Only two running backs in NFL history have averaged double figures per carry through the first two games of a season. Both of them will be in Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday.
The Browns will be happy to welcome back legend Jim Brown, but they’re hopeful the reception for C.J. Spiller won’t be as comforting.
Spiller is perhaps the biggest surprise of the early season, averaging 10.1 yards per carry for the Buffalo Bills entering today’s game. Brown, who averaged 11.3 yards per carry for the Browns in 1963, is the only other runner (minimum 25 attempts) to pull it off.
Spiller wasn’t even the Bills’ starter when the season began, but now he’s being mentioned in sentences alongside hall of famers such as Brown and O.J. Simpson.
“Those are two of the greatest running backs ever to play the game. Just to be mentioned among them is a humbling experience,” Spiller said. “But I can’t just sit around and dwell on the success we’ve had.”
The Browns are acutely aware of Spiller’s explosive speed. He is one of the league’s fastest backs after posting a 4.37 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine two years ago. It was the second-fastest time by a running back at the combine and was memorable enough that Browns coach Pat Shurmur recalled off the top of his head this week that Spiller ran a sub-4.4.
Browns rookie linebacker L.J. Fort said speedy running backs like Spiller are more difficult to stop than powerful backs who run between the tackles.
“Everybody knows you have to be in your gap,” Fort said. “If you’re not, there’s no guarantee you’re going to have safeties behind you to clean it up. There’s no jumping out of your gap trying to make plays.”
Fort said Spiller has the type of speed and vision to hop from gap to gap and get to any spot on the field whenever he wants. It wasn’t always like that with the second-year back out of Clemson, but Bills coach Chan Gailey said Spiller has made the biggest leaps in his ability to see the field.
“His vision has improved so much, he understands our blocking schemes and what we’re trying to do,” Gailey said. “He’s running with a ton of confidence right now. His confidence is amazing. He’s seeing things now, then when he sees something, he has so much explosion he can get through the creases.”
Spiller was a disappointment in his rookie season and was again stuck behind Fred Jackson last year, who was enjoying a breakout season before a broken leg ended it prematurely after 10 games.
Spiller took over and totaled 563 yards in the last five games, then returned to his backup role to begin this season. When Jackson went out with a knee injury in the opener, Spiller took over. At this pace, Gailey will have a difficult time getting him off the field, even when Jackson returns in about a month.
The great finish to last season and the fast start this year vaulted Spiller over Simpson in rushing average. Spiller is averaging 5.4 yards per carry in his career, best all time in Bills history ahead of Simpson’s 4.8 average. Of course, Simpson had about 2,000 more carries than Spiller has, but the Bills continue to find ways to get him the ball.
“When you have a running back of that caliber sitting there [as a backup], it’s unbelievable,” Gailey said. “Not every team has that luxury. We’re fortunate to have that, and when we get Fred back, we’ll be fortunate to have two good ones.”
The Bills use a lot of empty sets and aren’t afraid to throw the ball to Spiller. Typically, running backs lined up in the slot are decoys, but Browns defenders warned all week how much the Bills will target Spiller on quick throws out of the backfield to get him operating in space. It’s part of the reason Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has yet to be sacked this season.
Spiller is similar in style to Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who rushed for 110 yards and averaged 5.5 per carry against the Browns in the opener.
Spiller said he met Brown once before the draft a few years ago and would love the opportunity to chat with him again before today’s game. But he’s not eager to impress the man who was once the NFL’s all-time leading rusher.
“I’m not going into the game trying to put on a show for anybody,” Spiller said. “I’m not worried about who’s in the crowd or who’s not in the crowd. I’m just trying to help my team win.”