PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- As a man who has run for more than 10,000 yards in 10 NFL seasons, LeSean McCoy would seem to be the quintessential candidate for Most Likely to Coast Through the Preseason.
Yet, as the Buffalo Bills prepare for their preseason opener Thursday against the Indianapolis Colts at New Era Field, the elusive running back known as "Shady" may well be fighting for his job -- and the way he performs in these August exhibitions could go a long way toward determining his football future.
With McCoy trying to fend off challenges from intriguing rookie Devin Singletary and indefatigable future Hall of Famer Frank Gore, and attempting to answer critics who viewed his subpar 2018 campaign as a sign of irreversible decline, there's no sense in holding back.
"I'm excited," McCoy told me on Tuesday following the Bills' final training camp practice at St. John Fisher College. "I'm a guy whose back's against the wall -- how are you gonna respond? There's only two ways: You can crumble, or come out fighting. It's as simple as that."
If McCoy doesn't separate himself from the competition during the preseason, there's no guarantee he'll end up on the Bills' roster for the real games. With a base salary of $6.175 million for 2019, McCoy could be asked to take a pay cut, with an explicit threat of being released were he to balk. He could also be traded, or the team could choose to cut him outright, without offering a reduced salary.
Sources familiar with the Bills' decision-making process said a lot of weight will be placed on the respective preseason performances of their running backs, with veteran free-agent pickup T.J. Yeldon (formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars) also theoretically in the mix. The plan, at least when it comes to McCoy, Gore and Singletary, is to give each of the backs an extended look that allows them to get into a rhythm. It may well be that one back will be heavily featured in each of the team's first three preseason games, meaning the competition begins in earnest against the Colts.
For McCoy, the key will be to show that 2018 was an anomaly. Coming off five consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, McCoy, who'd just turned 30, put up career lows in yards (514) and yards per carry (3.2). Many outsiders presumed that he had become part of a typical pattern of elite running backs who fall off at that age, but McCoy staunchly believes they are misguided.
"I feel good," he insisted. "I think I'm different, you know? I hang around a lot of running backs -- retired dudes that I came in with, guys older than me. And they have all these injuries and they're all [broken down].
"I don't play like that. My style is unique. I don't have any issues on my body, injuries. I don't take a lot of shots. I don't take a lot of hits. So I think I'm unique."
If nothing else, McCoy has drawn plenty of inspiration from the presence of his longtime buddy Gore, who at 36 continues to defy every cliche about running back longevity. Last season, his 14th, was an impressive one for the hard-nosed runner, who gained 722 yards on 156 carries for the Miami Dolphins. His 4.6 yards-per-carry average was his best since 2012, when he earned the fourth of five Pro Bowl selections. The Bills signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal in free agency.
"I feel good," Gore told me. "I'm not just here to be a 'locker-room guy'; I'm here to run. I have no doubt that I can still get it done."
Gore is so convinced that his age is not an impediment that he doesn't even want it to be acknowledged in jest.
"Sometimes I might say something jokingly about age -- he doesn't like that," McCoy said of Gore. "He gets mad at me. He says, 'Man, if you think like that, that's what's gonna happen. You say stuff like this, it's gonna happen. Nah, man, you're young right now.' "
The more pressing threat to McCoy's starting spot may be Singletary, a third-round pick out of Florida Atlantic who has wowed coaches and personnel executives since his arrival. Still 21, the 5-foot-7, 203-pounder has shown a penchant for ripping off big plays and an aptitude for making defenders miss. He could become an immediate factor for the Bills if he shines in the preseason.
McCoy said he has made a point of trying to mentor Singletary, harkening back to his early days with the Philadelphia Eagles, who drafted him in the second round out of Pittsburgh in 2009. At the time, incumbent running back Brian Westbrook was battling injuries, and the two had a relatively distant relationship during McCoy's first few months in Philly, though they ultimately bonded.
"I never want to be that older vet that didn't help out a player because of competition," McCoy said. "So I'll help [Singletary] out -- whatever he asks, whatever he needs."
Speaking of the Eagles, McCoy has retained some ties to the organization that shockingly traded him to the Bills (for linebacker Kiko Alonso) in March of 2015, a move dictated by then-coach Chip Kelly. McCoy remains a favorite of Philly owner Jeffrey Lurie, and NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported last October that the Eagles were interested in reacquiring McCoy and had some trade discussions with the Bills.
Could those discussions resume? Given McCoy's age and salary, the Eagles would not likely trade for him in the coming weeks, but they could have interest were he to become available on the open market. After all, back in March, the Eaglesdid reacquire wide receiver DeSean Jackson -- another casualty of the Kelly era -- in a deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"He sends me pictures and videos all the time," McCoy said of Jackson, laughing. "It'll be of something we used to do together. Like every Friday in the training room, we would rap. So, him and (tackle Jason) Peters were in there rapping, and he sent the video. Or he'll find our favorite cook and put him on FaceTime. He's just being funny, messing with me."
If the raucous rap videos from the Eagles' training room make McCoy smile, he's less enthused by the noise surrounding his perceived decline. Beginning Thursday, he'll have a chance to prove that reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated.
"You hear things, and it's weird," McCoy said. "You know what you've been a part of and what you've accomplished. I don't let it get to me too much. I think it can (motivate me). You've always got to prove yourself in this league. That's one thing I've learned. You never can be complacent."