The one play that came to symbolize the 2008 Buffalo Bills never should have happened.
In icing a sure win against the New York Jets, head coach Dick Jauron opted for a J.P. Losman rollout. It's easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback and second-guess every coaching decision, but this was preposterous.
For once, the strength of this team crystallized: the rushing game. Marshawn Lynch was running angry. The offensive line was rag-dolling a 3-4 defense. And Jauron --- whose play-calling is usually about exciting as a Michael Dukakis rebuttal --- got cute. Losman was tracked from behind by Abram Elam, fumbled the ball and Shaun Ellis scooped it up for a surreal game-winning touchdown.
If one play can cost a job, this was it.
Instead, Jauron was retained and the Bills remain stuck in another 7-9 predicament. The wound wouldn't sting as much if Jauron had simply fed Lynch in that Dec. 14 game and earned a marquee win in a forgetful season. In the long-term, though, maybe that one ill-advised decision can be spun into a positive. It exposed a striking indecisiveness in the Bills' offensive gameplan. Week to week, Buffalo struggled to find its identity on offense. Lynch and Fred Jackson should have been a lethal complementary tandem. Instead their carries fluctuated week after week. There was no rhythm in Turk Schonert's grand, master plan.
Ignoring Lynch in crunch time at the Mistake in the Meadowlands cues a clear confession. This is a running team, first and foremost. Schonert vowed to be the anti-Fairchild and push the ball downfield more. Such a promise came to fruition against the September cupcakes, but in a 16-game schedule, a team needs a calling card. The Bills never openly embraced themselves as a run-first, punch-you-in-the-mouth team.
Ignoring Lynch at a crucial moment in a 21-carry, 127-yard expedition is raw proof.
Because, believe it or not, the Bills have one of the better rushing attacks in the entire NFL. This is something to build on. In a league where teams are trying harder and harder to cultivate a two-back system, Buffalo's duo is set. Despite a brutal midseason stretch against 3-4 defenses, Lynch and Jackson went on to pioneer the league's 14th best rushing attack (115 yards per game). Lynch recorded his second 1,000-yard season in his second season with 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns. Jackson, often the forgotten man in Buffalo's offense, finished with 571 yards on 130 carries (4.4 avg.) with three touchdowns.
Beyond the numbers, Jackson's silky smooth burst is a healthy complement to Lynch's porcupine style. In Tennessee, Carolina and Baltimore, multi-back sets lifted subpar passing attacks into the playoffs. So while the obvious criticisms in Buffalo are directed toward a slapdash receiving corps, it is possible to win with the current personnel. Are Justin Gage and Brandon Jones better than Lee Evans and Josh Reed? Probably not. Used correctly, Lynch and Jackson can elevate into the upper-echelon of two-back systems. Bang it here for a past BFR column on this very real possibility.
Also, don't forget about third-stringer Xavier Omon. He only had six carries as a rookie, but Buffalo may want to buoy him into some type of role. In 2007, the San Diego Chargers used Michael Turner, LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles to spearhead the NFL's seventh-best rushing attack. With 37 carries, Sproles often broke defenses' backs. Omon, who put up video-game numbers in college, could be a deceptive offensive tool in '09.
In fairness, the blame for Buffalo's midseason rushing collapse should be evenly distributed.
-- One of the largest offensive lines in the NFL was bowled over, namely Duke Preston at center. After a statement win against San Diego, Buffalo's rushing game fell into a confusing three-game malaise against division foes. Often facing bodies immediately upon receiving the handoff, Lynch managed 123 yards on 36 carries during the three-game losing streak that dropped Buffalo from first-place to last-place in the division. The Bills' front struggled from an assignment standpoint, accounting for Jason Ferguson, Vince Wilfork and Kris Jenkins in the 3-4 sets.
-- At times, Lynch danced around holes like an indecisive scat back. He isn't a home-run hitting by any means. Before Week 13, his longest run was only 28 yards.
-- Trent Edwards failed to stretch defenses, allowing for AFC East foes to cram their 3-4 alignment tighter to the line and tee off. Some of Lynch and Jackson's best runs were on draws in passing situations. Daylight in running situations was few and far between in '08.
-- And other times, Schonert ignored Jackson completely. It's still hard to believe Jackson received zero touches in the Bills' 16-3 loss to Miami in Toronto.
Buffalo's 0-8 record against division opponents can be tied to these various problems --- unfortunate considering the Bills arguably have the best rushing game in the division. Such an advantage should lead to melt-the-clock wins and it didn't.
Fortunately, the pieces are in place. Buffalo doesn't need to draft a running back or invest heavily in a lineman. If the front office can reach an agreement with left tackle Jason Peters and ink a center like Matt Birk at a reasonable price, the Bills could construct its best rushing attack since Willis McGahee's banner rookie season in 2004.
And with 2:06 left, quarterback rollouts won't even dare to dance in Jauron's imagination.
Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of The Buffalo Football Report and also writes for The Packer Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org