Running backs make up some of the most iconic memories fans associate with the history of the NFL. There have been several memorable players at the running back position throughout the history of the Buffalo Bills franchise, including a couple of all-time greats at the position. Though the focus of the current edition of the Bills doesn’t prioritize the running game, this hasn’t always been the case for the team. Here, we continue the ‘top 5’ theme as we take a look at the five best running backs in the history of the Buffalo Bills.
5. Fred Jackson
Fred Jackson was a solid running back for the Bills over several seasons. Jackson’s best season came in 2009, his only season of rushing over 1,000 yards. He also led the NFL in all-purpose yards that season. Never a high touchdown guy—his career high in a season was nine—he isn’t the kind of running back who ever made much of a name for himself outside the Buffalo sports market, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a definite fan favorite for several years inside that market.
His fan-favorite status culminated in his signing a one-day contract to officially retire as a Bill in 2018.
4. Joe Cribbs
Joe Cribbs was a very, very good running back. Cribbs’ last two seasons at Auburn saw him rush over 1,000 yards. This is a trend he would continue into the NFL with the Bills. Not only did he run for 1,185 yards in his rookie season, but he also rushed for 11 touchdowns and finished second in Offensive Rooke of the Year voting. The one blemish on this season was his 16 fumbles, which led the NFL. In the shortened 1982 season, he led the NFL with 90.4 yards per game. After another good season in 1983, he missed the 1984 season over a dispute with his contract. Unfortunately, he would never be the same running back again afterward.
Cribbs’ success allowed the Bills to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 1980 and 1981, where they hadn’t been since 1974.
3. Cookie Gilchrist
A hero from the early days of the Buffalo Bills, Cookie Gilchrist was a big, bruising type of back at 6-3, 251 lbs. A member of the 1964 AFL champion Bills team, Gilchrist rushed for 122 yards in that game as the team cruised to a 20-7 victory over San Diego. An absolute workhorse, he led the AFL in rush attempts in back-to-back-to-back seasons (two w/Bills, one w/Denver) and rushing touchdowns in four consecutive seasons (three w/Bills, one w/Denver).
He also led the league in rushing yards per game for the Bills in 1962 and 1964. Due to his size, he proved an incredible task to bring down and this element of his game allowed him to be one of the best running backs in the short history of the AFL.
Gilchrist was also an important voice in fighting against the racism prevalent in the structure of the NFL at the time.
2. Thurman Thomas
Thurman Thomas is a Bills legend. One of the constants of the four-time AFC championship teams of the early ‘90s, Thomas also ran for at least 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons between 1989 and 1996. In the first four of these eight seasons, he also led the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
He was consistently one of the best running backs in the NFL during an era that also featured all-time greats like Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. Indeed, there are very few players in the history of the Bills franchise whose legacy stands as tall against the test of longevity as this Hall of Fame running back.
Thomas’ impact on the Bills teams he played on was massive. His consistently high level of performance opened the offense up wonderfully.
1. O.J. Simpson
O.J. Simpson takes the #1 spot on this list because he was an absolutely phenomenal athlete. One could easily make the case that Simpson is a top three all-time running back. His 1973 season, in which he rushed for 2,003 yards, is arguably the greatest individual season by any player in NFL history. What’s most amazing about this accomplishment is the fact that the NFL season was 14 games long at the time. Imagine for a moment how big that rushing number may have been in a 16 or 17-game season.
Perpetual controversy has severely damaged his reputation in the eyes of all that have come to know him as a public figure after his playing days, but nothing can take away from what he was able to do as one of the league’s all-time great players.
The 2,000-yard seasons of Adrian Peterson and Derrick Henry have nothing on O.J.’s.
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