Can Arian Foster Still Carry an NFL Offense?

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMarch 3, 2016

Oct 8, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans running back Arian Foster (23) on the sideline during the first quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Arian Foster is about to begin a running back quest, one that challenges the elderly at the position to grab their canes and VHS videos of Murder, She Wrote and head off into the great unknown.

He’ll soldier ahead bravely, trying to step over the dying careers that lay before him while sparring with history, the mightiest enemy. He’ll try to be the exception and prove that despite an advancing age, piling career touches and a lengthy medical file, your assumptions about him are wrong.

But if you’re thinking a running back who turns 30 this offseason and is recovering from a ruptured Achilles will struggle to be effective, then that assumption feels pretty safe.

In fact, it feels like a near-certainty, though if anyone is going to surprise us against insurmountable odds, Foster will be that shining white knight.

The only team Foster has ever known released him Thursday morning, the Texans announced. The move felt inevitable due to the combination of Foster’s career-crippling injuries and the $6.5 million he was scheduled to make in 2016, according to Over The Cap.

That’s a simply gargantuan number. The pain of rostering Foster ached even more for the Texans when his inability to stay on the field (his last 16-game season came in 2012) was put alongside his salary-cap-anchor contract. He was scheduled to account for a cap hit of $8.9 million, the third-highest at his position, according to Over The Cap.

But as NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport noted, money wasn’t the primary motivating factor in Houston’s decision:

A team starved for offensive talent beyond wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins could have justified investing heavily in a position that’s been devalued throughout the league.

After all, recent history tells us a healthy Foster is still a highly effective Foster and a dynamic running back who can change the character of an offense. It’s easy to forget he’s only one season removed from 1,573 yards from scrimmage along with 4.8 yards per carry, even while playing just 13 games in 2014.

But health concerns were more than just a stumbling block for the Texans, just as they will be now for potentially interested teams in free agency. At this point in his career, Foster is basically a walking red cross.

Health worries are attached to any running back of Foster’s vintage. That’s the cruel reality of having to absorb the most punishment in a physically brutal sport. You’re called “old” before celebrating your 30th birthday.

However, if mileage was the only concern, there would still be hope for reasonably productive years in the twilight phase of Foster's career.

Take Matt Forte, for example, the former Chicago Bears running back who is also set to hit the open market. Like Foster, he’s about to enter his age-30 season (Forte turns 31 in December). And like Foster, he’s accumulated plenty of touches on his running back odometer.

But unlike Foster, Forte hasn’t suffered many critical injury hits, which is partly why there’s reason to be optimistic about him still making a solid contribution to a new team.

Forte has logged five 16-game seasons since being a second-round pick in 2008, and the injuries he’s suffered have led to only eight total missed games. They’ve been mostly minor in nature and can be classified under the standard dings associated with a heavy workload at the position for many years.

Foster, meanwhile, has much more than just a few minor scratch marks on his driver’s-side door. As John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reminded us, all four doors have been kicked in, mirrors are dangling, and there’s a mystery smell coming from the back seat that won’t go away:

No one realistically expects a running back to remain at his peak once he hits the age of 30. That applies to Forte, too, but for him the fade should be more gradual. With Foster it’s difficult to talk yourself into spending money of any significance on a running back whose body has been ripped and torn almost annually. He's missed 23 games over the past three years.

But let’s allow our imaginations to wander for just a moment, because Foster is the kind of multifaceted talent worth such daydreaming.

The first step in that exercise involves another case study, and not much mental time travel at all. Please recall that in 2015, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson led the league in rushing during his age-30 season. Sure, that comes with an asterisk because he sat out nearly all of 2014. But he was still carrying a mammoth 2,262 career touches with him heading into 2015.

Going further back, there’s a precedent for premier running backs still thriving into their early 30s, though you’ll notice some repeated names leading the list below:

Best post-merger seasons from RBs aged 30-plus
Running backAgeYearRushing yards
Tiki Barber3020051,860
Curtis Martin3120041,697
Walter Payton3019841,684
Tiki Barber3120061,662
Corey Dillon3020041,635
Walter Payton3119851,551
Barry Sanders3019981,491
Adrian Peterson3020151,485
Priest Holmes3020031,420
Warrick Dunn3020051,416
Source: Pro Football Reference

The little optimism to be gleaned from that list is quickly doused by a few easy observations. First, it’s led by former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber, who was a late bloomer and didn’t log a 215-plus-carry season until the age of 27. If we set aside that outlier, the list still doesn’t show a single running back who’s over the age of 31.

That might be just fine for Forte’s future team. With him, a front office can more confidently pay for two more years of quality play, a fine bet since nearly 20 percent of his career touches have come as a pass-catcher. Foster does plenty of that too, but his percentage is lower at 14.6.

Yet even if both football and medical history are strongly against Foster, there will still be a sparkle to him on the open market, especially if his price sinks low enough. Memories of league dominance have a way of lingering, and as Conor Orr from noted, Foster stomped everything in his path over a three-year period:

That stretch came between 2010 and 2012, when Foster averaged an incredible 1,900 yards from scrimmage per season.

How far, exactly, has Foster fallen from those glory days? And how much have severe injuries zapped him of his elusiveness?

General managers with a hole to fill in their backfield will now grapple with those questions. They’ll decide if Foster can still carry an offense as he did recently in 2014, or if he can at least be a key cog as the lead back in a platoon.

The answers won’t be pretty.

He’s coming off a season in which he missed most of training camp after groin surgery and then later tore his Achilles. During the four games when he was on the field and sort of in one piece, Foster averaged a meager 2.6 yards per carry.

Maybe he would have eased back into his old self eventually. Maybe if Foster could have stayed healthy, the old dodging-and-weaving running back would have returned. Maybe he could have handled a high-volume workload again while being the Texans’ offensive backbone.

But that Foster now feels like a fleeting mirage.

Just like Houston, teams league-wide must know betting on the return of a healthy Foster is little more than chasing a dream. He’ll still find a home soon enough and can provide value in a limited role as part of a committee approach.

But the Foster who can keep plowing ahead while carrying his team is likely long gone, and he’s not coming back.


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