Game Time: The Definitive Washed-Up Running Back Anthology
Of all of the things that football has gotten right over the last decade or two (and there are many -- instant replay, embracing fantasy football, the yellow first-down line, the addition of Sunday night games, to name a few), the most significant one to me has been the marketing of the game into essentially year-round relevancy.
Now, to be sure, the most significant part is still what occurs between the lines from mid-September until the first weekend in February. However, the combine, the draft, OTA's, and training camp have essentially turned the NFL into a year-round animal with no period of hibernation. And the more relevant your team, the more all-consuming the year-round NFL monster becomes.
Which brings us to our Texans....the story du jour locally is the team's choosing not to slap the franchise tag (and the $10 million in game checks) on cornerback Dunta Robinson, thus essentially saying "thanks for the memories" and showing once and for all that if you're going to ask Rick Smith to pay you, then it's best to ask him privately to his face as opposed to publicly on the posterior of your footwear.
Whether the Texans are making a mistake with this decision will play out over time and is fodder for another post on another day. Today, I want to zero in on the offensive side of the ball, specifically the running back position.
Now, we all know how 2009 played out in the backfield, but for the sake of review:
STEVE SLATON -- Came into camp looking, um, bigger than he did in 2008, and the extra weight didn't do him any favors as he looked a half-gear slower than his rookie campaign. Combine that with the worst case of fumble-itis in the NFL and I'm sure #20 has gone ahead and deleted all of 2009 from his figurative TiVo.
CHRIS BROWN...no not KRIS...CHRIS -- Showed what is possible when an older running back with no elusiveness and poor straight line speed meets a struggling run-blocking offensive line. The turnovers near the goal line (on the ground, through the air, Brown could find multiple ways to turn it over) were icing on the "please, please leave him on the bench" cake.
RYAN MOATS -- Had the best individual game of any back all season with three touchdowns against the Bills, but then -- stop me if you've heard this before -- he fumbled at the goal line the next week against the Colts and was back on the milk carton.
ARIAN FOSTER -- Showed some serious promise at the end of the season with over 100 yards against the Patriots in Week 17, but even the undrafted rookie had to overcome his own issues with "professionalism during the work week" according to Gary Kubiak.
This brings us to the current running back market. In case you missed it, two of the most productive backs of the decade are now on the market -- LaDanian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook, released by the Chargers and Eagles, respectively. Both are 30 years old and available, which would be great if they were single women looking for a good time. However, they are NFL running backs, with injury histories and wear on their tires that should be scary if you know anything about the life cycle of an NFL running back.
Despite the Ahman Green Fiasco (and yes, it was a big enough fiasco to warrant proper noun designation and capitalization of the word "Fiasco"), there are Texans fans and media members encouraging the Texans to kick tires on the now unemployed, veteran running backs. These folks talk about a low-risk scenario whereby if it's not working out, the Texans just go ahead and let them go (as if Tomlinson and Westbrook won't be able to pull a deal with at least a little teeth in it for them), disregarding the fact that any carries you give these guys in the preseason are carries that could go to a younger, more development-ready back.
If I am about nothing else in this life, I am about the truth, and I am here to tell you that history tells us signing either of these guys would be a big waste of time. Rather than just spewing rhetoric, though, you know that I will give you the statistical data to scare you LT and Westbrook lovers straight. I'm like the Texans fan version of "Prison Mike" from The Office....I AM HERE TO SCARE YOU STRAIGGGGGGHHHHTTTT!!!!
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and with that in mind I've assembled the list of running backs who have been either first- or second-team All-Pro in the salary-cap era (basically since the 1994 season) -- 31 in all. In examining their peak years and, when applicable, their "dropoff" years, the trend is pretty alarming -- most bellcow running backs (a group that includes LT and Westbrook) lose their fastball at around 29 or 30 years old and never get it back.
With that as the premise, I give you the Definitive Washed Up Running Back Anthology (years that they were first- or second-team All-Pro since 1994 in parentheses)....
EMMITT SMITH ('94, '95)
HALCYON YEARS: A beast in the early to mid-`90's, including back-to-back years of over twenty touchdowns in 1994 and 1995; still consistently productive the remainder of the decade.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2001, age 32. Yards per carry dipped below 4.0 and Smith only got into the end zone three times.
FINAL ACT: The Arizona Cardinals picked up a run-down version of Smith that barely averaged three yards a carry over his last two seasons, ages 34 and 35.
BARRY SANDERS ('94, '95, '96, '97, '98)
HALCYON YEARS: Pretty much all of them. Sanders spent his entire career as one of the fixtures on weekly highlight reels, finishing with a career yards per carry of 5.0.
DROPOFF SEASON: Hard to say he really had one, but his last season he did drop by 500 yards from the year before and almost two yards per carry. Still he went for almost 1,500 yards.
FINAL ACT: One of a small handful of backs to walk away before they became just another statistic in a study like this, Sanders retired at age 30 and never looked back.
CHRIS WARREN ('94, '95)
HALCYON YEARS: One of the most productive backs in football for the 1994 and 1995 seasons, toting the rock over 300 times each year and peaking with 15 touchdowns in 1995.
DROPOFF SEASON: 1996, age 28. Went from 1,346 yards in 1995 to 855 and a mere five touchdowns in 1996.
FINAL ACT: Picked up by the Cowboys to try and complement Smith in 1998 (age 30), Warren spent the rest of his career as an injury-prone afterthought in Big D.
MARSHALL FAULK ('94, '95, '98, '99, '00, '01)
HALCYON YEARS: A couple with the Colts and then the big push coming with the Rams in the late `90's and early `00's, including a 1,000/1,000 season in 1999.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2002, age 29. Went from 2,147 all purpose yards in 2001 to 1,490, and nearly a yard per carry shaved off his average.
FINAL ACT: Stayed somewhat productive into his early 30s before finally giving way to Steven Jackson; about as graceful a bow-out as you could expect with a legit torch passing of sorts.
TERRELL DAVIS ('96, '97, '98)
HALCYON YEARS: Had all the makings of an all-time beast, culminating with a couple Super Bowls and a 2,000 yard season in 1998.
DROPOFF SEASON: Tough to call it a traditional "dropoff" as his knee was injured in a freaky mishap tackling an interceptor of a Brian Griese pass (lots of those back in the day) in 1999 at age 27.
FINAL ACT: After the knee injury, he was never the same, playing four, five, and eight games respectively in 1999, 2000, and 2001.
JEROME BETTIS ('96, '97)
HALCYON YEARS: A total workhorse his first five years in Pittsburgh, going 299 carries or more all five years and becoming a lock in short yardage situations.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2001, age 29. He played 11 productive games that year, but it was the last year he'd be a true workhorse. Starting in 2002, he began sharing carries with other backs, first Amos Zereoue then Willie Parker.
FINAL ACT: Bowed out as graceful as a running back can expect, as the fifth all-time leading rusher in league history, and winning a Super Bowl in his hometown.
TERRY ALLEN ('96)
HALCYON YEARS: Dogged by knee injuries in his time in Minnesota, Allen hit his stride in Washington with 21 touchdowns in 1996.
DROPOFF SEASON: 1997, age 29. After his career year in 1996, Allen played only ten games in 1997 and was never the same.
FINAL ACT: Lived out his playing career in New England, New Orleans and Baltimore averaging under four yards a carry as a part-timer.
JAMAL ANDERSON ('98)
HALCYON YEARS: Matched Terrell Davis' 1998 season stride for stride with over 1,800 yards rushing and a Super Bowl berth opposite Davis' Broncos.
DROPOFF SEASON: 1999, age 27. Unfortunately, he followed TD to the hospital in 1999 as well, ripping up his knee and never getting back to the level of burst or power we saw in 1998 ever again.
FINAL ACT: Out of the league two years later, we last saw Jamal Anderson getting arrested in a bathroom with cocaine .
EDGERRIN JAMES ('99, '00, '04)
HALCYON YEARS: Drafted ahead of Ricky Williams in 1998, he made the Colts look smart in that decision his first couple years in the league and actually overcame a knee injury to become a beast again in 2004.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2006, age 28. Arizona never totally agreed with James as he saw his production drop from 1,506, 4.2 in 2005 to 1,159, 3.4 in 2006, his first year in the desert.
FINAL ACT: Became a complementary back to Tim Hightower on the NFC Championship team in 2008 and then did a deep fade in Seattle in 2009. Career over.
STEPHEN DAVIS ('99)
HALCYON YEARS: Rushed for over 1,400 yards in both Washington and Carolina in his late 20s, including a league-leading 17 touchdowns in 1999.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2004, age 30. After a 1,400 yard season in 2003, Davis was injured in 2004 and in 2005 barely averaged three yards a carry.
FINAL ACT: Lived out his playing days in St. Louis in 2006 getting 40 carries in 15 games.
EDDIE GEORGE ('99, '00)
HALCYON YEARS: A true beast of a big back, George was a lock to play all sixteen games and go for over 1,000 yards every season, culminating in 2000 when he went for over 1,500 yards.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2001, age 28. After carrying the rock 403 times in 2000, George dropped under 1,000 yards rushing and to a pedestrian 3.0 yards per carry.
FINAL ACT: Dallas signed him at age 31 to try and pump some life into their ground game but he only played thirteen games and averaged barely over three yards a carry.
CURTIS MARTIN ('99, '01, '04)
HALCYON YEARS: Pretty much all of them, as he went for over 1,000 yards every season until his final one in 2005.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2005, age 32. The final season of his career saw the only sub-1,000-yard season of his career and a lowly 3.3 yards per carry.
FINAL ACT: Retired after the 2005 season after one of the most consistent careers in football.
ROBERT SMITH ('00)
HALCYON YEARS: Dogged by injuries for most of his career, Smith put up a monster 2000 season with over 1,500 yards and over five yards per carry.
DROPOFF SEASON: Not applicable. Smith truly retired after his best season, leaving on top.
FINAL ACT: Walking away from the game under his own power.
PRIEST HOLMES ('01, '02, '03)
HALCYON YEARS: A beast after coming over from Baltimore, Holmes was one of the most porductive backs in football from 2001 to 2003 with an Emmitt-esque back to back 20+ TD seasons in 2002 and 2003.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2004, age 31. After three straight years of 300+ carries, Holmes only played eight games in 2004 and was never the same.
FINAL ACT: Retired a Chief in 2006
AHMAN GREEN ('01)
HALCYON YEARS: Huge years in the early part of the decade culminating with a killer 2003 where he went over 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2004, age 27. Production dropped almost in half on a cumulative and per-carry basis from the year before.
FINAL ACT: Raping the Texans for about $20,000 per yard during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Finishing up in Green Bay as a short-yardage specialist.
RICKY WILLIAMS ('02)
HALCYON YEARS: After going from the Saints to the Dolphins, Williams had one of the best seasons of the decade in 2002, rushing for over 1,800 yards and 16 touchdowns.
DROPOFF SEASON: I would have said 2003 but years out of the game for drug suspensions and time spent roaming the earth seem to have agreed with Williams as he's found his fastball once again at age 32.
FINAL ACT: To be determined, but this version of Ricky is a pretty good advertisement for those looking to legalize marijuana.
JAMAL LEWIS ('03)
HALCYON YEARS: Best year was obviously 2003 when he went for 2,066 yards and he's been fairly consistent since then running behind some bad lines in Cleveland.
DROPOFF SEASON: I'm not sure if it's fair in Lewis case to call his post-2,000-yard season the official dropoff since he's been pretty good since then so we'll call it 2008 at the age of 29, going from 4.4 ypc to 3.6 ypc.
FINAL ACT: To be determined, but safe to say he's probably not going to be part of any great rejuvenation in Cleveland
SHAUN ALEXANDER ('04, '05)
HALCYON YEARS: In 2005, Alexander led all of football with 27 touchdowns and over 1,800 yards rushing.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2006, age 29. Coming off 370 carries in 2005, Alexander was never the same back, spending the rest of his career injured and looking soft.
FINAL ACT: Four games with Washington at age 31 and 11 attempts later he was out of football.
TIKI BARBER ('05)
HALCYON YEARS: His final three years in football, Barber was among the league leaders in all purpose yards including over 2300 yards in 2006.
DROPOFF SEASON: Never happened. He got out while the getting was good at age 31.
FINAL ACT: Leaving football as a top running back to become a mediocre TV personality on NBC.
LARRY JOHNSON ('05, '06)
HALCYON YEARS: Back to back 1,700-yard seasons in 2005 and 2006 with 20 and 17 touchdowns in those seasons as well.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2007, age 28. 400 carries did not agree with Johnson as he dropped to 500 yards and 3.5 ypc in 2007.
FINAL ACT: Signed midway through 2009 after bitching his way out of Kansas City, Johnson got 46 carries as a backup to Ced Benson.
FRED TAYLOR ('07)
HALCYON YEARS: Taylor was a solid back throughout his decade in Jacksonville, overcoming on and off injuries to become second team All-Pro in 2007 at age 31.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2008, age 32. It didn't last as he went from 5.4 ypc in 2007 to 3.9 ypc in 2008.
FINAL ACT: Last seen playing in six games for the New England Patriots this past season.
CLINTON PORTIS ('08)
HALCYON YEARS: Many would argue Portis' best seasons were his first two in the league in Denver, but he quickly found out how little the Broncos value running backs and was sent packing to Washington DC for Champ Bailey.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2009, age 28. Went from second team All-Pro in 2008 to one touchdown and 400 yards in 2009. That said, his Eastern Motors commercials are pretty sweet .
FINAL ACT: Not sure what it is, but it will likely be hilarious.
GUYS WHO WE WILL BE HAVING DISCUSSIONS LIKE THIS ABOUT IN FOUR OR FIVE YEARS, BUT TOO EARLY TO TELL....
FRANK GORE ('06)
STEVEN JACKSON ('06, '09)
ADRIAN PETERSON ('07, '08, '09)
MICHAEL TURNER ('08)
DEANGELO WILLIAMS ('08)
CHRIS JOHNSON ('09)
RAY RICE ('09)
MAURICE JONES DREW ('09)
SUMMARY So that brings us to the two backs on the market as of this week. Summarizing their accomplishments, thus far...
LADANIAN TOMLINSON ('02, '03, '04, '05, '06, '07)
HALCYON YEARS: Pretty much every year in the league up until 2008, a monster from 2002 through 2007.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2008, age 29. Dropped to 1,110 yards and 3.8 ypc and a part-time role.
FINAL ACT: ?????
BRIAN WESTBROOK ('07)
HALCYON YEARS: Led all of football in all purpose yards in 2007 with over 2,100.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2008, age 29. Went from 2,100+ yards to a little over 1,300 yards. Injury factor amped way up, too.
FINAL ACT: ?????
Looking at the 30 backs not named Tomlinson and Westbrook on this list, there are ten that legitimately match up in makeup/age/career path with where Tomlinson and Westbrook now find themselves -- 30 years old, dealing with bumps and bruises, and looking for work with another team.
They are -- Emmitt Smith, Chris Warren, Terry Allen, Edgerrin James, Stephen Davis, Eddie George, Ahman Green, Shaun Alexander, Larry Johnson, Fred Taylor.
The average "dropoff age" for these ten backs is 29 years old. It didn't end well for any of the ten backs on that list, although to be fair, the epilogue has not been completely penned for a couple of them (but the possession arrow is not pointed in their direction).
Go ahead and do the math, Texans fans. Then salute Ladanian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook for the greatness. Then turn the other way.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the Sean & John Show, and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.
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