By Tim Graham
Seated comfortably in the shade at St. John Fisher College less than three weeks ago, C.J. Spiller reflected on his jittery early days with the Buffalo Bills.
Spiller spoke with me about the problems he experienced while adapting to the NFL and how he overcame being a frustrated young runner who tried too hard and often got thrown for losses.
"Being a speed guy, trying to use that quickness instead of just letting my offensive line work for me, I was trying to do my job and their job. Compared to college, I could probably do my offensive line's job and get positive yards. Up here, that might turn into a negative play.
"It's a realization that a 2- and 3-yard run in this league is a pretty good run sometimes. We all know rushing yards are hard to come by. Take the positive runs instead of the negative.
"Once that clicked, I took off from there."
For at least one Sunday, though, Spiller played like a rookie again. And he knows it.
Given all the expectations for Spiller and a general belief he'd become a bona-fide NFL showstopper, his season debut was a clunker. Spiller averaged 2.4 yards a carry and 2.8 yards per catch.
"I kind of went back to some of my old stuff," Spiller said today at One Bills Drive. "That was really the biggest thing when I said I was disappointed. I went back to some of my old habits. I wasn't letting the offensive line do their job. I was rushing stuff.
"But the great thing about it is they're very correctable. That's the thing I've been getting preached on: Just do the little things, take my time, tempo and then whenever I make a decision just go with it. I think Sunday, there was just so much going on."
Spiller laughed sheepishly when I asked if he had opening-day jitters. He'd had an emotional offseason. He hadn't played since the day his step-grandfather shot four men, killing two, and then committed suicide in Spiller's hometown of Lake Butler, Fla.
As for football, Spiller has herculean goals he wants to accomplish. He also knows how crucial he is to Buffalo's offense and for easing the burdens on rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.
Perhaps Spiller was a little too tightly wound.
"Just wanting to go out there and -- I don't want to say prove anything -- but try to make too many plays," Spiller said. "I was forcing it instead of just letting that big play come. I was looking for that big play each time, and it hurt us, and it hurt me. ... I have to start taking what they give me."
Of Spiller's 17 rushing attempts, 11 were for 2 yards or shorter. He was stopped for no gain three times and tackled for minus yardage twice.
Three of his receptions were for 2 yards or shorter, including a loss.
"Cutbacks was there," Spiller said. "There was a couple plays where I could've got probably 3 or 4 yards, where I tried to get outside. That was just me trying to be impatient, trying to revert back to some of my old habits."
A couple particular plays irritated him.
On his second carry, he fumbled to set up an easy New England touchdown.
"Any time you put the ball on the ground and put your defense in a bad situation like that, it definitely frustrates you," Spiller said. "I think I kind of let it linger on too much instead of doing what I've done in the past and putting that bad play behind me."
Later in the first quarter, he broke through the middle for an 8-yard gain, but was taken down by New England safety Steve Gregory.
"When I let the safety tackle me one-on-one, I got frustrated in that moment," Spiller said. "I feel I should win that battle every time. My offensive line do a good job of getting me to the secondary; they expect me to win when I get there."
Next up is a defense that rendered Marshawn Lynch moot. The Carolina Panthers held the Seattle Seahawks' star running back to 43 yards on opening day.
Spiller insisted he'll be ready for the challenge.
"If you want to become one of the great players, you have to be able to, win or lose, put that game behind you and move on," Spiller said. "I'm not worried about that performance derailing or having an effect on the whole season. It's just one game."