thoughts around the NFL and with the Buffalo Bills:

1. There will be plenty of talk this offseason about EJ Manuel and the struggles of the Bills' passing offense, but Buffalo's running game can't be overlooked. On the surface, it was a strong attack: the Bills gained 2,307 total rushing yards, second only to the Philadelphia Eagles this season. But if the goal of the run is to set up the pass, Manuel was put in a tough spot. The Bills ranked 21st this season on runs of first-and-10 or longer, averaging 4.02 yards per carry. That's not the way to start off a drive and it left Manuel with difficult second-and-long situations.

[+] EnlargeFred Jackson
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesThe Bills will tell you that running back Fred Jackson's contributions this season go well beyond his statistics.
2. Who was the better Bills running back this season? With a 4.6-yard average, C.J. Spiller edged out Fred Jackson, who gained 4.3 yards per carry. Digging deeper, though, reveals some troubling stats for Spiller. On plays with at least five yards to gain for a first down, Spiller lost yardage on 14.4 percent of his carries, the worst rate among qualified NFL running backs. Expanding that criteria to include plays where Spiller was stopped for no gain, his rate was 22.3 percent, third worst in the NFL. Jackson, at 7.8 percent, had the best rate among qualified running backs.

3a. The perception is that Spiller is worth putting on the field because of his ability to break long runs. The reality, at least this season, was different. Spiller gained at least 11 yards on 8.9 percent of his runs, which ranked 13th in the NFL. Jackson checked in at 8.3 percent, so how much advantage does Spiller really offer the Bills in that area?

3b. Back in November, coach Doug Marrone compared Spiller to Reggie Bush, who played for Marrone early in his career with the New Orleans Saints. "Guys that can break plays and guys that are extremely explosive," Marrone called them. Here's some food for thought: This season, Bush lost yardage on 8.5 percent of his runs (on plays with five-plus yards to gain) and broke runs of 11 yards or more on 12.6 percent of his carries.

3d. In Spiller's defense, he played through most of the season with an ankle injury. Still, his performance before the injury wasn't necessarily different. Through the first two games -- Spiller's run of injuries began in Week 3 -- he had six carries of zero yards or less, or 18.2 percent of his total runs through Week 2. That's not too far off his mark of 22.3 percent for the entire season.

4a. On Thursday, we revealed our ESPN.com All-AFC East team, as voted on by our four ESPN.com NFL Nation writers who cover AFC East teams. There was a significant amount of reader feedback on the selection at running back, where Chris Ivory earned the nod over Jackson. As mentioned Thursday, my selection was Jackson. He had a strong season as a runner and receiver, especially in the red zone. But there is an argument to be made for Ivory. He averaged 2.11 yards after contact per rush, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which ranked third in the NFL. Jackson ranked fifth.

4b. My hypothesis for why our other AFC East writers may have leaned toward Ivory was the possibility of stronger performances within the division, the best chance for writers to get an up-close look at other teams' players. But that wasn't the case. Jackson averaged 4.99 yards per rush and had three touchdowns against divisional opponents. Ivory averaged 4.13 yards per carry and had one touchdown.

5. One tidbit that stood out from Monday's season-ending news conference: general manager Doug Whaley gave what I believed was a lukewarm assessment of quarterback Thad Lewis. "We are pleased with Thad. We brought him in on a trade; he came in and was very serviceable," Whaley said. "We look forward to his further development, but again we will not hold ourselves back from picking a person that would help us take a winning step." Hardly a ringing endorsement there, and one gets the sense that the Bills are keeping their options open at quarterback. Statistically, Lewis had a better season than Manuel, but the Bills predictably stood by their first-round pick on Monday.

6. When the Bills evaluate their run defense from this season, this is likely to stand out: Opposing teams had much more success running to the offensive left than they did the offensive right. On runs to the right, the Bills allowed 4.19 yards to the right edge (5th in the NFL), 2.96 yards to the right tackle (5th in the NFL), and 3.38 yards to the right guard (8th in the NFL). On runs to the left, the Bills allowed 6.77 yards to the left edge (31st in the NFL), 6.3 yards to the left tackle (32nd in the NFL), and 4.89 yards to the left guard (27th in the NFL). Since the Bills flipped personnel from one side of the formation to the other, it's tough to pin the problem on one or two players. Instead, plays like Bobby Rainey's 80-yard run in a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have skewed the average for runs to the left.

7. Comparing spending to production is one way to analyze the performance of a general manager in assembling his team. In that regard, it was a disappointing season for New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese, whose offense ranked 28th despite having the NFL's fifth-highest combined cap number on that side of the ball. On the flip side, Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, his team's de facto GM, got the most bang for his buck. The Bengals had the 10th-ranked offense but had the sixth-lowest offensive cap number.

8. Defensively, it wasn't the best season for Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery or Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. The Bears had the fourth-highest defensive cap number but the NFL's 30th-ranked defense. The Vikings had the sixth-highest cap number and the 31st-ranked defense. Meanwhile, Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman assembled the NFL's second-best defense with the league's fourth-lowest defensive cap number.

9. On the subject of contracts, I'm not enamored with the Bears' decision to extend Jay Cutler for seven years. Is it a true, iron-clad pact that will keep Cutler in Chicago through 2020? That's unlikely. But the Bears' flurry of contract extensions last week -- they re-signed Cutler, cornerback Tim Jennings, guard Matt Slauson, kicker Robbie Gould, and fullback Tony Fiammetta -- is something that could backfire. It's an approach that reminds me of the Tom Heckert and Andy Reid era in Philadelphia, when the Eagles gave long extensions to defensive tackle Mike Patterson (seven-year extension in 2006), offensive lineman Shawn Andrews (seven-year extension in 2006), cornerback Sheldon Brown (six-year extension in 2006), defensive tackle Sam Rayburn (five-year extension in 2004), and cornerback Lito Sheppard (five-year extension in 2004). Like the Eagles, the Bears are usually in the hunt for the playoffs but can't quite put it all together. Instead of rewarding the players that couldn't get you over the hump, why not look elsewhere and shake things up?

10. Shaking things up is just what the Houston Texans did last week and I'm intrigued to see how the NFL's first coaching hire of the offseason, Bill O'Brien, performs next season. The Texans have the personnel to get over the hump but were snakebitten by injuries and shaky quarterback play this season. O'Brien is known as a creative, offensive-minded coach who will have the first overall pick and a chance to turn things around quickly. It's a situation not unlike the Indianapolis Colts prior to the 2012 season. Coming off a disappointing 2011 season where key injuries -- Peyton Manning, most notably -- held them back, the Colts drafted Andrew Luck and were right back in the playoffs.

Mike Rodak

ESPN Buffalo Bills reporter

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