How NFL's Craftiest Vets Continue to Excel in Twilights of Their Careers

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2012

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Tight end Tony Gonzalez #88 of the Atlanta Falcons looks on against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on September 23, 2012 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

NFL careers are short.

The average NFL career for drafted rookies that make the 53-man roster in their first season is 6.86 years. It is much shorter when taking rookies who get cut and undrafted players.

Brevity of career is no surprise considering the brutality of the sport. Grown men flying into each other at full speed 50 or 60 times per game can cause serious wear and tear on the body.

But there are many players who defy Father Time and Aunt Injury. Like a Rolling Stone, they gather no (Randy) Moss.


Perfecting the Craft of Football

Naturally, skill is the main reason for player longevity. The better you are, the longer your career will be.

Sometimes a player is so talented that he is serviceable or better even when his skills atrophy. Randy Moss is still contributing for the 49ers despite looking washed up two seasons ago, and a lot of that has to do with his natural ability.

Jerry Rice was notorious for his work ethic (via St. Louis Today):

For former teammate Steve Young, the story that best describes Rice's drive comes a few weeks after the San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl in January 1995.

Young arrived one day at the team's practice facility to clean out his locker and saw Rice out on the field running sprints and catching passes from the groundskeeper nearly seven months before the start of the next season.

"When people talk about Jerry's work ethic and say, 'Oh it's really extreme,' they do it a disservice," Young said. "There's an iron will to it. It's over his dead body. Jerry to the core was driven. You belittle that drive by saying he had just a great work ethic. Most people have an off switch and they choose when to go all out. Jerry didn't have an off switch."

If only more players had this kind of determination.

More than anything, Rice's hard work is what made him the best receiver in NFL history. It's also what kept him in the league and playing well past 40. Knowing his drive, he might suit up today and outperform some of today's receivers.

Laziness or complacency are the bricks on the road to an early retirement. Some players are just a furnace filled with a blazing fire of competitiveness—they are the Ray Lewises or Michael Jordans of sports. Others need to work harder.


Respect the Body

Nothing beats hard work and preparation, particularly when it comes to keeping in shape.

The demands of football require a certain level of fitness—unless your name is Albert Haynesworth or Bryant McKinnie—but there are certainly different approaches to body maintenance.

Tony Gonzalez co-wrote The All-Pro Diet, a book about how he changed his eating habits because of concerns about longevity and life after the NFL. 

It is amazing what we hear about the diets of some professional athletes. Marshawn Lynch loves Skittles; thus far we have seen little ill-effect, but a few too many bags could lead to Lamar Odom trouble. We don't know what LenDale White's eating habits entail, but he washed out of the league rather quickly.

More than just good eating habits, though, a player must keep himself in shape year-round. For some, the offseason is an opportunity to completely let go. That is a player's prerogative, but so is keeping up a workout regimen. 

Coming into each season in top shape lends itself to success, and the body will be better prepared for the rigors of a football season.


Avoiding the Big Hits

How many times have you seen Donald Driver get rocked?

In some cases, the big hits are given. Ray Lewis makes a living as a ferocious middle linebacker dealing punishment, but he can do it because he respects his body.

Players who avoid unnecessary punishment on the field are going to dramatically reduce the wear and tear on their bodies. Running back careers have shorter life spans than most other positions because they take a beating more often than anyone else, on average.

It would have been interesting to see where a guy like Barry Sanders would have ended up had he played into the twilight of his career. The shifty superstar stepped away from the game at the age of 30, still on top of his game.


Getting Lucky

Players can eat right, work hard and avoid major hits, but all it takes is one play to ruin a career.

Joe Theismann wasn't expecting to get his leg broken by Lawrence Taylor. Terrell Davis was never the same after he shredded his knee.

Modern medicine makes it easier to come back from bad injuries than even five years ago—just ask Adrian Peterson, whose bionic knee has him in the thick of the MVP race. But sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.