As quarterback EJ Manuel goes, so will go the Bills' offense this season. On this point, there is no debate.
Yet one of the keys to his individual success, as well as the offense's overall efficiency, will have nothing to do with improving his throwing accuracy, his ability to move quickly through his progressions, or the much-needed boost that the aerial game will get from flashy rookie Sammy Watkins and veteran free agent Mike Williams.
The Bills can run the ball as well as any team in the league, and a productive running game — even in an NFL that is so reliant on passing — is still a quarterback's best friend.
"I think it's going to be very important," said running back C.J. Spiller, who is at the top of a deep and talented depth chart. "I think it's going to take a lot of pressure off EJ. I think if we have our running game going, he'll feel more comfortable relying on that."
If preseason games can provide any evidence — there can certainly be a debate on that — the Bills look like they will have a chance to be as potent on the ground as they were in 2013, when they ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards.
In Friday's 20-18 victory over Carolina, the Bills ran for 128 yards, with Bryce Brown accounting for exactly half of that — 64 yards on 11 carries, four of which went for 11 yards or more. Anthony Dixon chipped in 28 yards and scored a touchdown on a goal-line plunge. And Spiller ripped off a 14-yard run, plus had a 16-yarder wiped out by a holding penalty on Lee Smith.
Last week in the Hall of Fame game against the Giants, the Bills gained 94 yards on just 21 attempts, a 4.5 average, with Brown gaining 40 on seven carries.
The Bills' performance last year was notable because in totaling 2,307 yards )4.2 per attempt), they placed two players inside the individual top 10 in the AFC for the first time since 1975, when O.J. Simpson and Jim Braxton did it. Spiller gained 933 yards, Fred Jackson had 890, and each played hurt — particularly Spiller, who was never quite the same after suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 4 against Baltimore.
However, with both Spiller and Jackson scheduled to become free agents at the end of 2014 (Jackson has since re-signed for one year), general manager Doug Whaley saw the need to bolster the running back position. He acquired Brown in a draft-day trade from Philadelphia, and signed Dixon away from San Francisco as a free agent.
No team in the NFL goes four-deep at running back like the Bills, and while there's only one ball to go around, the Bills are well-equipped to deal with injuries to Spiller and Jackson, both of whom have been injury-prone.
In limited playing time behind LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia the previous two years, Brown rushed 190 times for 878 yards, caught 21 passes for 140 yards, and scored six touchdowns.
"In my mind, Bryce Brown is a very talented running back who has the potential to start in the NFL," coach Doug Marrone said after the Carolina game. "When he's in the game, I think he's one of the better players on the field, so his production is not surprising to any of us."
Nor is it a surprise to Brown. The 220-pounder from Kansas State possesses a dynamic combination of speed and power which has been on display throughout camp and the first two exhibition games.
"I feel like I can start in a lot of places, I feel like I can start here, that's my main goal," said Brown. "The main thing with me is making sure I can be the best player I can be and that's going to take care of itself. I don't worry about carries, play calls, because I don't control that; all I can control is when I get the ball, what do I do with it."
Dixon, known to his teammates as "Boobie," was brought in to be more of a special teams player, but he has shown that if need be, he can gain yards, especially down around the goal line. That has been Jackson's forte (he scored nine touchdowns last season), but the 26-year-old Dixon (148 carries, 458 yards, 8 TDs in four seasons of spot duty in San Francisco) might get a chance in that role if the 33-year-old Jackson suffers an injury.
Spiller remains the No. 1 back, but as he looks around the meeting room, he knows the Bills should be fine no matter who's in the game.
"We have a great group, so I think everybody is very comfortable having whoever is out there on the field," said Spiller. "For the new guys, it's tougher for them obviously trying to learn everything, but once they do that they'll be fine."
Bills this week
Tuesday, 8 a.m.: Practice at St. John Fisher College.
Wednesday, 2:55 p.m. to 5 p.m.: Shared practice with Pittsburgh Steelers, Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.
Thursday, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.: Shared practice with Steelers, Saint Vincent College.
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: Preseason game at Pittsburgh.