How NFL Players Fall Apart

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How NFL Players Fall Apart
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Regression.

It's a word many of us hate thanks mostly to its prevalence in math classes. We also hate it because of what it stands for: things falling apart.

That's not the way we expect things to go, right? The little optimist in all of us expects things to get good, be good, stay good and eventually get even better. Any instances to the contrary are just speed bumps on the yellow brick road to greatness. 

For football fans, that train of thought hurdles even faster down the tracks. Every single draft pick—from first round to seventh—is supposed to pan out. Every year, the young kids are going to work on their shortcomings and be that much better. The core players are going to take steps forward and become All-Pros or erstwhile MVP candidates. The older players are getting up there, sure, but they've got plenty left in the tank, right? 

No one expects their favorite players or teams to get any worse. Yet every year, many do. 

In the end, this is just the Second Law of Thermodynamics, entropy playing out in front of us. (You didn't know there would be math and science when you clicked on this link, did you?) It's the idea that over time, everything goes from order to chaos. It decays. 

It's a morbid thought, but it's also the reality football players must deal with. They know that their livelihood and financial security could be jeopardized at any moment. It's why it's foolish to begrudge a player for trying to eke out just a little more money in free agency, or a veteran who wants to sit out training camp to avoid the excess hits. 

Eventually, every NFL player—no matter how good—is going to fall apart. But why?

 

Age/Injury

This is probably the most expected answer for most readers. 

The NFL is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport. It's also, by and large, a sport for young men. It's common knowledge that when a player reaches a certain age, they reach either a downward slope or a wall, depending on what position they play. Whether steady or abrupt, the player will decline and eventually fall apart. No one plays forever. 

In my experience as a columnist, fans are usually the second-most surprised that a player's play is decreasing with age—sometimes even long after they've fallen off the proverbial cliff. In many instances, the player himself is the most surprised. 

Everyone expects to be the outlier. Yet for every Brett Favre, who played well into his 40s, there are dozens of quarterbacks for whom Father Time waits much less patiently. Check out this quarterback age curve courtesy of Chase Stuart of Football Perspective: 

I'll let Mr. Stuart explain what the lines mean:

The blue line represents the average performance based on the number of quarterbacks actually playing in the NFL that season; the red line shows the aging patterns when you divide by the total number of passers in the group.

Taking a look at that red line, it's easy to see what the "prime" a quarterback really is. It's not a Favre-esque 40; it's closer to 29 and ends in the early 30s. Taking a look at that makes what Peyton Manning and Tom Brady do all the more impressive. 

That's just the quarterbacks. For perimeter players like defensive backs, running backs and receivers, where speed is of the utmost importance, that decline can be both earlier and sharper. 

Carson Palmer (33), Matt Schaub (32), Steven Jackson (30), Ike Taylor (33), Champ Bailey (35) and Justin Tuck (30) are just some of the players that have disappointed in 2013 and look as if their best days are behind them. 

More jarring and abrupt for players, franchises and fans is when a player's decline is exacerbated by injuries. At the very least, an injury (or, more common, repeated injuries) can accelerate the decline down the aging curve. Worse yet is the traumatic injury that can send a player hurdling several flights down the curve. 

Terrell Davis was a star running back for the Denver Broncos at the height of the John Elway/Mike Shanahan era and helped shoulder the load on the way to two Super Bowl titles. Although he played only seven years, he was an NFL MVP and three-time All-Pro. 

Sports on Earth columnist Mike Tanier has made it his "pet project" to get Davis into the Hall of Fame. 

Terrell Davis' Mercurial Career
Season Games Missed Notable Injuries
1995 2 N/A
1996 0 N/A
1997 1 N/A
1998 0 N/A
1999 12 ACL/MCL Tear
2000 11 Stress Reaction
2001 8 Double Arthroscopic Knee Surgery

Wikipedia

Injuries—first in college and then more famously at the professional level—kept Davis from a longer NFL career and will likely keep him out of the Hall.

Bleacher Report's Chris Trapasso wrote an article on the NFL's most injury-prone players earlier this year and listed guys like Darren McFadden, Danny Amendola, Eric Wood and Ryan Mathews. All are players who have had promising young careers marred by injuries and may not play long because of that. 

 

Outside Issues (Scheme, Surrounding Talent)

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For the most part, it is my belief that outside issues tend to affect players more on the front end of their careers rather than the back end. When I look at busts, typically there are mitigating factors that kept the player from really blossoming as he could have. Not that it's an excuse, but it's at least a factor. 

Yet on the back ends of careers, it's possible that a player prematurely fell apart for reasons that were beyond his control and had nothing to do with injury or the passage of time. In 2013, the gold standard of that is Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis. 

Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano lied when he said earlier this year that Revis was being used "often" in man coverage. It was either a lie of ignorance or a boldfaced lie assuming no one would dial up the coach's tape—you decide which is worse.

NFL Films' Greg Cosell counted:

We counted 2 plays in which you could truly say Darrelle Revis was playing man. Revis only lines up on the left side of the defense which makes the defense fairly predictable from a coverage stand point.

That’s what the Jets built their entire defense around. Revis would play ‘cover zero man’ and they would have 10 other players to do different hybrid-type things.

Revis has looked bad in a Buccaneers uniform, but it doesn't have much to do with age or the knee injury he's coming off of. It's just being put in a stupid position by a coaching staff that should know better.

Then there's Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He fits nicely into the "regression due to age" group at age 31. He's also had a spot on Trapasso's most injury-prone list, as his physical style has led to some pretty gnarly injuries. 

One look, however, at the pedestrian offensive line in front of him, the lack of top-flight receiving around him, and the burgeoning running game that needs to utilize the Wildcat just to engineer some yards (again, mostly because of the line play), and it's clear Roethlisberger could probably be having a much better year under other circumstances. 

Instead, he's got a vertical offense with speed receivers and is being asked to stand tall in a nonexistent pocket to deliver the ball on five- or seven-step drops to receivers that may or may not have separation. 

That's not ideal.

 

They Were Never That Good in the First Place

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This final category we'll nickname "The Matt Cassel Corollary." 

Think back to the circumstances that led to Cassel receiving a six-year, $63 million contract from the Kansas City Chiefs. He had been a career backup both at USC and for the New England Patriots, but he came in for an injured Tom Brady in 2008 and performed admirably. The Chiefs traded a second-round pick for Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel, thanks largely to then-Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli having a long history with the Patriots organization.

In hindsight, it's easy to see that Cassel was never really what his time in New England made him out to be. He was sitting in a perfect situation in a great offensive scheme with fantastic players around him. He had the ultimate opportunity to succeed, but simply rode along as the winds of chance carried him along. 

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Matt Flynn did much the same in one Week 17 game with the Green Bay Packers against a horrible Detroit Lions pass defense that was sitting many of its starters for the playoffs. He parlayed that into contracts with both the Seattle Seahawks and Oakland Raiders and now finds himself backing up Thad Lewis for the Buffalo Bills. 

It isn't as if Cassel or Flynn fell from some lofty height to which they climbed. No, they were simply set up on an artificial pedestal and financially benefited because teams were duped. 

Ryan Fitzpatrick, Donald Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Akeem Dent, Chris Conte and many other players were artificially propped up by scheme, hype or the play around them in recent years and are now showing their true colors. It's not to say that these players don't belong in the NFL—they do—but rather that the large role they've been handed probably isn't going to end well. 

When the defense scouts the wrinkles that made a player effective, the surrounding players stop supporting as well as they have and physical skills erode just a little, a player who was up on that pedestal can fall more quickly than anyone would've expected. 

Many times, it's only in hindsight that everyone realizes the player never belonged up there in the first place. 

Every NFL player will fall apart eventually. There's no "senior circuit" in the NFL, and there's little place for a player hanging on when so many healthy 22- and 23-year-olds are begging to get into the league every single year. 

One moment, a player can be on the top of the world. The next...

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route and follow him on Twitter.  

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