WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Somewhere deep down inside of C.J. Spiller, the end of his time in Buffalo has to hurt a little.
Two years ago, Spiller seemed to be on the verge of superstardom. Finally given a chance to play in an offense built to highlight his strengths, Spiller had lived up to all of his considerable college hype, rolling up 6.0 yards per carry, 1,244 yards on the ground and another 459 through the air as the Bills shifted him all over the offense, finding creative ways to get him the ball in one-on-one situations against defenders woefully unequipped to handle his brand of speed and agility. For all intents and purposes, Spiller looked like the NFL’s next great big-play back.
Then, the Bills fired Chan Gailey and hired Doug Marrone.
The first year wasn’t so bad. True, Marrone scrapped Gailey’s plan and asked Spiller to play a more conventional role between the tackles — a move that cut back Spiller’s yards per carry drastically — but Spiller still got 235 touches that season, only 15 fewer than he’d gotten in 2012.
The bottom fell out last year. Frustrated by Spiller’s all-or-nothing style, Marrone cut his carries even more, taking the burner out of the game when the Bills reached the red zone. By the time Spiller broke his collarbone in October, he’d been reduced to a complementary role.
And then, of all things, after Marrone had left and Spiller openly campaigned to return to Buffalo, new coach Rex Ryan signed off on a trade for LeSean McCoy, a back who’s made his living doing the same kinds of things that made Spiller so devastating in 2012.
To add insult to injury, Spiller got the news minutes before an NFL Network appearance, forcing him to react in the moment to a radical change in career path.
Spiller handled the end of his time in Buffalo well publicly.
He’s not the type to fire any salvos in a war of words.
“I think he’s just a hungry player,” Saints running backs coach Joel Thomas said. ?I think when you deal with a professional athlete, they don’t want to be labeled as something. You’re only as good as your last play or your last season, and that’s his last season. It’s not three seasons ago, when he was All-Pro and whatnot.
“It’s last season, when he was injured, didn’t get to really show what he can do.”
Right place, right time
New Orleans has always been on Spiller’s radar.
As a multipurpose back who has spent most of his career trapped in rather traditional offenses, Spiller used to watch Saints games and marvel at the ways Sean Payton found to get the ball to Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles, two running backs who were lethal when given an open field in front of them.
“I always kept a close eye on this team, just the way Coach Payton used the running back position, and a guy with my type of skill set,” Spiller said. “It was always intriguing.”
The Saints agreed. A year after trading Sproles away to the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans found it had a hole in the offense: a spot for what the Saints call a satellite back, a running back who can line up all over the formation and provide that home run threat. As solid as Pierre Thomas had been during his time with the Saints, he lacked the top-end speed and agility to really test the underbelly of a defense’s coverage the same way Bush or Sproles did.
Spiller has all of those skills, and then some. From the start, teammates have marveled at Spiller’s speed, putting him in the same discussion as Brandin Cooks, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash in the 2014 NFL combine.
The truth is that Spiller never played in an offense in Buffalo built to take full advantage of his capabilities as a receiver.
Even in 2012, his breakout year with the Bills, Spiller caught just 43 passes. Bush and Sproles surpassed that number in all but one of their eight combined seasons in New Orleans, and the duo surpassed the 70-catch mark five times.
Part of Spiller’s lack of chances in the passing game was the scheme.
The rest stemmed from the quarterbacks. In five years in Buffalo, Spiller played with a hodgepodge of journeymen quarterbacks, a group of passers who carry nowhere near the Hall of Fame reputation Drew Brees has built in New Orleans.
“This is the first time I’ve played with a quarterback like this,” Spiller said. “You want to make sure you’re in the right spot. Every day, you try to come out here and get better and work on those things, so he can have that trust in you and know you’ll be in the right spot at the right time.”
New Orleans might be counting on Spiller to be in the right spot more than ever before. Trading Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills in the offseason left an open application for another playmaker in the passing game, and Payton isn’t afraid to deploy a running back as his No. 3 or even his No. 2 option. A running back who can get free on a short route and turn a 5-yard throw into a 25-yard first down can be every bit as dangerous as a big tight end creating matchup problems down the field.
“He catches the ball out of the backfield,” Payton said. “If we can get him out in space, he’s dangerous, very explosive, so he gives you some versatility that way. I think trying to get him in those types of matchups in space, I think it plays to his strengths.”
Spiller also adds a dimension to the Saints’ backfield that wasn’t present a year ago. Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Thomas are all versatile, effective runners, but none stretches a defense with the kind of speed Spiller brings.
“That’s where he’s special,” Thomas said. “You get him out in space, and you let him use his speed. Watch out.”
Crowded for carries
The presence of Ingram and Robinson mean that Spiller likely won’t be asked to handle 350 touches this fall.
And the Saints’ newest running back likes it that way. With the exception of the broken collarbone last season, Spiller has been very durable in the NFL, playing in 61 of a possible 64 games over the first four years of his career. As frustrating as the substitution patterns might have been sometimes in Buffalo, it kept wear off his tread.
“In this league, I think you need more than one guy,” Spiller said. “Rarely do you see one guy that’s going to tote it the whole season. Any time you can get fresh bodies in there, I think it’s a benefit for the offense and for the team, and the individual as well. I’ve been in a two-back system my whole career.”
Spiller’s versatility also gives the Saints the option to deploy him in the same personnel package as one of the other running backs. During training camp, Spiller and Ingram have often been paired together in the same huddle, with Ingram taking the role of tailback and Spiller often lining up out wide or in the slot, opening up a slew of possibilities in the playbook and creating a whole new set of identification problems for the defense.
The only question is how many touches Spiller will get per game. Even during his mammoth 2012 season in Buffalo, Spiller received only 15.6 touches per game, a paltry number compared to other dual-threat backs around the league. Thanks to New Orleans’ proclivity to throw to the running back, Spiller could see a dip in carries and still hit that mark on a week-in, week-out basis.
“I just say always take advantage of every opportunity that you’re going to get,” Spiller said. “If it’s three touches, if it’s 20 touches, but you don’t do anything with either one, what difference does it make?”
Spiller is a quiet presence both on and off the field. When other players are amped up and bouncing around, Spiller remains still, processing what he’s seeing on the field, trying to figure out where he can exploit the defense next.
“C.J., man, you might hear three or four words from him,” veteran running back Tim Hightower said. “He’s a quiet guy, but he’s focused.”
Spiller has been the same way about his departure from Buffalo.
Offered plenty of chances over the summer to take a shot at the Bills for the way the past two seasons went, Spiller instead kept his comments on the Saints offense, his eyes fixed on what’s next.
But he does still feel like he has to prove himself all over again, even if he doesn’t feel the need to proclaim it from the podium or the spot in front of his new locker. An athlete who’s been to the top of the heap always believes he can get back.
Spiller is no different.
“Big motivation,” Ingram said. “Two years ago, he had a crazy year. He’s confident in what he can do. He’s confident in his abilities, and the couple years he’s had, I think that’s just fuel in the tank, that makes him want do that much better this year.”
This might be Spiller’s chance to show just how valuable he’s always been.