The Buffalo Bills are back on the rise. After a 17-year playoff drought, the Bills have qualified in two of the last three seasons and will enter the 2020 season as a favorite in the AFC East.
Buffalo has built its defense and added who they hope is their franchise quarterback in Josh Allen. Over recent years, they have had some top-tier running backs in Marshawn Lynch, LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore. The Bills have decided to go younger with Devin Singletary as their lead back for 2020.
This is a team with an interesting history given their four-straight Super Bowl runs with Jim Kelly under center. The run game has always been a factor in Buffalo, however. Here are the top three running backs in franchise history.
We begin with an honorable mention, Cookie Gilchrist. He joined the Bills in just their third season of existence in 1962. Gilchrist spent three years in Buffalo which is why he did not crack the top three. During his three years, he was named First Team All-Pro twice and a Pro Bowler in each season.
Gilchrist led the league in rushing twice and rushing touchdowns three times. As a rookie, Gilchrist rushed for 1,032 yards and 13 touchdowns. He followed that up with 12 touchdowns in year two. Gilchrist was apart of the 1964 NFL Championship team in Buffalo. He spent just six years in the NFL.
3. Fred Jackson
Jackson is one of the top running backs in Bills history and also one of the most loyal. He spent eight years in the Bills backfield and did not make the playoffs once. This did not stop him from signing a four-year deal to remain in Buffalo in 2009. Then, in 2012, he signed a two-year extension.
It was not an easy journey for Jackson. In 2003, he went undrafted and was forced to go overseas to play football. He spent three years in Europe before coming back to America to play for the Bills at age 26. In his rookie year, Jackson started just one game and totaled 58 carries without a touchdown. He did not break out until 2009, when he rushed for 1,062 yards and two touchdowns. He also added 46 catches.
From then on, Jackson was the No. 1 back in Buffalo. He would run for 900 or more yards in each of the next two years. In 2013, Jackson scored nine touchdowns, which was his career high. After the 2014 season, Jackson moved on, signing a one-year, $900,000 deal with the Seattle Seahawks.
In April 2018, Jackson signed a one-day contract with the Bills to retire as a member of the team. He is the team’s third-leading rusher in most major categories.
2. Thurman Thomas
From a running back that never made the playoffs to one that saw nothing but success, we now turn to Thomas, who spent 12 years in Buffalo after being selected in the second round of the 1988 NFL Draft. In 12 years, Thomas saw the playoffs eight times.
As a rookie, Thomas showed great promise with 881 yards and two touchdowns. He completely broke out during his sophomore campaign. In 1989, Thomas made his first Pro Bowl appearance after rushing for 1,244 yards and six touchdowns. He added 60 catches for 669 yards and six scores. This would be one of his five-straight Pro Bowl appearances.
Thomas had his best season in 1991. He won league MVP after rushing for 1,401 yards and seven touchdowns. He would lead the league in scrimmage yards, with 2,038, and yards per carry, at 4.9. Just two years later, Thomas led the league in carries and overall touches. He was a complete workhorse for the Bills.
Thomas was a staple for the 1990s Bills teams that appeared in four-straight Super Bowls. Thomas played 173 games with the Bills, more than any other running back. He is the franchise’s all time leader in rush yards (11,938), rushing touchdowns (65) and carries (2,849).
1. O.J. Simpson
Simpson was taken first overall in the 1969 NFL Draft. It makes sense that he finds himself as the best running back in Bills’ history. Despite being selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Simpson’s numbers were not huge. He finished with 697 yards and two touchdowns. It was not until year four that Simpson broke out, and he did it in a big way.
In 1972, Simpson led the league in rushing yards with 1,251. This is something that he would do four times in a five-year stretch. The 1973 season was one that made history. Simpson rushed for 2,003 yards and he became the first running back ever to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark. He also led the league with 12 touchdowns and averaged 143.1 yards per game. In 1975, Simpson set a career-high with 16 rushing touchdowns while totaling 1,817 rushing yards.
On the field, Simpson was an unstoppable force. He led the league in rushing yards four times, carries three times, rushing touchdowns twice and yards per game twice. Simpson was named First Team All-Pro five times with the Bills.
Simpson finished his career with two seasons in San Francisco. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985. Simpson is the second leading rusher in Bills’ history, behind Thomas. He is, however, the franchise leader with 4.8 yards per carry and 90.9 yards per game.