Of course, this has been at the core of many people's concerns for backs such as Priest Holmes and Marshall Faulk. An interesting look at history of RBs over age 30 and production and then a look at some current 30-plus RBs...
by Mike Harmon
August 19, 2004
As we enter the heart of the draft period and the NFL preseason, one of the draft tenets thrust forth most prevalently is the mileage factor on running backs. The general belief is that the productivity of most running backs falls off the proverbial cliff following their 30th birthday. I decided to look to the careers of the great backs of the past to review this phenomenon. I then broke down list of active backs who are older than 30 and provide an outlook for 2004.
Certainly, the evolution of sports medicine has helped prolong careers. One needs only do the side-by-side comparison of Gale Sayers, who was forced to retire from the game at 28, to Willis McGahee, who is back on the field a mere eighteen months after a horrific leg injury. Football is now a 12-month job, with countless hours in the training room and film study during the offseason. In either case, this 30-year-olds checkup reveals grinding and breakdown of some of the best backs the game has ever known. It also lends another angle to the sudden retirement of former NCAA rushing king Ricky Williams.
Let's look at some history.
Jim Brown stands as a legend, not for his film roles in classics such as "The Running Man," but rather for walking away at the top of his game. It boggles the mind as to what he could have done with another couple seasons, but he certainly hadn't shown any signs of slowing down. Brown rushed for over 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns in his final season at the ripe old age of 29.
Barry Sanders took a similar approach to that of Brown, rushing for almost 1,500 yards and four touchdowns before walking away after the 1998 season.
Let's turn to the players who wound their careers down in a more conventional fashion.
Earl Campbell was the epitome of a power back, bowling over would-be tacklers as often as he'd run around them. Certainly, the rapid disintegration of his career as he approached the age of 30 can be attributed to his heavy workload while setting the NCAA rushing record at the University of Texas. He finished his final season with 643 yards and one touchdown with the New Orleans Saints. To put it in perspective, do you ever see any footage of Campbell in a Saints uniform?
Marcus Allen will always be pictured in a Raiders uniform in my head, but he did a lot of damage for the Chiefs after the age of 30. At 30 with the Raiders, Allen turned in 12 touchdowns and 682 yards and then became an afterthought in 1991 and 1992. He exited Los Angeles after the '92 season and moved on to Kansas City. Allen extended his career by another five seasons, posting 44 touchdowns for the Chiefs.
Ottis Anderson extended his career after leaving the St. Louis Cardinals for the New York Giants. He battled through several partial seasons before returning with a vengeance in 1989. Anderson put up two tremendous seasons, reaching double digits in touchdowns in '89 and '90 after scoring eight touchdowns in '88. He put up only 20 percent of his yardage total after 30, but piled on 34 of his 81 career touchdowns.
Eric Dickerson bounced around in his final seasons between Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Atlanta. Dickerson had piled up 2,450 carries before the age of 30, with seasons of 390 and 388 carries. He achieved less than 15 percent of his career yardage total and less than 10 percent of his touchdowns after the age of 30.
Tony Dorsett continued to roll with the Dallas Cowboys after turning 30. He put up over 1,150 yards for two straight seasons with a total of 13 touchdowns. He battled through injuries in 1986 and 1987 before leaving for the Denver Broncos prior to the 1988 campaign. Dorsett played a full season with the Broncos, carrying the ball 181 times and scoring five touchdowns. He rushed for 35 percent of his career yardage total and 31 percent of his touchdowns after the age of 30.
Franco Harris piled up over 2,000 carries before the age of 30. After missing three games at 30, he rebounded to put up two seasons right around 1,000 yards. All in all, he posted 30 percent of his career yardage after the age of 30, but only 19 percent of his 91 career touchdowns. After posting another 1,000-yard season in 1983, he wanted one more round and finished his career with an eight-game tour of duty with the Seattle Seahawks as starter Curt Warner recovered from injury. There's your trivia for the day.
Ricky Watters put up only two full seasons post 30 after averaging 280 carries and 50 receptions per season in the first seven years of his career. He rushed for over 1,200 yards in each of those seasons with a total of 12 touchdowns. He returned for only five games in 2001 (shoulder injury) before walking away, seemingly with plenty of gas still in the tank.
Thurman Thomas averaged 285 carries and 46 catches per year prior to the age of 30. He carried the ball over 2,200 times during that span. After a great start to his career, he petered out toward the end, battling injury and playing partial seasons from 1998-2000. He scored only 11 of his 65 career rushing touchdowns after 30 and amassed only 19 percent of his career yardage. Like Harris above, how many remember Thurman Thomas in a Dolphins uniform?
I'll end the look back in history with Walter Payton. "Sweetness" was the Bears' only option for a decade before things began to change in the mid-'80s. Before the age of 30, Payton had carried the ball a frightening 2,666 times for Chicago (including a ridiculous total of 381 carries after turning 30 in 1984). He averaged more than 1,500 yards rushing and 43 receptions from 1984-86 and scored 32 of his 110 career touchdowns after the age of 30. In 1987, his carries were cut with the integration of heir apparent Neal Anderson into the offense and Payton retired following that season.
Unless you're able to turn back time, none of the players above will be available to you during the draft. Let's take a look at the prospects for the post-30 crowd at running back entering the 2004 season.
Jerome Bettis, Pittsburgh Steelers – turned 32 in February 2004
The "Bus" doesn't shift gears like he used to and the odometer has flipped (2,686 career carries), but he can still move the pile. Bettis put up 811 yards in 2003 with seven touchdowns. While Duce Staley has been brought in to shoulder the every-down load, Bettis will certainly see his share of action in short-yardage and goal-line situations. He's worthy of a pick in the middle rounds as he'll still be a vital component of the Steelers ground game.
Marshall Faulk, St. Louis Rams – turned 31 in February 2004
Faulk turned 31 earlier this year and has been the subject of much rumor, conjecture and speculation this offseason. The Rams' selection of Steven Jackson in the first round of this year's draft signals that a shift is beginning under Mike Martz. Faulk missed five games in 2003, but still turned in 10 touchdowns on the ground and one by air. Faulk's per carry average dipped under 4.0 for the first time since 1996. He'll likely miss several games due to injury, as he has the past couple seasons, and Steven Jackson will be a factor. With that said, Faulk's still a late first- or early second-round selection and has the ability to scamper toward 15 or more touchdowns if sound.
You've got to handcuff Jackson to the selection of Faulk and you'll need to do it sooner than normal because all of your league's owners will slide Jackson up their lists in an attempt to hamper your championship dreams.
Eddie George, Dallas Cowboys – turned 30 in September 2003
George piled on a very quiet 1,000-yard season in 2003, averaging a paltry 3.3 yards per carry. One thing in George's favor is that he's never missed a game as a pro, but he's rapidly approaching the 3,000-carry mark. He was brought in to allow rookie Julius Jones to get the feel for the pro game. He'll likely shoulder the load early on with Jones pilfering some looks. Either way, this duo should be among the last of the backs off of your draft board.
Emmitt Smith, Arizona Cardinals – turned 35 in May 2004
Smith had piled up an amazing 2,900 carries before he turned 30 while running behind some of the biggest lines ever assembled. He's averaged less than four yards per carry in each of the last three seasons, with that number likely to repeat itself in 2004. Smith is no longer a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield and is unlikely to make it through an entire season sans injury. He's of value only in ridiculously deep leagues.
Priest Holmes, Kansas City Chiefs – turned 30 in October 2003
Holmes carried the ball 320 times and turned in 27 touchdowns in 2003. He's turned in two straight 20-plus touchdown seasons. Here's one where age doesn't apply, as he didn't become a primary ball carrier until joining Kansas City in 2001. Holmes is completely healthy after silencing the doubters in 2003 and stands as the No. 1 selection in most drafts.
Stephen Davis, Carolina Panthers – turned 30 in March 2004
Durability has long been a concern with Davis. He rumbled for 1,444 yards and eight touchdowns in 2003 and ate up clock for the Panthers. Noting his injury history and recognizing the need to control the ball down the stretch, the Panthers will look to integrate the speedy DeShaun Foster more fully into the offensive set. Davis is still the top guy here and is the 12th running back off the board on average, which means you need to use your first- or second-round selection to grab him.
Curtis Martin, New York Jets – turned 31 in May 2004
Martin's rushing average per carry dipped under 4.0 last season and he failed to record his first 100-yard game until Week 8. He tallied only four 100-yard games for the season despite racking up a total of 1,300 yards. One stat of note to fantasy owners is that he only scored two touchdowns.
Herman Edwards is under the gun to win in his fourth season with the Jets. He'll be quick to use LaMont Jordan, who scored four touchdowns on only 46 carries in 2003, should Martin start out slowly again. Jordan is stewing on the bench, anxiously awaiting his time to shine. Martin is a seventh- or eighth-round selection in your average league. Just remember to pick up Jordan later in the draft if you wander toward Martin.
Garrison Hearst, Denver Broncos – turned 33 in January 2004
Health is always a concern for the versatile Hearst. He missed the 1999 and 2000 seasons entirely before returning to post big totals in 2001. He split time with Kevan Barlow in 2003 and now finds himself in the committee situation to end all committee situations in Denver with Quentin Griffin, Tatum Bell and Mike Anderson vying for carries. Denver paid him a lot of money to come aboard, so he'll see time if he's healthy. You'll need to commit to drafting all of the Denver backs if you dive in on one. In a normal draft, you can pick up any of these backs in the sixth round or later.
Tyrone Wheatley, Oakland Raiders – turned 32 in January 2004
Wheatley has never played a full 16-game slate in his nine-year NFL career. In his two seasons as the feature back in Oakland, he totaled 17 rushing TDs and almost 2,000 yards. He'll get the nod in Norv Turner's offense to start the season. He can still bowl people over when healthy and has great moves for a big man. He could rush back to the 1,000-yard mark if he's healthy and the offense clicks. Justin Fargas, Troy Hambrick and Amos Zereoue will look to get in on the feature back action and Zack Crockett remains a vulture around the goal. Still, Wheatley's a solid gamble in the later rounds of your draft.
Antowain Smith, Tennessee Titans – turned 32 in March 2004
Smith ran to 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns for the 2001 New England Patriots, making him a fantasy darling in 2002. He regressed mightily that season and found himself splitting time with a host of players in 2003. Smith will start the season as the backup to Chris Brown in Tennessee, but his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield will get him in the action early. And if Brown falters, Smith's past achievements in New England speak well for the possibility of his flourishing in Jeff Fisher's offense. He's a late pick or waiver wire acquisition in most leagues.
Charlie Garner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – turned 32 in February 2004
Garner shifts coasts after taking part in the disastrous 2003 season in Oakland. He's a major threat to catch the ball out of the backfield and had his finest moments in Jon Gruden's offense in Oakland. With the quagmire that is the Tampa Bay receiving corps, Garner's receiving abilities will be utilized. Unfortunately, he'll likely split carries when Michael Pittman returns from suspension, and Mike Alstott is there to steal goal-line attempts. He's being taken in the middle rounds and has great upside.
So there you have it. History shows that things begin to grind down after the age of 30 for NFL backs. Given the weekly poundings they take, it's no wonder that the productivity level falls sharply. The training tables and balanced systems of today's NFL extend a running back's shelf life somewhat, but there are no guarantees. It should be noted from the list above that only Holmes stands uncontested. All of the other players are part of a committee situation or have one or more backs nipping at their heels.
Mike Harmon is a Yahoo! Sports fantasy expert. Send him a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.