The Buffalo Bills have undergone a great deal of adversity and change in the past several months, with Fred Jackson being there for many of them.
With the death of longtime owner Ralph Wilson in March the organization is in the midst of preparing itself to receive bids to from potential ownership groups, while entering discussions regarding stadium upgrades and seeking out viable site locations for a new stadium.
Hall-of-Fame quarterback and beloved figure Jim Kelly is undergoing treatment for his second bout of cancer as the franchise continues to search for his replacement nearly 20 years after his retirement. The Bills were major players in both free agency and the draft, making perhaps the riskiest move when they traded up to snatch wide receiver Sammy Watkins number four in the draft, relinquishing several first and second round picks in later years in the process.
And in recent weeks, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus has been arrested twice, leaving his future with the Bills in doubt.
Undoubtedly, it has been an eventful start to 2014 for the franchise. It is clear that now, more than ever, the Bills need a calming presence on the field and in the locker room if they are to reverse a 15-year-streak of missed playoff opportunities; a voice that goes beyond what head coach Doug Marrone can provide.
Fred Jackson appears to be just the man for the job.
To be successful in the NFL, or in any professional sport for that matter, a team requires a proven leader, usually a veteran with a history of a high level of performance on the field. Jackson checks all of those boxes.
Leadership doesn’t always entail a loud rah-rah type or constant chatter; it can be that a player will lead by his actions with a well-timed speech or directive to his teammates during a difficult situation. Certainly team chemistry and togetherness does not cure all on the field; players still must perform, the schemes must still be sound ones, critical in-game decisions must be the right ones; but strong leadership can send a team over the top.
In this age of high-flying offense where passing rules all, most assume leadership should and will come from the quarterback and this is often the case. Think Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees – all among the best quarterbacks in the league and their ability to direct their team and lead is a large part of that success.
But leadership will not always come from the quarterback especially if they are young and inexperienced or just don’t possess the type of personality that lends itself to vocal leadership.
Consider the case of Ray Lewis and Joe Flacco – Lewis was the clear leader on the Baltimore Ravens and even upon his retirement after the 2012 season, Flacco never made the step up to fill that leadership void, and partly as a result, the Ravens missed the playoffs after having achieved the greatest pinnacle the year before—the lack of offensive weapons didn’t help either.
Youth does not prevent leadership and for that we can look to Russell Wilson leading the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl title in just his second year in the league, even as it was the team’s dominating defense that did the heavy lifting.
However, the more experience a player has, the more authority and knowledge he will have to command the respect of his teammates.
Naming a leader or captain that isn’t organically thought of one does not work either. For that we only have to look to the 2012 Jets who named Santonio Holmes as a team captain though he obviously didn’t have the ‘team-first’ attitude essential to that position and as a result did not garner the rest of the team’s respect, significantly contributing to the team’s implosion on the field.
For the Bills, there has been an obvious choice for their leader the past several years even if he isn’t nearly as well-known as the players mentioned above.
Jackson’s modest persona belies a strong leader that has quietly earned the admiration of his teammates over the years. He fills the void where one might expect the quarterback too. Quarterback EJ Manuel is entering only his second year in the league and has played in just 10 games in the league due to a myriad of injury issues.
The Bills are still trying to decide if he is a true franchise quarterback or at least a quality starter; asking him to be a leader in the locker room at this point may be placing too much on his plate. He also seems to lack the commanding presence one would expect from a franchise quarterback. The receiving core is too young and must prove themselves before seeking to lead others.
Defensive lineman Kyle Williams is a long time veteran and Pro Bowl caliber player that could fill that void. But despite his quiet personality and late and inconspicuous start in the league, Fred Jackson, is still the natural choice to pull this team together and reduce off field distractions.
Jackson’s eight years in the league have been a model of consistency and a high level of production. He is the rare back that shows little signs of drop off even at the ripe old age of 33, beyond ancient for a position considered past their prime upon reaching 27 years old. Jackson rushed for 890 yards last year on 206 attempts – good for a 4.3 yards per attempt average – and a career high nine touchdowns while splitting carries with speedy backfield mate CJ Spiller.
Jackson is just as potent out of the backfield as a pass catcher, accounting for 387 yards on 47 receptions and one touchdown. He is third all-time on the Bills career rushing list behind Thurman Thomas and OJ Simpson with 5,121 yards and joins Thomas as the only players in franchise history to record over 4,000 yards rushing and 2,000 yards receiving.
Those are his on-field credentials but what qualifies him to be the Bills leader?
Well, let’s start with the fact that his teammates voted him (along with Williams) as a team captain the past several years. Jackson relishes the opportunity to mentor the younger players on the team so that they are prepared when they do step on the field. And the Bills definitely have a number of young players especially at the skilled positions on the offensive side of the ball.
In fact, Kelly himself acknowledged earlier in the year that Jackson was the unquestionable leader of this team, both with his unselfish play on the field and his no-nonsense attitude off of it. Jackson’s ability to play through various maladies sets the standard for the rest of the team.
Though quiet and reserved in character, Jackson has held the Bills together during many promising seasons that turned sour. With more changes both on and off the field his leadership and strength will be tested more than ever but it is essential to this team’s ultimate success or failure.
Even at 33, Jackson looks to be up to the task.
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