The Short Life of the NFL Running Back By Robert Bonnette

As you may have heard, it was chopping block time time for LaDanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, and Jamal Lewis.  The reaper may be coming for Clinton Portis soon, and Willie Parker may be a free man soon as well.  All big name guys, all recently put up big numbers before chalking up lackluster campaigns in 2009. 

All of them could be looking for work in 2010, and it’s possible that none of them may find it.  Running backs have the shortest shelf life of NFL players, and once things start to slip they don’t come back. 

Running backs don’t get to enjoy super long careers like Brett Favre (or good kickers), and they don’t enjoy late resurgences like Kurt Warner or Vinny Testaverde.  LT,  Westbrook, Lewis are all 30 years old, while Portis is 28, and Parker is 29.  If they were quarterbacks they’d have another eight to ten years left to play; instead they may all be out of the league by this time next year.

I know that sounds drastic, but history suggests that’s the case.  Franchise backs usually perform at a high level, lose a step, get cut, and then hang on for another year or two before the opportunities are all gone.  Look at a few examples:

– Eddie George ran for over 10,000 yards, but 70% of that came before he was 28 and his yards per carry average was 3.4 or lower from the time he hit 28 until he retired.  The Titans cut him when he was 30 and he hung on for one season with Dallas.

– Shaun Alexander ran for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns as a 28 year old; he had 1,600 yards and 11 touchdowns over the rest of his career.  He was cut by the Seahawks at 30 and played one more year, a four game debacle with the Redskins.

– Thurman Thomas ran for over 12,000 yards in 13 seasons, but almost two thirds of it came in his first six, at the end of which he was 27 years old.  From that point forward he averaged under four yards a carry as a full time starter for three seasons, then was relegated to part time duty for the rest of his time in the league.

That’s typical.  The only way to avoid that kind of ending is to quit early like Jim Brown or Barry Sanders.  So what am I getting at here?  For all intents and purposes, these guys are all done.  They might all get new gigs in 2010, but all that will do is confirm once and for all that it’s time for the glue factory. 

Running back may be the most unfair position in the league.  The run at the top is shorter than anyone else’s, and you’re often shortchanged financially because the beliefs are that you don’t need an elite back to win a title (true), you can get a good back at almost any point in the draft (you can), and that a great line can make almost any capable back a Pro Bowler (also true). 

Enjoy Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, and DeAngelo Williams; in five years they may all be getting the LT treatment.

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