The notion of a featured running back suffering a severe drop-off as he hits age 30 is nothing new or unusual. The reaction to that drop around the league, however, acknowledges a rising acceptance of that as a normal function of the short half-life of the NFL running back.
The current battery of backs with ties to the 30-year-old chopping block stems back to when the season was still in full stride. Then Kansas City running back Larry Johnson was let go due not only to his status as a malcontent, but his severe production decline.
Following Johnson this offseason, LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook both find themselves in unusual territory. The two Pro Bowl backs were cut by their respective teams and are now compelled to test the free agent waters.
Johnson had been a highly productive back when younger, with far fewer total games than Tomlinson or Westbrook, not to mention roughly half the total carries of the ex-Charger. What he did have was a 400-carry season and 1979 on his birth certificate; both prime reasons for letting him go.
Tomlinson spent his career as the Chargers' focal point, piecing together a Hall of Fame career in nine seasons that amounted to over 16,000 total yards and 153 touchdowns.
Seven consecutive seasons of over 350 touches added up however. In 2008, he had his first sub-1,200 yard year and his worst yards-per-carry average since his rookie season when he was surrounded by a supporting cast fresh off a one-win season.
The 2009 season fared worse for Tomlinson. He continued a trend of nagging injuries that did not force him from many games, but kept him slowed on the field. He fell below 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career, logging 730 yards and 3.3 yards per carry.
Westbrook probably figures as the most unique case in the trend. He had been plagued by a multitude of limiting injuries throughout much of his career. Age was not a defining factor in that. Where it did show however, was in his ability to rebound quickly from those injuries.
For the first time in his career, Westbrook suited up for fewer than 12 games (eight), while at the same time compiling his fewest starts (seven) since his rookie year. With 1,308 attempts, he had the least carries among the axed-backs, but his slighter frame (203 pounds to Tomlinson’s 220 and Johnson’s 230) gave way to the rigors far easier.
With these three no longer suiting up in the colors they had spent their whole careers in, who is the next casualty of the age wall?
Thomas Jones of the New York Jets figures to be one casualty. He was remarkably productive during the regular season despite being a year older than the three aforementioned backs. He had more career carries than Johnson or Westbrook, so limited usage was not even a consideration.
By the playoffs, however, he had seemed to run out of fuel. He put up only 2.6 yards per carry in the New York Jets’ three playoff games while backup Shonn Greene exploded for 304 yards and 5.6 yards per carry in the postseason.
The emergence of Greene coupled with the expected return of injured (and restricted free agent) Leon Washington means that Jones and his $4 million price tag could become superfluous and the Jets may let him go for younger, cheaper talent.
The rise of Rashard Mendenhall in Pittsburgh makes free agent back Willie Parker a likely candidate for relocation as well. He resembles Westbrook in that he brings far less mileage to the table but pairs a less-robust frame with a history of missing time to injury.
Former Eagle Correll Buckhalter put up respectable numbers as part of a Denver running back committee, but may see his third team in as many years if the Broncos feel better served with a different backfield arrangement.
Looking beyond this season, free agent Clinton Portis’ likely reunion with former Broncos head-man Mike Shanahan could be brief. The familiarity between Shanahan and Portis along with too many other concerns to address should be enough for Portis to remain in a Redskins uniform one more year. Portis will be 30 going into 2011 however, and barring a massive year he will likely find himself next offseason’s first victim.
The reality is that while unfortunate, trends have held consistent enough for teams to now realize that in a win-now league running backs more often than not will become a liability at or just past the age of 30. Johnson, Westbrook, and Tomlinson are the first victims of this wave that could easily see three or four more hitting the open market before the 2010 season begins.