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The defining NFL season from an older running back, sorted by decade

Not many running backs stick around well into their 30s. These guys did, however — and they still produced.

The average NFL career is short — not many players get to stick around into their 30s, let alone their 40s. The few who play that long don’t often make much of an impact. SB Nation NFL is celebrating those rare players who defy Father Time and play quality football much longer than most with an all-old guy week.

In a league where players generally don’t play for long, NFL running back careers are especially short. The average career of an NFL player lasts around 2.66 years, as revealed in a 2016 study by the Wall Street Journal. Running backs typically stick around for two years and five months, second only to wideouts.

With the wear and tear that comes with the position, combined with more teams employing running backs by committee, rushers have become even more expendable in today’s NFL. But in every era, there are always a few running backs who have stood the test of time.

We’ve compiled a list of the best individual season by a running back 33 years and older, sorted by decade. All of these players are either in the Hall of Fame — or will be one day.

1960s: John Henry Johnson

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Johnson in 1953, but he didn’t end up playing for them until 1960. Used primarily as a fullback, Johnson rushed for more than 700 yards in four of his six seasons with the Steelers while scoring 32 total touchdowns in his time with the team.

In 1962, he came the first Steelers player to ever rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season when he ran for a career-high 1,141 yards. He then did it again two years later as he continued to rack up yardage for the Steelers, capping it off with a one final outstanding season in 1964.

1964 season, age 34/35 years old:

In his 11th season, Johnson ranked third in the NFL with 1,048 rushing yards and 74.9 yards per game. He also finished tied for second in attempts with 235, and tied for third with seven rushing touchdowns. In 1964, Johnson was the only running back over the age of 30 to land in the top five of those categories.

Johnson’s best individual performance came in 1964, too. In a game against the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers rushed for 354 yards — and Johnson was responsible for 200 of them. He also scored all three of Pittsburgh’s touchdowns against its division rival in what was a career day for the running back.

1970s: Larry Csonka

Known as a steamroller, Csonka was the fullback on the great Miami Dolphins teams and ran for a carer-high 1,117 yards in their 1972 undefeated season. He scored six touchdowns during the 1973 playoffs to help them repeat as champions, winning Super Bowl MVP in the process. He rumbled for over 1,000 yards in three straight seasons from 1971 to 1973, making it the best stretch of his career.

Csonka ended up leaving Miami after 1974 and spent three seasons with the New York Giants. However, he came back for one final go-around with the Dolphins in 1979. That season, Csonka rushed for more yards (837) than he had had in six years.

1979 season, age 32/33 years old:

Csonka finished fourth in the league in touchdowns with 12, a career high. Csonka also was in the top 16 in both both rushing attempts and yards, ranking alongside Washington’s John Riggins as the lone running backs over the age of 30 in 1979 to achieve this feat. With Csonka leading the way, Miami won the AFC East with a 10-6 record and the back was awarded the PFWA’s Comeback Player of the Year Award.

In his final NFL season, Csonka still proved to be a scoring machine. Against both the Bears and the Patriots, he totaled three rushing touchdowns in each contest as Miami won by double digits. Those were the only two times Csonka ran for three touchdowns in a single game.

1980s: John Riggins

Riggins is the most accomplished running back in Washington history. He’s the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in attempts, rushing yards, and touchdowns, and Riggins won Super Bowl 17 MVP honors with a 166-yard performance on 38 rushing attempts.

In nine years with Washington, Riggins seemed to get better as he got older. After turning 29 in 1978, Riggins rushed for over 1,000 yards in four of his next seven seasons and scored 76 touchdowns on the ground during this stretch. Riggins had a stellar season in 1983, rushing for a career-high 24 touchdowns and earning first-team All-Pro honors and the Bert Bell Player of the Year Award. But he had one more excellent year of production in him.

1984 season, age 35 years old:

At age 35, Riggins ranked in the top six among all rushers in attempts (327), rushing yards (1,239), and yards per game (88.5). He also finished tied with Eric Dickerson with a league-leading 14 touchdowns in that 1984 season.

As was the case during this entire career, Riggins was his team’s go-to option when the stakes were the highest. Heading into a Week 15 matchup, both Washington and Dallas were 9-5. The winner would be in sole possession of first place in the NFC East.

Head coach Joe Gibbs put the ball in his lead back’s hands and Riggins responded with 111 yards, more than both of Dallas’ running backs combined that day. He also scored the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Washington won, 30-28, and ended up taking the NFC East title.

This was the final season for Riggins as Washington’s top back. He only put up 677 rushing yards in 1985, in what turned out to be the last year of his career.

1990s: Marcus Allen

After 11 years with the Raiders, Marcus Allen needed a change of scenery. He found himself splitting carries in Los Angeles with the likes of Bo Jackson and Eric Dickerson, and he also had a falling-out with owner Al Davis.

In 1993, Allen ended up joining their rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs. It was a move which sparked the dislike between the two franchises even more.

Allen flourished in his new role. He ran for an NFL-high 12 touchdowns that season, helping the Chiefs to an 11-5 record. Allen continued to put up decent numbers for Kansas City, capping off a Hall of Fame career with one more big year in 1996.

1996 season, age 36 years old:

When Allen was 36 years old, it was clear his time as a workhorse was coming to an end. In his final season with at least 200 carries, he ran for a team-high 830 yards and nine touchdowns. Although his rushing yards dropped a bit from the 890 he had the year before, his total yards were the same: 1,100. Allen was more of a threat through the air that season, grabbing 27 passes out of the backfield for 270 yards with a catch rate of 77.1 percent, the second-highest percentage of his career.

Allen was the oldest running back to play that season and the most effective over the age of 30. In fact, he was one of only two running backs older than 33 to play in 1996, along with Baltimore’s Earnest Byner. Allen retired from football the following year.

2000s: Emmitt Smith

The 2004 NFL season was Smith’s final chapter in an illustrious career. The Hall of Fame running back finished his career in the desert with the Arizona Cardinals after 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.

Smith’s first season with his new team didn’t go smoothly, as he only rushed for 256 yards and two touchdowns in 2003. Hampered by a broken shoulder he suffered in Week 5 — against the Cowboys of all teams — Smith missed six games and didn’t run for more than 25 yards in any game after his return. This was the first and only time Smith rushed for fewer than 900 yards in his career.

Smith was more durable in 2004, playing in 15 games, and his production picked up as a result.

2004 season, age 35 years old:

The Cardinals weren’t very good in 2004, finishing 6-10 in Dennis Green’s first year as Arizona head coach. But at 35 years old, Smith ran for a team-high 937 yards and nine touchdowns. His 267 attempts also ranked in the top 15 for all rushers.

The highlight of Smith’s season came in a Week 4 matchup against the New Orleans Saints. He ran for a season-high 127 yards on 21 touches, caught an 18-yard reception, and even threw the first — and only — pass of his career: a 21-yard touchdown to Obafemi Ayanbadejo. Smith’s 29-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was the longest run of his season as the Cardinals cruised to their first win of the season.

2010s: Adrian Peterson

Peterson wasn’t expected to be the feature back for Washington heading into the 2018 NFL season. It was supposed to be Derrius Guice, a second-round pick from LSU. However, Guice suffered a torn ACL in the preseason.

With Chris Thompson the only running back left on the roster and with his skillset more suited for the passing game, Washington needed to add someone who could take up the majority of the rushes. So, the team signed the 33-year-old Peterson.

Peterson had a legendary 10-year career with the Minnesota Vikings. He put together one last dominant year in the purple and gold in 2015 at the age of 30, with a league-leading 1,485 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground.

After he left Minnesota, Peterson split his 2017 season between the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals. It was a disappointing year for Peterson, who only recorded 529 rushing yards and two touchdowns in an injury-shortened season. He was able to rebound the next year, though.

2018 season, age 33 years old:

In his first season with Washington, Peterson led the team with seven rushing touchdowns. He ran the ball 251 times, fifth-highest in the league and finished eighth with 1,042 rushing yards.

With Thompson missing six games due to injury, Peterson had to assume some of the pass-catching duties as well. He had 20 receptions for 208 yards and caught a touchdown pass in a Week 8 win against the Giants. That game against New York was Peterson’s top performance of the season. In addition to the receiving score, he rushed for a season-high 149 yards on 26 carries. He capped it off with a 64-yard run to the end zone late in the game.

However, Peterson’s efforts weren’t enough to help Washington overcome its quarterback problems after Alex Smith suffered a broken leg. The team finished third in the NFC East with a 7-9 record.

In 2018, Peterson was the only running back in the NFL over 25 to be in the top 10 in rushing yards. He’s not done yet, either. Peterson showed last season he has no plans of slowing down and then signed a two-year deal with Washington in the offseason.