"He can handle it, I know that. You never know how the season's gonna go, and what it's gonna take to win each week. We're giving Arian some breaks at practice during the course of the week, but he looks fine to me. He's holding up fine. He hasn't missed any time, other than the time we've given him...he makes us go, so I'm not too concerned with that at this point." -- Texans head coach Gary Kubiak at his Monday press conference on Arian Foster's workload, which is on a near-record pace
Four weeks into the 2012 season, the weekly Gary Kubiak press conference on Mondays has evolved into a forum to accomplish two things:
1. Allow Kubiak to laud the individual efforts of whichever dozen or so guys the media asks about specifically, and..
2. Pick nits at the one or two mildly troublesome portions of the box score that might bubble to the surface with a team who has led by 20 or more in all four games thus far this season (including the end of three of them)
If the Texans make a run at the Super Bowl this season (Currently, at +350, they are the favorite to win it all on the big boards in Vegas), one area that is probably a legitimate concern is the heavy workload that Kubiak has placed on Arian Foster through these first four games.
Through four games, Foster has carried the ball a league-leading 103 times for 380 yards and four touchdowns, which projects out to a season in which only one other player in league history (Larry Johnson's 416 carry blood war in 2006 that effectively ended his career) would have carried the ball more times. Why has the burden been so heavy early on for Foster, especially considering that his backup Ben Tate would probably be a capable starter on half the teams in the league?
Well, it's probably three things:
1. The Texans have led in games practically the entire season, so inherently they've been in a mode in the second halves of games where they are trying to grind out four or five yards a carry, shorten the game, and get the hell out of Dodge. In the NFL, few backs serve this need better than Foster.
2. There is still a huge trust factor (or mistrust factor) in play with respect to Tate sharing the load with Foster. While Tate may be the more explosive athlete, his running style still leaves yards on the field in the Texans' zone scheme, his blitz pickup is inconsistent, and his propensity for fumbling at bad times has already reared its head in Denver.
3. Kubiak would never seriously attribute this as a factor (although he jokingly referenced it after the Denver game), but subliminally the fact that Arian Foster is now one of the highest-paid running backs in the league has to at least seep in somewhat to how he is used. "We guaranteed him $20 million, let's get our money's worth." This may just be me being an uninformed radio guy, but in a league where a player's pay factors directly into how your roster is assembled, I don't think this can be discounted completely.
So why is this whole "on pace for 412 carry" thing (and nearly 450 touches, when you factor in receptions) an issue for the Texans? Well, quite simply, when players have endured a season in that strata of workhorse-ness, there is enough evidence of a plummet in subsequent seasons to where the Texans might be paying millions of dollars to a back who is a shell of the guy they extended for five more years just a few months ago.
So the question becomes "If the Texans keep pounding Foster (and Kubiak's comments above lean much closer to indicating they will than they won't), how concerned should we, as Texan fans, be that the best may be over after this season?" Well, the real answer is "We have no idea," but history can give us an indication as to just how potent the threat of overwork is to Foster's future. So, with only four running backs having ever cracked the 400-carry barrier in league history, let's expand the sample space out to the individual seasons with the twenty highest number of carries.
Here is the summary list, then we'll dive into each individual:
1. Larry Johnson, Kansas City, 416 (2006, Age 27) 2. Jamal Anderson, Atlanta, 410 (1998, Age 26) 3. James Wilder, Tampa Bay, 407 (1984, Age 26) 4. Eric Dickerson, LA Rams, 404 (1986, Age 26) 5. Eddie George, Tennessee, 403 (2000, Age 27) 6. Gerald Riggs, Atlanta, 397 (1985, Age 25) 7. Terrell Davis, Denver, 392 (1998, Age 26) Ricky Williams, Miami, 392 (2003, Age 26) 9. Eric Dickerson, LA Rams, 390 (1983, Age 23) Barry Foster, Pittsburgh, 390 (1992, Age 24) 11. Eric Dickerson, Indianapolis, 388 (1988, Age 28) 12. Edgerrin James, Indianapolis, 387 (2000, Age 22) Jamal Lewis, Baltimore, 387 (2003, Age 24) 14. Ricky Williams, Miami, 383 (2002, Age 25) 15. Walter Payton, Chicago, 381 (1984, Age 30) 16. Marcus Allen, LA Raiders, 380 (1985, Age 25) 17. Eric Dickerson, LA Rams, 379 (1984, Age 24) 18. George Rogers, New Orleans, 378 (1981, Age 23) 19. Emmitt Smith, Dallas, 377 (1995, Age 26) 20. Michael Turner, Atlanta 376 (2008, Age 26)
One early Foster similarity, the most represented age on this list is 26 years old (seven seasons out of twenty, and that includes Eric Dickerson and Ricky Williams taking up multiple spots). Arian Foster turned 26 on September 24.
Okay, so these twenty seasons yield sixteen players whose careers we need to evaluate pre-heavy workload and, far more importantly, post-heavy workload. Do we learn anything that should collectively concern us that Gary Kubiak is on pace to do something patently irresponsible with his marquee running back?
Let's examine them in groups, shall we?
MATHEMATICAL (AND MEDICAL) MARVELS
WALTER PAYTON, 1984 (Age 30) Carries: 381 Yards: 1,684 YPC: 4.4
300+ carry seasons before 1984 (7): 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1983 300+ carry seasons after 1984 (2): 1985, 1986 YPC before 1984: 4.4 YPC after 1984: 4.3
Comments: The only thing we learn from Walter Payton's career ledger is that Payton was a miraculous superhero of a running back. He had his highest number of carries at the age of 30 after eight seasons of not missing a single game. He followed that up by averaging 4.8 yards per carry on 324 carries at the age of 31.
In short, applying Walter Payton's career history to try and speculate about Arian Foster's future is like trying to use the Beatles' career history to speculate about One Direction's future. (Not a dig at Foster, by the way.)
EMMITT SMITH, 1995 (Age 26) Carries: 377 Yards: 1,773 YPC: 4.7
300+ carry seasons before 1995 (3): 1991, 1992, 1994 300+ carry seasons after 1995 (3): 1996, 1998, 1999 YPC before 1995: 4.4 YPC after 1995: 3.9
Comments: By the time Smith had his breathtaking 1995 season (the Mona Lisa in the Louvre of running back careers), he was the same age as Foster is now, but with five Pro Bowl seasons under his belt. While Smith would never put up the pinball machine numbers of 1995 ever again, he would remain durable and get back to the Pro Bowl twice more at ages 29 and 30. Smith's career closely mirrors Payton's with the only real statistical difference being that Smith missed a game here and there, as opposed to Payton literally never missing a game until his final season.
ERIC DICKERSON, 1983 (Age 23) Carries: 390 Yards: 1,808 YPC: 4.6
ERIC DICKERSON, 1984 (Age 24) Carries: 379 Yards: 2,105 YPC: 5.6
ERIC DICKERSON, 1986 (Age 26) Carries: 404 Yards: 1,821 YPC: 4.5
ERIC DICKERSON, 1988 (Age 28) Carries: 388 Yards: 1,659 YPC: 4.3
300+ carry seasons after 1988 (1): 1989 YPC from 1983 to 1988: 4.6 YPC after 1988: 3.9
Comments: The definition of a workhorse back, Dickerson gave the Rams and, toward the end of his prime, the Colts everything he had from ages 23 through 28. Even the two years during that time that he was off the "near 400 carry" grid (1985 and 1987), he wound up with 292 carries and 283 carries (strike-shortened 12-game 1987 season during which he was traded). There's no way Foster, at age 26, or probably any future player regardless of age comes close to the six-year workload that Dickerson chalked up from 1983 to 1988, so it's not even worth juxtaposing Foster's short body of work and projecting with Dickerson as the template. Huge waste of time.
MARCUS ALLEN, 1985 (Age 25) Carries: 380 Yards: 1,759 YPC: 4.6
300+ carry seasons before 1985: None 300+ carry seasons after 1985: None YPC before 1985: 4.1 YPC after 1985: 3.9
Comments: Marcus Allen never came within 900 yards of his 1985 season ever again, but it was hardly for durability reasons. After a contract dispute with the Raiders landed him in the doghouse with Al Davis, Allen was relegated to part time duty for essentially the rest of his career, including five seasons in Kansas City from 1993 to 1997 where he cemented his reputation as the best goal-line back in the history of the game. While Allen's first few seasons in the league pretty closely mirror Foster's statistically, there is no chance that Arian Foster becomes a part time back for the Texans. Not under his new contract.
(NOTE: Allen's career was the one that was the biggest eye popper for me out of all these guys. I knew about the spat with Davis, and the specialist role in Kansas City, but had no idea that in sixteen seasons, Allen only had three 1,000 yard seasons and one season with over 300 carries.) DRIVE BY ACL TEAR VICTIMS
JAMAL ANDERSON, 1998 (Age 26) Carries: 410 Yards: 1,846 YPC: 4.5
300+ carry seasons before 1998: None (previous high, 290 carries in 1997) 300+ carry seasons after 1998: None YPC before 1998: 3.9 YPC after 1998: 3.6
Comments: Anderson seemed to just be hitting his stride when he led the Falcons to the Super Bowl with his monster 1998 season, but he blew out his right ACL two games into 1999, came back for a pedestrian (for him) 1,024-yard 2000 season, and then blew out his left ACL three games into 2001 and never came back.
TERRELL DAVIS, 1998 (age 26) Carries: 392 Yards: 2,008 YPC: 5.1
300+ carry seasons before 1998 (2): 1996, 1997 300+ carry seasons after 1998: None YPC before 1998: 4.6 YPC after 1998: 3.8
Comments: Like Anderson, it's hard to gauge what would have happened with Davis over time as he tore his ACL and MCL making a tackle after an interception in the fourth game of the 1999 season. The four games in which Davis played in 1999 were a major dropoff from his record-setting 1998 season, if you buy into that small a sample space, but the fact of the matter is Davis was never the same after the singular event that ended his 1999 season, as 2000 saw him sustain a stress reaction in his leg, and then 2001 was shortened with scopes applied to both knees.
THE ONE-HIT WONDER
BARRY FOSTER, 1992 (Age 24) Carries: 390 Yards: 1,690 YPC: 4.3
300+ carry seasons before 1992: None (previous high, 96 carries in 1991) 300+ carry seasons after 1992: None YPC before 1992: 5.1 YPC after 1992: 4.0
Comments: A fullback in college, Foster is as close to a one-hit wonder that you will find on this list. There's nothing gradual about Foster's ascent nor his decline. He was a special-teamer and part timer his first two seasons, blew up in 1992, then was injury riddled his final two seasons before hanging it up after being cut by expansion Carolina in the 1995 preseason.
WE'D SETTLE FOR THIS
JAMAL LEWIS, 2003 (Age 24) Carries: 387 Yards: 2,066 YPC: 5.3
300+ carry seasons before 2003 (2): 2000, 2002 300+ carry seasons after 2003 (2): 2006, 2007 (298 actually, but close enough) YPC before 2003: 4.4 YPC after 2003: 3.8
Comments: Lewis' prolific 2003 season was followed by a 2004 season that saw him miss four games due to injuries. Oh, also he was involved in a drug scandal that saw him go to prison for four months after the 2004 season. But apparently prison agreed with Lewis as he actually bounced back to play 15 or 16 games in each of the next four seasons. Granted, those seasons weren't remotely close to his 2003 season in terms of production, but he didn't fall off the face of the earth and he survived a drug arrest. All in all, not bad.
MICHAEL TURNER, 2008 (Age 26) Carries: 376 Yards: 1,699 YPC: 4.5
300+ carry seasons before 2008: None 300+ carry seasons after 2008 (2): 2010, 2011 YPC before 2008: 5.5 YPC after 2008: 4.4
Comments: Turner is a bit of an outlier because he didn't become a full time running back until after he left San Diego in 2008, so his tread on the tire at age 26 was fairly minimal. Still, 2008 remains his most prolific year out of a handful of very good years for the Falcons.
THE RAY OF HOPE
EDGERRIN JAMES, 2000 (Age 22) Carries: 387 Yards: 1,709 YPC: 4.4
300+ carry seasons before 2000 (1): 1999 300+ carry seasons after 2000 (5): 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 YPC before 2000: 4.2 YPC after 2000: 4.0
Comments: The youngest player on this list, James exploded onto the scene with back-to-back rushing titles in his first two seasons. Then, like Davis and Anderson, James tore his ACL in 2001, forcing him to miss the final ten games of that season. However, unlike Davis and Anderson, James eventually regained the form of his first two seasons. It took over two years, but he did get back to being a 1,500-yard workhorse by 2004 and 2005. Eventually, he left Indianapolis to enjoy his normal "age 28 running back drop off" in peace with some bad Arizona teams (save the NFC title version for which James was a part timer in 2008).
THE WALKING CONUNDRUM
RICKY WILLIAMS, 2002 (Age 25) Carries: 383 Yards: 1,853 YPC: 4.8
RICKY WILLIAMS, 2003 (Age 26) Carries: 392 Yards: 1,372 YPC: 3.5
300+ carry seasons before 2002 (1): 2001 300+ carry seasons after 2003: None YPC before 2002: 3.8 YPC after 2003: 4.3
Comments: If it's possible for a player to be both the poster child for overwork burnout AND the most outlandish outlier on the board, Williams manages to pull that off. Taken as a two-season window, his first two seasons with the Dolphins are an eye-opening cautionary tale, as his workload remained constant while his yards per carry dropped from 4.8 to 3.5. Seriously, he went from an elite strata to less then pedestrian in one season.
And yet, when taking the macro gauge on his career, Williams wound up averaging more yards per carry after 2003 than he did before 2002. Of course, he had to leave the league multiple times for suspensions or self-induced hiatus, during which time he spent about ninety percent of his day high as a kite, but still somehow this worked for Ricky. And oddly enough, minus the drug suspensions, Ricky's nomadic path is the one that probably best fits Arian Foster's quirky personality.
THE CAUTIONARY TALES
LARRY JOHNSON, 2006 (Age 27) Carries: 416 Yards: 1,789 YPC: 4.3
300+ carry seasons before 1998 (1): 2005 300+ carry seasons after 1998: None YPC before 2006: 5.1 YPC after 2006: 3.6
Comments: When it went downhill for Johnson, it went downhill quickly. He held out for a big contract after his monster 2006 season, and the Chiefs ended up giving in with a deal that was, at the time, the biggest for a running back in the league at six years, $45 million ($19 million guaranteed). He earned practically none of it. I mean, he played, but he was a shell of the guy from the previous two years, missing half the 2007 season with a foot injury, and missing four games in 2008.
He was eventually waived midway through 2009 after tweeting derogatory comments about Chiefs coach Todd Haley and calling a fan a "fag" on Twitter. He would play ten more games over the next two-plus seasons before disappearing in 2011.
JAMES WILDER, 1984 (Age 26) Carries: 407 Yards: 1,544 YPC: 3.8
300+ carry seasons before 1984: None (previous high, 161 carries in 1983) 300+ carry seasons after 1984 (1): 1985 YPC before 1984: 3.8 YPC after 1984: 3.8
Comments: Wilder's 1984 season is one of the quietest near-record-setting seasons in league history, as he came within 16 yards of the league record for combined rushing and receiving yards at that time. Wilder had 85 catches that season which means he had a ridiculous 492 touches. It took another year, but eventually the workload got Wilder as by 1986, he began missing games with injuries and never played in more than 12 games in a season after 1985.
EDDIE GEORGE, 2000 (Age 27) Carries: 403 Yards: 1,509 YPC: 3.7
300+ carry seasons before 2000 (4): 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 300+ carry seasons after 2000 (3): 2001, 2002, 2003 YPC before 2000: 3.9 YPC after 2000: 3.2
Comments: George was never a back who relied on explosive plays to produce (broke 4.0 yards per carry twice in nine seasons, his rookie year and the Titans' Super Bowl year in 1999) as his long carry of 40 yards for his entire career after his rookie year indicates, so his decline seemed more gradual, but in retrospect the turning point is evident -- after 403 carries in 2000, George's yards per carry dropped to 3.0 in 2001 and never broke 3.4 ever again. The dude was a workhorse, never missing a game over eight seasons in Nashville, but it obviously took its toll.
GERALD RIGGS, 1985 (Age 25) Carries: 397 Yards: 1,719 YPC: 4.3
300+ carry seasons before 1985 (1): 1984 300+ carry seasons after 1985 (1): 1986 YPC before 1985: 4.2 YPC after 1985: 4.0
Comments: Riggs' had one of the most productive three-year windows in league history from 1984 to 1986. Injuries began to hit two years after his high point in 1985, but he eventually found a home with the Washington Redskins as a goal-line specialist, including a six-touchdown post-season in 1991, helping the Redskins to a Super Bowl title.
GEORGE ROGERS, 1981 (Age 23) Carries: 378 Yards: 1,674 YPC: 4.4
300+ carry seasons before 1981: N/A 300+ carry seasons after 1981 (1): 1986 YPC before 1981: N/A YPC after 1981: 4.2
Comments: Rogers is the only rookie to make this list, and 1981 would be prove to be by far his best season. He would deal with nagging injuries throughout his entire career, but I doubt you can trace them all back to his workload as a rookie.
If we plunked Arian Foster's projected 2012 season into this analysis, it would look like this:
ARIAN FOSTER, 2012 PROJECTED (Age 27) Carries: 412 Yards: 1,520 YPC: 3.7
300+ carry seasons before 2012 (1): 2010 300+ carry seasons after 2012: ??? YPC before 2012: 4.7 YPC after 2012: ???
Conclusion: Well, factoring age, prior workload, and current statistics, Arian Foster's profile most closely resembles a combination of 2006 Larry Johnson and 2003 Ricky Williams, which means that next season the odds are strong that Arian Foster winds up running like a shell of his former self before getting suspended for tweeting about what an idiot Gary Kubiak is. He will then quietly skulk off into the woods to smoke dope by himself for the next two years before returning as a Toronto Argonaut.
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