C.J. Spiller tried to fight the truth last season.
He was coming off a season that ended prematurely because of a broken collarbone, and he was determined to not let an injury keep him off the field again. When Spiller returned early in the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his knee in training camp, he wanted to believe he was putting his best foot forward.
The truth is that his knee was never right. Spiller, who had seemed like such a perfect fit in the Saints offense when he became the big offensive splash in free agency, instead sputtered to the least productive season of his career.
“It played a big role, because of the style of play that I play, the cutting and stopping, I didn’t have that explosion that I’m known for,” Spiller said. “I tried to block it out as much as I could and give it everything I can. But the good thing is, it’s behind me now. The road to recovery is looking very bright.” Without that lateral agility and quickness, Spiller never really got going. The veteran back finished with career lows of 36 carries, 112 yards and 3.1 yards per carry. Used mostly in the passing game, Spiller caught the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Dallas and set up a thrilling finish with the game-tying score against the Giants, but other than that, he ended up being mostly an afterthought in Sean Payton’s offense.
Faced with a player who obviously wasn’t at full strength, the Saints decided to place Spiller on injured reserve with two games left in the year.
“It was a decision that had to be made,” Spiller said. “Obviously, you don’t want to get shut down at any time, just because I had just come off a season where a collarbone caused me to miss several games, so it is what it was. The coaches made that decision. I thought I was good. Full-go, straight-line I was good, but the cutting part, the stopping part wasn’t there.”
Spiller didn’t need any further work on his knee. It simply needed time to recover its strength. After an offseason spent in rehab, strengthening the knee and working on regaining his abilities, Spiller has looked like his old self on the Saints’ practice fields so far this summer.
“I’d say C.J.’s health and his movement skills look noticeably different,” Payton said. “He worked his butt off in the offseason to get the strength back in that knee where he had his injury. That has been really encouraging.”
If Spiller can return to form, the Saints can get back to all the plans they had for him last season.
Ideally, Spiller’s the perfect satellite back, built in the Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles mold — a “joker-type” player in Payton’s parlance. When the Saints have a running back who can exploit matchups against linebackers and safeties underneath, quarterback Drew Brees can make him a star.
Spiller is ready to live up to the billing he received when he signed his four-year, $16 million deal last March.
“When I’m 100 percent and able to do what I’m able to do, I know I can flourish in this offense,” he said. “This offense is built for my type of skill set. I wouldn’t want to be in any other one — a great head coach that knows how to put players in position to make plays, and then you’ve got a quarterback that’s a future Hall of Famer, that knows how to win matchups and to take advantage of each and every play.
“I’m just happy that I have a chance to revamp or redeem myself and give this team hopefully 100 percent.”