Personnel didn’t coincide with strategy.
And it still produced a 1,000-yard back.
Last season, the Buffalo Bills were a run-first team. Through a quarterback charades and a blizzard of season-ending injuries, Marshawn Lynch and the Bills’ refurbished offensive line was one constant.
The gutsy, fourth-quarter two-point conversion by Lynch at Miami.
The two 100-yard performances at home against the same team.
Lynch’s improbable 56-yard, game-clinching touchdown against Cincinnati.
Buffalo’s rushing attack endured an addition-by-subtraction by trading Willis McGahee. Lynch, offensive guard Derrick Dockery and offensive tackle Langston Walker didn’t come cheap, but Buffalo’s rush offense improved from 27th in the NFL to 15th.
But rewind Lynch’s spin-to-the-races touchdown against the Bengals, and you’ll see something interesting. Or put more aptly: won’t see.
Steve Fairchild, Buffalo’s offensive coordinator last season, didn’t adapt to the team’s obvious identity. Instead of employing a fullback to pave the way for the dynamic young combo of Lynch and Fred Jackson, Fairchild often went with single-back formations and used H-backs. Buffalo lacked a road-grading fullback by design.
Fairchild is off to Colorado State, as Turk Schonert takes over the offense for 2008. Schonert has already vowed to make the Bills a smashmouth, run-first offense. Effectively completing the renaissance in the run game means adding a fullback. The bulk of the offensive line is set for the next 3-5 years financially and Lynch and Jackson are keepers, but without a true fullback, the rushing game will stay stuck in third gear. Admirable, but not extraordinary. Lynch met first contact behind the line of scrimmage far too often last season. Nobody was there to pick up the trash.
Start-from-day-one talent can be found in the draft. In the 2007 draft, three teams found starting fullbacks – one in the fourth round (Baltimore-Le’Ron McClain) and two in the sixth (Green Bay-Korey Hall, Miami-Reagan Mauia). Hall was probably the best of the bunch, keying Ryan Grant’s six 100-yard games.
While Buffalo will almost certainly address its pressing needs at wide receiver, cornerback and tight end in the early rounds, look for the team’s management-by-committee to jump at a fullback in the fourth or fifth round. West Virginia’s Owen Schmitt fits the character of the Bills and the blue-collar city itself. A hardnosed, rock solid 6-foot-2, 250 lb., Schmitt was the unheralded anchor of the Mountaineers juggernaut, spread offense the past three seasons. Tailback Steve Slaton was able to beat defenses to the edge because of Schmitt’s dead-on initial blocks.
Schmitt’s aggressive, hell-bent attitude goes beyond the stereotypical fullback. He has reportedly broken 11 facemasks during his stay at West Virginia. The former walk-on’s tenacity quickly spread throughout the Big East and all of college football. On his pro day psychologically test, one question asked, “Are you a dog or a cat?” Schmitt fittingly scribbled, “Lion.” He has a 675-pound squat, a 480-pound hang clean and ranked fourth amongst all backs by bench-pressing 225 lb. 26 times.
In three seasons, Schmitt averaged 7.9, 5.4 and 4.7 yards per carry also as a frequently used supplementary threat. Tailback instincts helps him anticipate holes as a fullback and clear lanes – a rare quality.
Owen Schmitt breaks loose in the Fiesta Bowl.
But not as rare as one bizarre gesture that firestormed into a YouTube, “Are You Kidding Me?” special. Against Louisville last season, West Virginia had Schmitt – also a well-known comedian – attempt a pooch punt. He miserably shanked it, and trudged to the sideline – muttering words of anger under his breath, ignoring pats on the back from teammates. The roughly, mohawked Schmitt continued pacing the sideline for a couple more seconds until – Bang! Bang! Bang! – he bashed his helmet against his forehead three straight times.
The kind of guy you want on your side.
With the Mountaineers, Schmitt was occasionally utilized as an offensive threat also. At the Carrier Dome against lowly Syracuse this past fall, the Orange managed to somewhat slow down West Virginia quarterback Pat White and the halfback, Slaton (both were 1,000-yard rushers) in the red zone. But Schmitt stepped up with two first-half touchdowns and a 31-yard reception to spark West Virginia in a 55-14 beat-down.
How long Buffalo is willing to wait for a fullback is a dicey dilemma. It’s rarely a position of urgency for all 32 teams. With dire needs at three other spots, the Bills will be hard-pressed to snag the no-ego Schmitt in the third round.
But considering the direction Buffalo’s offense is heading, Schmitt is a great pick in the third. Quarterback Trent Edwards is a definite improvement over J.P. Losman, and the tendency is to surround him with weapons at wide receiver, but this draft, the Bills have a shot to complete its M.O. on offense. Without a true fullback, Schonert’s offense will never get off the ground. With him, the Bills could boast their best ground game since Thurman Thomas departed a decade ago.
Owen Schmitt is a near-lock to start next year with Pro Bowl potential all over him. Only one fullback has been drafted in the first three rounds this decade, but Schmitt sure looks a lot more like Mike Alstott (1996, 35th overall) than “Touchdown Tommy” Vardell (1992, ninth overall).
He’s the closest thing to Human Red Bull. The Bills would be smart to uncork Schmitt within their refined rushing attack. He’s the missing piece.
Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org