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The Backseat GM: Which Comes First, Running Back or Offensive Line?

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There has been a ton of pre-draft buzz surrounding the Buffalo Bills and what they will do in the first round. National pundits and Bills Twitter alike have been clamoring and debating the idea of taking a Running Back, Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, or Javonte Williams, with the 30th overall pick. Even Brandon Beane addressed the topic at his most recent press conference.

I’ve made myself pretty clear on this particular subject, but this debate has brought something else to my mind. Who’s more important to the offense: the Running Back or the offensive line?

The answer seems obvious but, given how many people are seriously considering a Running Back at 30 while ignoring the concerns surrounding the current interior offensive line, there may need to be a discussion.

So I’m going to tackle this the best way I know how, with a brief history lesson. We all know about the legendary Bills Running Backs, but who did they run behind? Who was more responsible for their success?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most successful Running Backs in Buffalo Bills history through the lens of the men in the offensive trenches. Then I’ll give my take on this “chicken-egg” (or “pig-pigskin”) question.

Cookie Gilchrist and Wray Carlton, pictured here with Coach Lou Saban, were instrumental players in Buffalo’s AFL success. (Image courtesy of remembertheafl.com)

Buffalo had an impressive run in its inaugural decade (pun intended). The teams were defined by a hard-nosed defense and dominant run game led by Cookie Gilchrist and Wray Carlton. The duo pounded out over 6,400 yards and 60 touchdowns on the ground behind an offensive line unit anchored by All-Star Al Bemiller, Hall of Famer Billy Shaw, and two-time All-Pro Stew Barber. (Dick Hudson and Joe O’Donnell filled out the line for the championship teams and beyond.) Furthermore, the Bills had at least one All-Star on the offensive line every year of the AFL’s existence. That is an impressive feat for any team, regardless of era.

O.J. Simpson

“The Juice” was always loose thanks to the efforts of “The Electric Company”. (Image courtesy of rayonsports.com)

Everyone knows about O.J. Simpson and “The Electric Company”, but they weren’t the only ones to turn on “The Juice”. O.J. began his illustrious career with a modest All-Star season in 1969 (181 carries, 697 rushing yards, and two touchdowns) behind Bemiller, Shaw, Barber, and O’Donnell.

Then, a couple of years later, came Donnie Green, Dave Foley, Reggie McKenzie, Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure, and Mike Montler. O.J. racked up 1,513 carries for 7,699 rushing yards (5.1 yards/carry) and 45 touchdowns behind that legendary offensive line, earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors each year from 1972-76.

In 1977, his last season in Buffalo, O.J. ran behind the remnants of that fabled line plus future Bills legend Joe Devlin. The results were meager (126 carries, 557 rushing yards, no scores), but he also missed half the season.

Thurman Thomas

The greatest RB in Bills history had a historic run of elite OL play. (Image courtesy of Andy Lyons)

Thurman Thomas, and the entire K-Gun offense, greatly benefited from strong offensive line play. He ran behind Devlin, Tim Vogler, two-time Pro Bowlers Jim Ritcher, and Howard Ballard, as well as Bills legends Will Wolford and Kent Hull his first two seasons. In that time, Thurman tallied 505 carries for 2,125 yards (4.2 yards/carry) and eight scores as well as his first Pro Bowl appearance (1989).

The second offensive line iteration of this era, consisting of Ritcher, Wolford, Hull, Ballard, John Davis, Glenn Parker, and Bills legend John Fina, led the way for Thurman’s MVP season and the entirety of their Super Bowl run. In the period from 1990-93, Thurman ran for 5,506 yards (averaging 4.5 yards/carry) and 33 touchdowns, establishing himself as one of the greatest RBs in the league.

Through Thurman’s last five seasons in Buffalo (1994-99), Hull, Ballard, Davis, Parker, Fina, Jerry Ostroski, Dusty Zeigler, and eight-time Pro Bowler Ruben Brown led the way. This resulted in three 1,000-rushing yard seasons and 24 ground scores as Thurman ran his way into Canton.

My Take

To answer the initial question, the offensive line is more important than Running Back. Why? Because teams need at least decent blocking to have an effective run game. Not everyone can run around willy nilly, turning -5 yards into 20 yards like Barry Sanders. And even he had two stud linemen blocking for him the majority of his career (Kevin Glover and Lomas Brown).

Playmaking Running Backs can be found almost anywhere. Let’s think about this in terms of the draft. O.J. was the only Bills legend selected in the first round. Thurman was a second-rounder, Cookie was a CFL free agent, and Wray was an NFL third-round pick who spurned the Eagles. They were all productive ball carriers, who made an indelible impact on the franchise.

There is no definitive way to know if these past Bills teams would have been as productive without those backs. However, they sure as heck would’ve been worse without their offensive lines.

Author’s Notes

  • All player stats provided by Pro Football Reference.
  • This discussion encompasses the majority of OL starters from each era. Backups and spot starters were not included. Furthermore, Paul Seymour was not included with the “Electric Company” because he played Tight End.
  • Note: Ruben Brown made nine Pro Bowls in his career, eight of which came in Buffalo.
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