Bills fans, stung by release of beloved Fred Jackson, will want answers

For Buffalo Bills fans, Monday was a harsh reminder of how quickly things can change in the NFL.

Two days earlier, Fred Jackson stepped onto the field at Ralph Wilson Stadium to begin his ninth season with his only NFL team. On his first carry of the game -- and preseason -- Jackson ran 41 yards to the pylon, falling short of a touchdown. He jumped over the pile to score two plays later.

The crowd chanted "Fred-dy! Fred-dy!" as Jackson, beloved by fans for the better part of the past decade, soaked in the moment. His son took part in a halftime youth scrimmage and posed with his friends as his mom -- Jackson's wife, Danielle -- took a picture.

Perhaps Jackson and his family -- who have earned respect from fans by making Buffalo their year-round home -- knew what was to come Monday, when the Bills released Jackson to help trim their roster to 75 players.

Jackson, known within the organization as a class act, will handle the decision as a pro. He'll likely catch on with another team and perhaps take part in the first playoff game of his career. He will be fine.

But one look at Twitter makes it clear that Bills fans are confused and angry, and coach Rex Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley must explain -- and the team must prove on the field -- why this was the right move.

The Buffalo News reported in March the organization debated releasing Jackson, and there was evidence to support the move. Beyond acquiring workhorse rusher LeSean McCoy, the Bills were in pursuit of then-free-agent running back Bilal Powell, who re-signed with the New York Jets after Jackson stayed put in Buffalo.

Jackson, 34, is the oldest running back in the NFL. He is coming off a down year hampered by a groin injury and poor offensive line play, and was getting acquainted with a new coaching staff.

Yet Jackson is still a productive enough runner to warrant a roster spot. Even though he's seven years older than McCoy, Jackson had nearly 200 fewer career carries. His $2.5 million salary was notable but still just a blip on a $143 million salary cap. And most importantly, he was a high-character leader of a locker room that had added several players with a history of stirring things up or getting into trouble, among them Richie Incognito, Percy Harvin, IK Enemkpali and Karlos Williams.

Jackson's release leaves the Bills with no clear-cut No. 2 running back. Williams, a rookie, impressed coaches in training camp and in the Bills' intrasquad scrimmage but has been sidelined after undergoing an undisclosed medical procedure and was still limping when spotted at the team facility Thursday.

If Williams isn't healthy for the regular-season opener, Bryce Brown could vault to the No. 2 spot behind McCoy, whose status is also in doubt because of a hamstring injury. At the NFL's owners meetings in March, Ryan joked he wasn't going to learn Brown's name because of his ball-security issues. Brown's fumbling continued into training camp, but now Ryan will have to lean on Brown more than initially thought.

The Bills also have Anthony Dixon, a bruising power back coming off a calf injury, but he's best suited as a No. 3 option and special teams contributor.

There was little doubt Jackson was better suited than Williams, Brown or Dixon for the No. 2 role. Jackson is a versatile, tough runner who could fight for tough yards in short-yardage situations, handle blitzes and catch passes out of the backfield on third downs.

Does he have a long-term future in the NFL? No. But Jackson might now take his services to another playoff contender at a time when the Bills were supposed to be pushing in all of their chips in an effort to make the postseason.

If Jackson lands with the New England Patriots -- coach Bill Belichick has long admired him -- then Ryan and Whaley will hear it from Bills fans, who have loved no player over the past decade more than Jackson.