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Do-it-all Jackson best running back you never hear about

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Fitzpatrick (right) says Jackson (left) is 'my favorite teammate I've ever had.' (US Presswire)  
Fitzpatrick (right) says Jackson (left) is 'my favorite teammate I've ever had.' (US Presswire)  

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- There are a couple of reasons to believe the Buffalo Bills may return to the playoffs this season, and one of them is Mario Williams and the other is Fred Jackson.

Williams you know about. Jackson you may not ... and that must change. Because Fred Jackson is the best running back not on the national radar.

I'm serious. When people talk about the game's top backs they talk about guys like LeSean McCoy, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Ray Rice, Arian Foster and Adrian Peterson. What they don't talk about is Fred Jackson, and I get it: He plays for Buffalo, and the Bills haven't been to the playoffs in over a decade.

Nevertheless, Fred Jackson is everything you want from a running back, with one NFL assistant telling me that he reminds him of Marcus Allen because "he glides more than he runs, and he sees everything."

I don't know about that. What I do know is that Jackson can run to daylight. And catch. And block. He's smart. He's unselfish. And he can return kicks. In fact, a couple of years ago he became the first player in NFL history to have 1,000 yards rushing and returning in the same season.

"So why don't more people know about you?" I asked after Wednesday's walk-through.

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"I honestly don't know," Jackson said. "I always wanted to be respected as one of the best in the game. If anything, it motivates me to go out, continue to have success and put my name out there."

"OK, then, I'll leave it up to you," I said. "Where would you rank yourself among today's backs?"

"I would definitely put me in the top five," Jackson replied. "We have a lot of great backs in this league, but I'm a back who can do it all. I can pass-block, run and catch balls out of the backfield. With those skills I feel I can be in the top five."

Jackson wasn't boasting. He was just reciting the facts. A year ago he was on track to run for nearly 1,600 yards before his season was cut short by a broken leg. At the time, he was third in the league in rushing, second in yards from scrimmage en route to a breakout year that included six 100-yard performances and an average of 5.5 yards per carry.

Oh, yeah, Buffalo was also 5-5 and in the middle of the playoff picture. But once Jackson disappeared so did the Bills, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that the fortunes of one were related to the fortunes of another.

That's one reason people around here believe this may be the year Buffalo makes it back to the playoffs. It's not just that its porous defense looks vastly improved with the additions of pass rushers like Williams and Mark Anderson and the arrival of rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore; it's that the running game is secure with the return of Jackson.

Yeah, he's 31, and 31-year-old running backs usually are at or near the ends of their careers. Not Jackson. In fact, the Bills think he has so much left that this spring they rewarded him with a two-year extension -- and that's with a potential replacement, C.J. Spiller, standing on the sidelines.

Spiller was the Bills' first-round draft choice in 2010, and he not only is seven years younger than Jackson but demonstrated rare ability last year after Jackson bowed out. But Buffalo remains committed to Jackson, and its move tells you how much the organization believes in him.

"He's the best player we have on offense," said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "He's a three-down back who, obviously, is great with the ball in his hands, has great hands in terms of the passing game and who is probably the best blocking running back in the league, in terms of pass protection and chips. So he's a complete player.

"But aside from all that, he's inspiring the way he runs the ball and lays it on the line every down. He appreciates the opportunity he's been given. For us, he's somebody we look to, not only with his play on the field but as a leader off it. He's invaluable to us, and he's my favorite teammate I've ever had."

Funny, but you don't hear comments like that around the New York Jets, and the Jets are the team Buffalo is expected to challenge for second in the AFC East. While the Jets talk about returning to "Ground and Pound," the Buffalo Bills are doing something about it. They're giving the ball to Fred Jackson again, and having him teamed with the confident Spiller should make them one of the game's premier rushing offenses.

So what? So the running game last season helped push Denver to the playoffs for the first time in six years. The Broncos led the league in rushing. The run pushed Houston into the playoffs, too, only the Texans did it for the first time in franchise history ... and they ranked second in rushing.

So maybe this is Buffalo's year. All I know is that the Bills have their best and most complete offensive playmaker in the huddle again, and he makes a difference where and how they finish. A year ago, they were 1-8 down the stretch and 1-5 without Jackson. That's not just a testament of Jackson's value to the team; it's a testament to the importance of the run to Buffalo.

Buffalo is a cold-weather city, and when the weather turns miserable in November and December you don't win there by throwing the ball into the wind; you win by running it. When Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly threw for a career-best 33 touchdowns in 1991 he had 8 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions over his last four home games. But he also had Hall-of-Fame running back Thurman Thomas in the lineup, and the results speak for themselves.

The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls.

"You have to be able to run here," said Jackson. "It's a must. We're going to get swirling winds in that stadium and snow and all that so we have to be able to pound the ball, be able to keep teams off the field and stay on the field when we're out there. It's a huge piece to have, and hopefully we can live up to that expectation."

Fred Jackson already has lived up to his. Undrafted out of Coe College, he fought his way through indoor football leagues, NFL Europe and a backup role to Marshawn Lynch to make it as one of the game's best backs. All that's left now is for someone to acknowledge how much he means to the Buffalo Bills and the NFL.

I think we just did.

"He may not be on the radar of many national media," said safety George Wilson, "but with his production a year ago I know other opponents know his name, know his history and know what he brings to the table each and every Sunday. You want to earn the respect of the guys you line up against, and he's certainly done that."

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