There is a large pool of nominees for the running back position and only one will be named to fill it on the Bills 50th Season All-Time Team to be unveiled on April 25th. Six of the 10 were feature backs, though some held onto that role longer than others. The remaining four were valuable reserve or rotational backs.
Remember you can register to vote for the 50th Season All-Time Team online at Buffalobills.com.
Here’s a brief preview of the men who are largely responsible for the illustrious history of Buffalo’s ground game.
Jim Braxton (1971-1978)
Braxton, who O.J. Simpson credited for most of his rushing yards, was a powerful and versatile fullback clearing the rushing lanes, while also handling some of the rushing load himself. Braxton also contributed in the passing game, having played some tight end in college.
He’s best remembered for his 1975 season in which he rushed for 823 yards and nine touchdowns and scored four more touchdowns on his 26 receptions that season. His 13 touchdowns in 14 games ranked fifth most in the league that year.
“Jim was the greatest blocking fullback that every played in my opinion,” said Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure. “Braxton was a fullback who could block like a guard and he had hands like a wide receiver. If I was a GM I would look for a guy like him. He took all the pressure off of our offense because he knew all the plays. He’d actually point and tell O.J. which way to go. He was a true leader on that team.”
Wray Carlton (1960-67)
Carlton was half of Buffalo’s unstoppable rushing tandem with Cookie Gilchrist. Carlton was the team’s first leading rusher in 1960 and scored the franchise’s first ever touchdown. A part of Buffalo’s back-to-back AFL Championship club, Carlton led the league in rushing touchdowns in 1965 earning him the first of two AFL All-Star designations.
Carlton is the team’s all-time yards per carry leader during the AFL years with a mark of 4.1 per rush, with his most memorable game coming in Buffalo’s second straight Championship season of 1965. Carlton helped to clinch Buffalo’s second-straight AFL Eastern division title with a 148-yard rushing day that included an 80-yard touchdown run on just 11 carries.
“Wray didn’t have the best speed, but was a very reliable halfback,” said former Bills receiver Charley Ferguson. “He was a very good short yardage back. He could get those short yards for you and was very dependable.”
Joe Cribbs (1980-83, 1985)
Cribbs only spent five years with the Bills, but made the most of it with three 1,000-yard rushing seasons helping him earn three Pro Bowl berths (1980, 81, 83).
A threat to take it the distance every time, the versatile back finished each of those three seasons ranked in the top 10 in yards from scrimmage with 1,600, 1,700 and 1,655 all-purpose yards for Buffalo.
While it wasn’t his best career rushing game, his 166-yard, one touchdown performance against Houston in 1983 ranked second in his Bills career as he averaged 7.5 yards per carry and outrushed Hall of Famer Earl Campbell (142). Cribbs helped Buffalo end a 10-game losing streak to the Oilers with their first win over Houston(30-13) since 1966.
Kenneth Davis (1989-1994)
If there was ever a back who could pick up the slack it was Kenneth Davis. Acquired as a Plan B free agent in 1989, Davis was the primary backup to Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas.
Davis is best remembered for his fill-in performance for Thomas in the 1992 AFC Wild Card game when his third quarter touchdown was the first in what became the greatest comeback in NFL history in the 41-38 overtime win over Houston propelling Buffalo to their third straight AFC title. Davis had 93 all-purpose yards in the game.
Cookie Gilchrist (1962-1964)
A member of Buffalo’s 25th Anniversary Team and AFL Hall of Fame, Gilchrist was one of the most feared running backs in American Football League history. The league’s MVP in 1962, Gilchrist had almost 1,100 rushing yards in the 14-game season with 15 total touchdowns, becoming the first to eclipse the 1,000-yard milestone in league annals.
That season he also kicked eight field goals and 14 extra points to provide the team with 129 of their 309 points that season (41%), as he led the AFL in scoring all three seasons with Buffalo.
His most memorable performance was his five touchdown performance against the Jets in 1963 where he rushed for a then pro football record 243 yards in a 45-14 rout.
“Cookie at that time was probably the largest back in the league,” said former teammate Charley Ferguson. “He played at about 250 or 255. The thing that was just unbelievable about Cookie was his determination. I’ve never seen anybody with that much enthusiasm to want to do it. If he could carry the ball 100 times, he would do it. That was just his attitude. He just felt that he could do it all. If there was anybody like a Superman he was a Superman.”
Travis Henry (2001-2004)
The Bills former second-round pick was blessed with a low center of gravity, which combined with his straight ahead running style made Henry very difficult to tackle.
Henry holds two of the top seven rushing seasons in franchise history including the fifth best is Bills annals with his 1,438 rushing yards in 2002, which earned him his only career Pro Bowl nod.
Ironically, his most memorable game was against the Bears in 2002 when his game-winning 26-yard touchdown reception lifted the Bills to a 33-26 overtime win over Chicago.
Roland Hooks (1976-1982)
A reserve back for his entire Bills career, Hooks was one who made the most of his opportunities as evidenced by his career 4.2 yards per carry average. His most productive season came in 1977, when he contributed almost 700 yards from scrimmage.
His most memorable game however, came in 1979, when Hooks scored four touchdowns on just five carries in a 51-24 whitewash of Cincinnati.
“On any other team he’d have been a great back, but he had to back up O.J.,” said former teammate Joe DeLamielleure. “Any time he got in he made things happen. He would have started on 20 other teams.”
O.J. Simpson (1969-1977)
The number one overall pick in 1969, Simpson was the engine that ran Buffalo’s offense. A Pro Football Hall of Famer, Bills Wall of Famer and member of the Bills 25th Anniversary Team, Simpson is arguably one of the three best athletes ever to put on a Bills uniform.
The six-time Pro Bowl back was the first back to ever eclipse 2,000 yards in a season, accomplishing it in 14 games (1973). Simpson holds the top three rushing seasons in Bills history as well as the top four rushing games in team annals and is the franchise leader in yards per carry for a career (4.8).
His most memorable game was his 273-yard, two touchdown Thanksgiving day performance in a 27-14 win over Detroit, which still stands as the best single rushing day in team history.
“This is the most amazing thing about O.J. is even though he was a superstar among superstars he would work so hard in practice,” said Hall of Fame guard Joe DeLamielleure. “That guy would practice hard. He always played like he was not very good. He didn’t act like he was the greatest. He practiced like he was trying to make the team.”
Antowain Smith (1997-2000)
The Bills former first-round pick (1997) was the heir apparent to Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas, but at 6’2” 232 his style was much different. A plow horse of a back, Smith pushed the pile using more brute strength than breakaway speed in his career.
His best season with Buffalo came in his second year as his 1,124 rushing yards were instrumental in helping the Bills qualify for the postseason.
Smith’s most memorable game, however, came in his rookie season. With the Bills trailing the Colts 26-0 in the first half, Smith was instrumental in what would become the second greatest comeback in team history as the Bills would outscore Indianapolis 37-9 the rest of the way with Smith contributing 129 rushing yards and the final three touchdowns in the thrilling 37-35 victory.
Thurman Thomas (1988-1999)
The Pro Football Hall of Famer, Bills Wall of Famer and Bills all-time leading rusher, Thurman Thomas was the league’s MVP in 1991 and a five-time Pro Bowl selection.
He led the league in yards from scrimmage four straight seasons from 1989-92 and had eight straight seasons of 1,000 yards or more rushing. A multi-dimensional threat, Thomas was just as good receiving as he was rushing. The running back stands third in team history in receptions and fifth in receiving yards.
Thomas’ most memorable performance was arguably his 186-yard rushing day in the 1993 AFC Championship game as he scored all three of Buffalo’s touchdowns to help the Bills clinch their fourth straight AFC title in a 30-13 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.