The NFL MVP award is reserved for not just an athlete at the top of their position but also for players whose value is so crucial to the team that it must be acknowledged by the rest of the league. Since the NFL-AFL merger was made official in 1970 there were two Buffalo Bills selected for the NFL MVP honor.
That doesn’t seem like a lot but consider seven NFL teams that have never had a player selected as MVP (Jets, Eagles, Texans, Bears, Jaguars, Cardinals, Saints, and Buccaneers). What’s interesting to note is several of those teams have won Super Bowls but still no one player stood out as an MVP. That’s because it doesn’t matter if your team wins it all, the NFL MVP is reserved for a player whose athletic ability elevates the rest of the team around them.
Drafted number one overall in 1969, Orenthal James Simpson started his playing career with controversy. Simpson refused to sign a contract with the Bills for anything less than $650k (over five years), this was at the time the largest contract in professional sports. Threatening to pursue an acting career over playing professional football he held out while Ralph Wilson thought it over briefly before acquiescing.
Seen as a potential “next Jim Brown”, Simpson was expected to have a significant impact on the Bills running game right from the start. While he was good, it wasn’t until his fourth year in the league that he started turning it up. A lot of help came from the “Electric Company” which was the offensive line Buffalo had put together and is widely considered one of the best O-lines ever to be assembled. It was from this O-line and his first two initials being O-J that got him the nickname “Juice.”
From 1972-1976 every year (except 1974), Simpson was the leading rusher in the NFL. His best year came in 1973 when he was the first player to ever break 2,000 yards rushing. Not only was he the first player to cross that 2,000-yard barrier but he also did it in 14 games making his accomplishment that much more special. This monumental achievement combined with the fact that he was clearly the star and most crucial member of the team is what got Simpson the NFL MVP award that year.
While it’s true most Bills fans would prefer to forget about Simpson, (for obvious reasons), his record-breaking season will make that a near impossibility. For better or worse as an NFL MVP winner he will always have a spot in football history.
The other Buffalo Bill to win an MVP was running back Thurman Thomas. Drafted 40th overall in 1988 Thomas’ draft value took a dive when he injured his knee but like Simpson, he was the Bills’ first pick that year (Buffalo did not have a first-round pick due to some earlier trades that allowed them to acquire Cornelius Bennet). Unlike Simpson, Thomas was hot out of the gate rushing for over 800 yards his first year. He would then carry on that hot streak for the rest of his career.
Thomas’ NFL MVP year was in 1991. Unlike Simpson, Thomas was not the rushing leader the year he won the MVP, that honor goes to Emmett Smith. While Thomas had a respectable 1,407 rushing yards, it wasn’t his rushing skills alone that got him the award. On top of the big rushing numbers, he also had an incredible 631 yards receiving. These two stats combined, gave him over 2,000 total yards gained from scrimmage, making him just the eleventh person to do so.
While it’s true that Jim Kelly was also having the best year of his career and there were several other players on the Bills at that time that were elevating the team, Thomas was the standout in the league. The last thing to note about the MVP award is it’s not just about who’s putting in the work or who’s elevating the team but like every other award, it’s about competition. I mentioned that Emmett Smith had more rushing yards than Thomas that year, but Thomas was much more integral to the Bills’ offense and was more important to Buffalo than any other player on any other team.
Thomas deserved the MVP and would go on to prove it by being one of five running backs to run for over 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons (the last running back to do this was LaDainian Tomlinson). He also would be the only running back to lead the league in yards from scrimmage for four consecutive years. The guy was a tremendous player, the likes of which we may never see again. He may never have been able to hold the Lombardi, but I hope the accolades and recognition as one of the top ten running backs of all time give him reason enough to celebrate.
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