When someone says the word “broken down,” what springs to mind?
Your 1982 Buick? That thing in your basement that keeps ticking? Maybe even your grandparents?
In a bit of a contrast, NFL general managers will seemingly all return the same answer: 30-year-old running backs.
At the beginning of the NFL’s free-agent signing period, three of the best running backs of the past decade—LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, and Thomas Jones—were all searching for new teams. Tomlinson and Jones have since caught on with new teams—the Jets and Chiefs, respectively, where each figures to share carries with younger running backs—while Westbrook is still on the market.
Tomlinson and Jones hold the top two spots in terms of rushing yards since 2005, and all three have recorded multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons in their careers. But L.T., Jones, and B-West also have something else in common: a birth date more than 30 years ago.
After being released by their 2009 squads in favor of general managers putting a team’s success on the shoulders of younger running backs, these three backs are hoping to prove they can still carry the load.
Statistically, Tomlinson and Westbrook, who suffered through injuries for much of 2009, both posted one of the worst seasons of their careers. Both also eclipsed the 30-year-old mark just before the first snap of the year. One-time 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis also ran for a career-low 500 yards last season for Cleveland —his first season over the 30-year-old plateau—and was released by the Browns earlier this week.
On the other hand, Jones tallied a career-high 1,402 yards as part of the Jets’ league-leading rushing offense, but yielded carries to rookie Shonn Greene during New York’s postseason run. Nevertheless, Thomas Jones did what he could in 2009 to squash the belief that a running backs’ performance always drops off after the 30-year mark.
And Jones has never doubted his ability to succeed into his 30's. He made it clear to the media last October that the "over-30 rule" won't apply to him.
"Whoever came up with that rule obviously didn't play running back in this league, didn't prepare like I prepare, didn't watch film like I watch film, didn't take care of their body like I take care of my body," Jones said. "Physically, I feel like a rookie."
The situation suggests it may not exclusively be the age of the running back that matters, but rather an influx of younger players entering the league that are NFL-ready. Instead of Westbrook, the Eagles will now roll with second-year back LeSean McCoy, the Jets have put their stock in Greene, and the Chargers re-signed 26-year-old Darren Sproles to presumably replace Tomlinson as the feature back in San Diego.
Recent seasons in particular seem to illustrate offensive coordinators’ approval of a running back by committee approach as opposed to a one-man backfield, which used to be the norm. For example, the top two rushers of all time—Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton—both posted 1,000-yard season well into their 30’s.
Conversely, a random sample of running backs that were among the league’s leading rushers in the 1990’s almost all saw significant drop-offs in production before turning 30, with a majority finding them before forced to leave football completely.
*A full list of these running backs is included at the bottom of the article.
What all of these statistics mostly point to is that a running back’s success generally comes down to finding the right situation, and should be looked at on a case-by-case basis. While a running back's production often declines with age, there really isn’t a steadfast rule to that illustrates it.
In the case of 2010, Tomlinson and Westbrook have shown tremendous pass catching ability in their careers. Each could be a valuable asset to one of the many teams looking to fill a running back committee hole. All the while, Jones—the oldest of the bunch—is many experts’ pick to end up as the top free agent of this year’s class.
Of course, Tomlinson isn't even considering leaving the NFL any time soon.
“This is not the end of the road at all. I'm not retiring. So I am very excited,” Tomlinson said after a tearful release from the Chargers. “I really believe I am going to have that opportunity to win a championship.”
Time, which may not be on the side of these backs for much longer, will now tell if the teams willing to take a chance on an “over-the-hill” running back can find someone running down the other side.
*A list of successful '90s running backs whose productivity deminished significantly either a year or so before, or a year or so after, their 30th birthdays:
*Marion Butts, Thurman Thomas, Barry Foster, Jerome Bettis, Curtis Martin, Terrell Davis, Robert Smith.