Game Time: The Definitive Washed-Up Running Back Anthology

Of all of the things that football has gotten right over the last decade or two (and there are many -- instant replay, embracing fantasy football, the yellow first-down line, the addition of Sunday night games, to name a few), the most significant one to me has been the marketing of the game into essentially year-round relevancy.

Now, to be sure, the most significant part is still what occurs between the lines from mid-September until the first weekend in February. However, the combine, the draft, OTA's, and training camp have essentially turned the NFL into a year-round animal with no period of hibernation. And the more relevant your team, the more all-consuming the year-round NFL monster becomes.

Which brings us to our Texans....the story du jour locally is the team's choosing not to slap the franchise tag (and the $10 million in game checks) on cornerback Dunta Robinson, thus essentially saying "thanks for the memories" and showing once and for all that if you're going to ask Rick Smith to pay you, then it's best to ask him privately to his face as opposed to publicly on the posterior of your footwear.

Whether the Texans are making a mistake with this decision will play out over time and is fodder for another post on another day. Today, I want to zero in on the offensive side of the ball, specifically the running back position.

Now, we all know how 2009 played out in the backfield, but for the sake of review:

STEVE SLATON -- Came into camp looking, um, bigger than he did in 2008, and the extra weight didn't do him any favors as he looked a half-gear slower than his rookie campaign. Combine that with the worst case of fumble-itis in the NFL and I'm sure #20 has gone ahead and deleted all of 2009 from his figurative TiVo.

CHRIS not KRIS...CHRIS -- Showed what is possible when an older running back with no elusiveness and poor straight line speed meets a struggling run-blocking offensive line. The turnovers near the goal line (on the ground, through the air, Brown could find multiple ways to turn it over) were icing on the "please, please leave him on the bench" cake.

Had the best individual game of any back all season with three touchdowns against the Bills, but then -- stop me if you've heard this before -- he fumbled at the goal line the next week against the Colts and was back on the milk carton.

Showed some serious promise at the end of the season with over 100 yards against the Patriots in Week 17, but even the undrafted rookie had to overcome his own issues with "professionalism during the work week" according to Gary Kubiak.

This brings us to the current running back market. In case you missed it, two of the most productive backs of the decade are now on the market -- LaDanian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook, released by the Chargers and Eagles, respectively. Both are 30 years old and available, which would be great if they were single women looking for a good time. However, they are NFL running backs, with injury histories and wear on their tires that should be scary if you know anything about the life cycle of an NFL running back.

Despite the Ahman Green Fiasco (and yes, it was a big enough fiasco to warrant proper noun designation and capitalization of the word "Fiasco"), there are Texans fans and media members encouraging the Texans to kick tires on the now unemployed, veteran running backs. These folks talk about a low-risk scenario whereby if it's not working out, the Texans just go ahead and let them go (as if Tomlinson and Westbrook won't be able to pull a deal with at least a little teeth in it for them), disregarding the fact that any carries you give these guys in the preseason are carries that could go to a younger, more development-ready back.

If I am about nothing else in this life, I am about the truth, and I am here to tell you that history tells us signing either of these guys would be a big waste of time. Rather than just spewing rhetoric, though, you know that I will give you the statistical data to scare you LT and Westbrook lovers straight. I'm like the Texans fan version of "Prison Mike" from The Office....I AM HERE TO SCARE YOU STRAIGGGGGGHHHHTTTT!!!!

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and with that in mind I've assembled the list of running backs who have been either first- or second-team All-Pro in the salary-cap era (basically since the 1994 season) -- 31 in all. In examining their peak years and, when applicable, their "dropoff" years, the trend is pretty alarming -- most bellcow running backs (a group that includes LT and Westbrook) lose their fastball at around 29 or 30 years old and never get it back.

With that as the premise, I give you the Definitive Washed Up Running Back Anthology (years that they were first- or second-team All-Pro since 1994 in parentheses)....

EMMITT SMITH ('94, '95)
A beast in the early to mid-`90's, including back-to-back years of over twenty touchdowns in 1994 and 1995; still consistently productive the remainder of the decade.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2001, age 32. Yards per carry dipped below 4.0 and Smith only got into the end zone three times.
FINAL ACT: The Arizona Cardinals picked up a run-down version of Smith that barely averaged three yards a carry over his last two seasons, ages 34 and 35.

BARRY SANDERS ('94, '95, '96, '97, '98)
Pretty much all of them. Sanders spent his entire career as one of the fixtures on weekly highlight reels, finishing with a career yards per carry of 5.0.
DROPOFF SEASON: Hard to say he really had one, but his last season he did drop by 500 yards from the year before and almost two yards per carry. Still he went for almost 1,500 yards.
FINAL ACT: One of a small handful of backs to walk away before they became just another statistic in a study like this, Sanders retired at age 30 and never looked back.

CHRIS WARREN ('94, '95)
One of the most productive backs in football for the 1994 and 1995 seasons, toting the rock over 300 times each year and peaking with 15 touchdowns in 1995.
DROPOFF SEASON: 1996, age 28. Went from 1,346 yards in 1995 to 855 and a mere five touchdowns in 1996.
FINAL ACT: Picked up by the Cowboys to try and complement Smith in 1998 (age 30), Warren spent the rest of his career as an injury-prone afterthought in Big D.

MARSHALL FAULK ('94, '95, '98, '99, '00, '01)
A couple with the Colts and then the big push coming with the Rams in the late `90's and early `00's, including a 1,000/1,000 season in 1999.
DROPOFF SEASON: 2002, age 29. Went from 2,147 all purpose yards in 2001 to 1,490, and nearly a yard per carry shaved off his average.
FINAL ACT: Stayed somewhat productive into his early 30s before finally giving way to Steven Jackson; about as graceful a bow-out as you could expect with a legit torch passing of sorts.

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