If you’re a productive running back in the NFL this season, you’re likely either old or young, which is weird. The peak ages for running back production are historically 26 and 27, but among the top 20 running backs in total offense just two are in that sweet spot — Eddie Lacy (No. 16) and Christine Michael (No. 18), both 26. None are in the top 15. Ten of the top 15 are 25 and younger. The rest are old as hell.
Frank Gore, Matt Forte, LeGarrette Blount, LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray are 33, 30, 29, 28, and 28 in age, respectively, and rank 11th, 10th, seventh, fourth, and second among running backs in total offense. In Week 6, McCoy and Murray were two of the five most productive backs. The other three were in either the first or second seasons of their careers.
The league is getting younger, making old running backs more rare. There are 20 active running backs over the age of 30. Only four of them are averaging more than 50 total yards a game.
Running backs have to be particularly tough. They have the shortest shelf life of any NFL position and do a decreasingly valuable and increasingly thankless job. They are a dying species, unicorns we need to appreciate now before they disappear.
If you’re a running back over the age of 28, you’ve broken through to the other side
There’s a reason that the peak years are so defined. Once 28 hits, running back production declines precipitously. In 2014, ESPN’s Kevin Seifert found that, on average, rushing totals dropped 15 percent from 27 to 28. By the time backs hit 30, production declines by nearly 40 percent. By 33, running backs were less than half the players they used to be.
The old running backs who are highlighting 2016 are not only ahead of the curve, but playing some of the best football of their careers. McCoy is on pace to beat his age 26 and 27 seasons and rush for the second-most yards of his career. Murray could post his second-best season, even without the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line to help him. Blount, who will turn 30 by season’s end, is on pace for his best season ever. Gore appeared to have fallen off the cliff last season, but is on his way back up from 3.7 yards per carry to 4.2, and is producing at a rate just 17 percent off his age 26 and 27 seasons combined.
These players have found ways to not only contribute, but carry a younger man’s workload. Only Gore is averaging (slightly) less than 20 touches per game. They have all defied history.
The scary thing is, the end could come after any carry
Running backs lose effectiveness quickly compared to other positions, and at a younger age, so they’re often fighting for a new contract right up until a door is closed on their faces. Priest Holmes averaged a career-best 111.5 yards per game at 31, rushing for 4.6 yards per carry. Two years later, he retired midseason after re-injuring his neck and averaging 3.0 yards per carry. The San Diego Chargers gave up on LaDainian Tomlinson, so he went to the New York Jets where he looked resurgent his first season and washed up the next before leaving football. More recently, Justin Forsett, who rushed for 1,266 yards at 5.4 yards per carry at 29, was released by the Baltimore Ravens at 31 after four games to be re-signed as a depth chart filler for a desperate Detroit Lions team.
Older running backs don’t have the same leeway to be as mediocre as young running backs. There is a distinct trend line that says things will be getting worse, but also a collective bargaining agreement that made rookies much cheaper than they used to be and veterans more expensive. Ostensibly, older players are better taken care of, but they are also more likely to be lopped off the payroll.
The players we’re watching perform among the best in the NFL need to be great, because the moment they aren’t they will be on the chopping block. If they are injured, they may not find a team willing to abide their recovery time. Yet they need to run harder, play with more abandon, to overcome their tiring legs. To stay on the field, they need to risk everything.
It’s no surprise that we empathize with running backs
Running plays develop slowly. The effort is plain. On a handoff, you see the back look for the hole, accelerate, and hope for the best. More often their effort is futile. Running backs fail a lot. Somehow, it’s important that they do, because it helps keep defenses honest and every once in a while the back breaks free — if not on one play, then perhaps the next, or the next, but sometimes never.
That naked grind is familiar and human, more so than, say, a wide receiver whose failures aren’t seen as often because the ball is thrown their way maybe eight times a game. Running backs suffer sometimes without success on the horizon, sometimes for the sole purpose of staving off the end.
Last weekend, Gore rushed for 75 yards to pass Jim Brown on the list of all-time leading rushers, and now has Tony Dorsett within his sights this season. Gore didn’t have an eye-catching performance, which is fitting for a player who wasn’t always all that eye-catching. Brown rushed for 12,312 yards in 118 games, and Gore needed 148 to pass him.
But Gore isn’t trying to wow anyone. After the game, the Indianapolis Star wrote one of those pieces you always see about veterans and the respect they command. Quarterback Andrew Luck called Gore, “A beautiful teammate.” Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said Gore is “probably the most passionate guy I’ve ever played with.” The point of the article wasn’t what he does as a player, but the fact that he’s doing anything at all.
“I hear all the critics, man,” Gore said. “I hear them saying ‘He’s done.’ I hear them saying ‘He can’t.’ I hear all that. That keeps me going.”
That reads like stock Football Guy self-motivation, but coming from a 33-year-old Frank Gore we know he means it. He wouldn’t have an outlet to say those words, today, if he hadn’t embodied them: The NFL and his position are too difficult. Longevity is hard to fit in a highlight reel, but it’s every bit highlight worthy. In an era when running backs are perhaps the most disposable people in football, these running backs are still getting theirs and that is really damn cool.