Buffalo Bills fans in Toronto can expect to see a lot of rookie tailback C.J. Spiller on Thursday night.
Bills head coach Chan Gailey said Monday that, with veterans Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch both ailing, Spiller will get a lot of playing time when Buffalo hosts the Indianapolis Colts in an NFL exhibition game at Rogers Centre.
Jackson is out four-to-six weeks with a broken hand, an injury he sustained in the club’s 42-17 pre-season loss to Washington Friday night. Lynch is expected to be out three-to-four weeks with a sprained ankle.
With both expected to miss the remainder of the pre-season, the spotlight should fall squarely on Spiller, the former Clemson star Buffalo selected ninth overall in this year’s NFL draft. The added workload could prove beneficial for Spiller, who missed 11 practices after training camp opened while he and the Bills hammered out a contract agreement.
“C.J. will obviously get the majority of the work with our (starters) and he may have to go even longer than that,” Gailey said during a conference call. “He missed quite a few days of training camp already so he needs as much work as he get anyway.”
That’s fine with Spiller.
“It doesn’t matter to me, if I have to play the whole game, I will,” he said from the club’s training camp. “It’s football.
“This is what I love to do. I haven’t talked to them (Bills coaches) with how many (reps) I’m going to take. I just have to prepare myself as if I’ll play the whole game.”
The five-foot-11, 196-pound Spiller enjoyed a brilliant college career, finishing as Clemson’s third-all time rusher with 3,547 yards and 32 touchdowns. He also added 123 receptions for 1,420 yards and 11 TDs and tied an NCAA record eight return touchdowns (seven kickoffs, one punt).
Spiller has drawn comparisons to Reggie Bush of the Super Bowl-champion New Orleans Saints. He and Bush are the only two players in NCAA history to register 3,000 yards rushing, 1,500 yards in kickoff returns, 1,000 yards receiving and 500 punt-return yards.
And Gailey said Spiller has been as advertised so far in camp.
“He’s exactly what we thought we were getting,” Gailey said. “Of course, we saw that in OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and mini-camp, but once you put the pads on you hope to see it still and he’s exactly what we thought he was.”
Buffalo will play two games at Rogers Centre this year as part of the Bills Toronto Series, with the other being a regular-season encounter against Chicago in November. The two contests will be the fourth and fifth of the eight the NFL team is to play here through 2012.
Exact ticket sales weren’t immediately available, but none of the previous three games played in the series have been a sellout Rogers Centre, which has a capacity for 54,000 seats for football. The highest announced attendance was 32,134 to watch Miami beat the Bills 16-13 on Dec. 7, 2008.
Rogers Communications paid US$78 million to stage the eight games in Toronto, fuelling speculation at the time on both sides of the border the series was first step in the Bills relocating to the Ontario capital. However, Buffalo officials maintained then — as now — that the series is an attempt by the NFL team to broaden its brand and establish a strength in the lucrative southern Ontario marketplace.
The series also sent shockwaves through the CFL as league officials were concerned about the impact NFL games would have not only on the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but the league as a whole. The Ticats chose to have nothing to do with the games, but the Argos agreed to give their season-ticket holders first crack at securing tickets to see Buffalo play.
And this year, the Bills and Argos are working with Football Canada to promote Football Week in Toronto this week, with both teams staging games and working together to help promote the sport within the region.
Not much is expected of Buffalo this year, with some pundits predicting the club might win as few as five games in 2010. The Bills haven’t made the NFL playoffs since 1999, when former CFL star Doug Flutie started 15 games and helped the franchise finish second in the AFC East with an 11-5 record.
Buffalo lost to the Tennessee Titans in the first round and such stalwarts as defensive end Bruce Smith, running back Thurman Thomas and receiver Andre Reed were all released following the season.
Thursday’s game might not count in the standings, but it will be one of note for Gailey. His first home game as the Bills head coach will come in Toronto.
“It’s pretty unique, it will go in the book” he said. “When you write your memoirs, this is one of those special things that you get to write about.
“Toronto is a great city, I’ve enjoyed going up there. The Bills have enjoyed a great relationship there and we hope to make it a home away from home type deal, that it’s as big there as it is at Ralph Wilson Stadium.”
The Bills haven’t enjoyed home-field advantage at Rogers Centre, having posted a dismal 0-3 record there so far in the series. Buffalo dropped an exhibition contest to Pittsburgh before losing a regular-season game to Miami in 2008, and it lost 19-13 to the New York Jets in November 2009 before an announced gathering of 51,567.
Gailey said fourth-year pro Trent Edwards will get the start against Indianapolis before giving way to Brian Brohm, who didn’t dress against Washington. Rookie Levi Brown, a 2010 seventh-round draft pick, will also suit up. Veteran Mark Fitzpatrick won’t dress after seeing action against Washington.
“We thought instead of trying to get Fitzpatrick a few plays, Brohm a few plays, Levi Brown a few plays it was better to just sit one and let the other two guys play and see where it goes from there,” Gailey said.
The game will feature just one Canadian-born player, with receiver Sam Giguere of Sherbrooke, Que., looking to crack the Colts active roster as a kick-returner after spending the past two seasons on the practice roster. Defensive lineman Corey Mace of Port Moody, B.C., also spent two years on the Bills practice roster before the club opted against re-signing him this off-season.
But Gailey’s staff does include quarterbacks coach George Cortez, a respected and long-time former offensive co-ordinator in the CFL.
“George is a great calming influence on those guys,” Gailey said. “He’s very intelligent and knows the game inside and how to teach them the finer points.’
Gailey believes Cortez’s experience in the pass-happy CFL should serve him well with the Bills.
“It will,” Gailey said. “It’s a different type of throwing and a different situation.
“But I think anybody that’s been around different thought processes has got a broader scope on things and he certainly has a broad scope as far as understanding coverages and where people belong.”