For everyone who’s ever witnessed C.J. Spiller run on grass with shoulder pads on his upper forelimbs, cleats on his feet, and a football tucked tightly within his forearm, bicep, and chest, that first carry is a real memory.
Chances are it was a successful attempt, being that nearly every time he touches the football something miraculous happens. Either he ran over someone, around them, or, impossibly, through them. He probably didn’t lose any yardage that first time you saw him either, unless on that particular play Spiller’s offensive line decided to play dead.
He’s always been special, with a perfect skill-set to play the position.
For the duration of his high school career, Spiller averaged 10.1 yards per carry, a stat that preternaturally declared his future as one of football’s least fair weapons.
Last year, at the age of 25, in his third year of NFL action, Spiller finally let the dominant player his high school career foreshadowed see light, inserting himself on every defensive coordinator’s radar with a chronology of jaw-dropping moves, building a 16 game masterpiece of open field brilliance and an elusiveness that pops up once or twice a generation.
Spiller ran for 1244 yards (eighth highest in the league) in just 207 attempts (22nd highest, behind Vick Ballard and Mikel Leshoure) giving him a per rush average of 6.0, which is incredible, and something only seven backs in NFL history have accomplished in a season with at least 200 attempts.
(As a dual-pronged attack, he also caught 43 passes, averaging 10.7 yards per catch and two touchdowns. That’s two more catches than league MVP Adrian Peterson, for over 200 more total yards.)
Here are some more statistics that back up the magic he displayed on the field. According to AdvancedNFLStats.com, Spiller was first in Expected Points Added (EPA) and second in Win Probability Added (WPA) among all running backs. ProFootballFocus had him second to only Peterson, with an average of 3.6 yards after contact, proving he might be as strong as he is slippery.
Despite failing to appear on the NFL Network’s Top 100 list—damn near felonious—Football Outsiders ranked Spiller as the best running in football last season with their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average stat (DVOA), which measures the running back’s value per play.
Spiller’s production was marvelous, and given the fact it occurred within such a troubled context only makes him more impressive. The Buffalo Bills were one of 10 teams to win six or less games last year. They allowed 50 points against Seattle, 48 points against the Jets (seriously), and an average of 44.5 points in two games against New England.
Poor defense led to multiple situations where the Bills were forced to throw, which wasn’t a great place to be given the team’s quarterback situation. (The immortal Ryan Fitzpatrick—thrower of 39 interceptions in the past two years, and ranked 28th in QBR last season—isn’t a world-beater.)
Next season, Spiller should be even better, mostly because of the improved/additional options on offense. The team also drafted EJ Manuel, a quarterback who can run, and Robert Woods, one of the best wide receivers in Pac-12 history, with their first two picks in last year’s draft.
Woods figures to eventually pair up with Stevie Johnson on the outside, which should help spread the field a bit for Spiller underneath. And if Manuel can stay on the right path after Sunday's performance, the Bills figure to have many more options in the running game, specifically the possible installation of a devastating read option that should only make Spiller more dangerous.
He isn’t the league’s best running back heading into 2013—and his disappointing performance in what looked like an opportunistic outing against a depleted New England Patriots team in Week 1 doesn’t push him any closer to the top—but when the year ends CJ Spiller could very well be second to no one.
Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network. He also writes for ScoreBig. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.