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Opinion

NFL teams have tough decisions to make about veteran running backs

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February 26, 2010

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the running back position has a short shelf life, considering all the physical abuse they take in each season. A starting running back usually will carry the ball between 15-30 times a game, 200-400 times a season, and 2000-3000 carries in a career if they are in the league around ten years. Also, running backs typically will sit back and help block for the quarterback on passing plays.

Even the superstars in the league have a tough time once they hit the age of 30. Former Chicago Bears superstar Walter Payton played from 1975 to 1987, a 13-year career, and was done by age 33. However, towards the end of his career he was posting similar numbers from when he was in his prime. Another superstar was former Los Angeles Rams and Indianapolis Colts running back, Eric Dickerson. His career lasted 11 years and was done by the age of 33 as well. He played with two different teams in his last two years and had declining numbers in his last four years in the league. Earl Campbell, a former Houston Oilers superstar, had an 8 year career and was finished by age 30. His numbers declined in the last three years in the league.

Some running backs have been the exception to the rule. Well, kind of. Former Detroit Lion Barry Sanders lasted only ten years in the NFL and retired at age 30. But he decided to leave the game on top instead of slowly declining. His numbers were just as good at the end of his career as they were at the beginning. Emmitt Smith is a former Dallas Cowboys running back who had a 15-year career. He was 35 when he left the league. However, he played for the Arizona Cardinals his last two years and experienced declining numbers in his last three years in the league.

In recent years, it has been no different. Shaun Alexander, 2005 regular season MVP and former Seattle Seahawk, has struggled to find work lately. He has played nine seasons and is 32 years old. Marshall Faulk, 2000 regular season MVP and former St. Louis Rams running back played 13 seasons and was done playing football by age 33. The list goes on: Edgerrin James, who played for Indianapolis and has struggled to keep his job at Arizona, is now over 30. Duce Staley, who was known for playing with the Philadelphia Eagles, was done playing football by age 31. Deuce McAllister, who played for the New Orleans Saints from 2001 to 2009, will retire this year at the age of 31.

This year, we are about three weeks removed from Super Bowl XLIV in Miami and already a few marquee names have been released from their teams. All are running backs and all have hit that 30-years-old plateau. LaDainian Tomlinson, 30, played nine years with the San Diego Chargers and was released earlier this week. Jamal Lewis, 30, just finished up his tenth year in the league. His first seven were with the Baltimore Ravens and his last three with the Cleveland Browns. He was released February 17th. Brian Westbrook, 30, finished up his eighth year with the Philadelphia Eagles, but suffered two concussions this past season. He was also released earlier this week. Chester Taylor finished up his eighth year in the league and his fourth with the Minnesota Vikings. He played his first four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, serving back-up duty to Lewis. He is now 30 years old, and the Vikings are unsure if they are going to sign him or not.

Taylor is an interesting running back because he hasn’t had the full exposure to all the hits and abuse that normal running backs have faced. He has been used as backup duty in seven of his eight seasons in the league, the first four with the Baltimore Ravens and his last three behind Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. His only season he was the main running back was in 2006, his first year with the Minnesota Vikings, before they drafted Peterson. He has just over 1000 carries and has the skills to be a featured back with a team that doesn’t have a talented running back. He could probably start for half the teams in the league right now at the age of 30. Pretty rare for the running back position in the NFL. He is an unrestricted free agent this year, so unless the Vikings sign him between now and March 4th when the free agency period opens up, he could sign with any other team that is looking for a running back. A running back who is 30 years old, an eight year veteran and a reliable run and catch type of back, the exception of the rule that you’re supposed to be at the end of your career at age 30.

Derek Johnson is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.