Why Running Backs Are Over the Hill at Age Thirty

Scott McDowell@ManCaveSports12Contributor IIMay 6, 2010

SAN DIEGO - JANUARY 17:  Running back LaDainian Tomlinson #21 of the San Diego Chargers runs with the ball against the New York Jets during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Qualcomm Stadium on January 17, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
Donald Miralle/Getty Images

Running back careers in the NFL are now a proverbial "flash in the pan", even in today's pass first game.

Unlike quarterbacks, where production can continue on into Social Security (thanks Brett), wide receivers and running backs have a distinct age in which their talent and stats descend.

If you are a regular member of society, age 32 signals the prime of your career. Hopefully at this age you have an enjoyable occupation, a spouse that understands your sports obsession, and Child Protective Services willing, a kid or two.

At age 32, you are looked at as a key member of the office pick-up basketball team, compared to the 45 year old accountant at small-forward.

Not in the NFL.

Running backs as young as thirty are often viewed as dispensable and "over the hill" often traded, released, forced into retirement, or delegated to reserve duty by the very team they starred for.

LaDanianian Tomlinson , 30, and Thomas Jones , 31, are the latest of the age thirty and older running backs let go by the same team they produced for at a high level.

The best season in Tomlinson's Chargers career came in 2006, in which he posted 1,815 yards (5.2 average) and scored 28 touchdowns.

Since then, LT's yards, yards per carry, and touchdowns have gone down every year since, with only 730 yards (3.3 ypc) his last year in San Diego.

With 2,880 rushing attempts under his belt, Tomlinson was cut by the Chargers just before a roster bonus was due and a week later signed with the New York Jets, who were also replacing a fellow member of the over thirty club in Jones.

Jones case was a little more interesting. As LT began to show signs of slowing down as young as 28, Jones had the two best years of his career after his 29th birthday.

When he came to the Jets in 2007, his resume did not contain near the workload to that of Tomlinson's. The past two seasons in New York, Jones has averaged 1,350 yards and 14 touchdowns.

He was late go by the Jets this off-season to make room for rising star Shonn Greene . Jones and his 2,280 career attempts were quickly acquired by the Kansas City Chiefs .

Making matters more confusing to NFL talking heads was the decision by the Jets to replace similarly aged Jones with Tomlinson

While LT has the better overall career numbers, Jones has been more productive in recent years and has fewer carries on his body.

Here is a chart done by Tristan H. Cockcroft to compile the career statistics of each of the top 50 players in NFL history in terms of rushing yards, to prove that 30-year-olds indeed have it rougher than younger players:

RushYds: Rushing yards; YPC: Yards per carry; RushTD: Rushing touchdowns; ScrimYds: Yards from scrimmage; TotTD: Total rushing and receiving touchdowns; 1,000s: Percentage of players in the study who managed a 1,000-rushing yard season; 10s: Percentage of players in the study who managed a 10-total touchdown season

As you can see, the prime of the running back career is between the ages of 24 and 28. A significant sign of decrease in production begins at age 30 and free falls from there.

Many people called out Barry Sanders for quitting (age 30) in what they thought was the prime of his career, but if you look at his numbers you will notice a huge decline in his final season with the Detroit Lions.

Sanders went from a 6.1 yards per carry average to a 4.3, a pretty significant drop off. At least he left the game when he felt it was time and preserved our lasting memory of him.

Even Gale Sayers is remembered as being great in a career cut short by injuries.

Other recent running backs to have huge drop offs in production at age thirty include: Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, and Jamal Lewis.

Perhaps it is now smarter for running backs to try and secure big contracts at the beginning of their career, rather than later, and who can blame them?

Once a running back turns 28, it would be wise economically as well as dynamically for a team to give out one year contracts to the player.

What are teams now doing to lengthen their backfield investment's career?

Many of the teams are now implementing two-back systems, in which the bulk of the running game is now divided between two players.

The Carolina Panthers are the team that successfully use the system the best with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

It is not uncommon for one of the players to get more carries, but it reduces the overall wear and tear on the long NFL schedule.

And can you imagine how short an NFL running back's career would be if they decided to expand to an 18 game season?

Current young superstars that are turning into workhorses include Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson , if the Vikings and Titans are not careful with their workload, they may only enjoy their superb services for a four or five more years.

In the next edition, we will talk about the two-back system and rate some of the dominating tag-team forces in the ground assault.

Hopefully those guys resisted partying with Pacman and put some of their millions of dollars in safe keeping.

If so they can retire at the ripe old age of 32, which in NFL years, is 65.