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How Long Does a Stud Running Back Last?
David Dorey
July 16, 2009
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There's little more lovable than having your own stud running back - and owning two is even better. In the times of running -back-by-committee, finding a true full-time back is hard enough without worrying when a player makes their eventual downturn for good. The old rule of thumb was the "30 year old wall". With players like LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook fast approaching 30, it's time to look back in the NFL for an idea of what other good running backs did.

There are hundreds of running backs either playing or on practice squads or on the periphery waiting for a chance to play. But what fantasy football is all about is starting running backs and the more studly the better. So for a set of players that have seen success in the recent past, let's consider the 105 running backs who have placed in the top 20 at least once in the last ten years (standard performance scoring).

Faulk, Marshall 10 Garner, Charlie  4  Stewart, James  3  Smith, Lamar  2  Johnson, Johnny  1 
Martin, Curtis 10 Hearst, Garrison 4 Thomas, Thurman 3 Wheatley, Tyrone 2 Jordan, Lamont 1
Dillon, Corey 9 Jackson, Steven 4 Warren, Chris 3 White, LenDale 2 Kaufman, Napoleon 1
Tomlinson, L. 8 Johnson, Rudi 4 Abdul-Jabbar, Karim 2 Williams, Harvey 2 Loville, Derek 1
Barber, Tiki 7 Jones, Thomas 4 Addai, Joseph 2 Barlow, Kevan 1 Mack, Stacey 1
Bettis, Jerome 7 McAllister, Deuce 4 Allen, Marcus 2 Bates, Mario 1 Maroney, Laurence 1
Dunn, Warrick 7 Murrell, Adrian 4 Anderson, Mike 2 Bennett, Michael 1 McClain, Le'Ron 1
George, Eddie 7 Staley, Duce 4 Barber, Marion 2 Betts, Ladell 1 Pittman, Michael 1
James, Edgerrin 7 Westbrook, Brian 4 Bennett, Edgar 2 Brown, Chris 1 Rhodes, Dominic 1
Taylor, Fred 7 Williams, Ricky 4 Droughns, Reuben 2 Brown, Ronnie 1 Russell, Leonard 1
Watters, Ricky 7 Alstott, Mike 3 Hampton, Rodney 2 Duckett, T.J. 1 Salaam, Rashaan 1
Green, Ahman 6 Anderson, Jamal 3 Harris, Raymont 2 Edwards, Robert 1 Slaton, Steve 1
Portis, Clinton 6 Davis, Domanick 3 Heyward, Craig 2 Enis, Curtis 1 Smith, Kevin 1
Smith, Emmitt 6 Gore, Frank 3 Jacobs, Brandon 2 Forte, Matt 1 Taylor, Chester 1
Alexander, Shaun 5 Henry, Travis 3 Johnson, Larry 2 Foster, De'shaun 1 Thomas, Anthony 1
Holmes, Priest 5 Jones-Drew, M. 3 Levens, Dorsey 2 Gary, Olandis 1 Thomas, Rodney 1
Lewis, Jamal 5 McGahee, Willis 3 Lynch, Marshawn 2 Graham, Earnest 1 Tillman, Lewis 1
Sanders, Barry 5 Parker, Willie 3 Means, Natrone 2 Grant, Ryan 1 Turner, Michael 1
Allen, Terry 4 Rhett, Errict 3 Morris, Bam 2 Hoard, Leroy 1 Williams, Carnell 1
Davis, Stephen 4 Smith, Antowain 3 Parmalee, Bernie 2 Johnson, Anthony 1 Williams, DeAngelo 1
Davis, Terrell 4 Smith, Robert 3 Peterson, Adrian 2 Johnson, Chris 1 Williams, Moe 1

From that objective universe, let's pare down to just the players who have retired and had at least three appearances in the top 20 over the last ten years. That leaves us 28 very productive and retired running backs.

Faulk, Marshall 10 Watters, Ricky  7  Davis, Stephen  4  Alstott, Mike  3  Smith, Robert  3 
Martin, Curtis 10 Smith, Emmitt 6 Davis, Terrell 4 Anderson, Jamal 3 Stewart, James 3
Dillon, Corey 9 Alexander, Shaun 5 Garner, Charlie 4 Davis, Domanick 3 Thomas, Thurman 3
Barber, Tiki 7 Holmes, Priest 5 Hearst, Garrison 4 Henry, Travis 3 Warren, Chris 3
Bettis, Jerome 7 Sanders, Barry 5 Murrell, Adrian 4 Rhett, Errict 3  
George, Eddie 7 Allen, Terry 4 Staley, Duce 4 Smith, Antowain 3

That's a good set of players to dig into though certainly some are more "studly" than others. Breaking down these players with some interesting and notable characteristics:

      RB2
Seasons
RB1 Seasons Total # of
1000 Yd seasons
First 1000
Yd Season
Last 1000 Yd Season Peak
Season
Final
Season
Player Ht Wt
150-199 pts

200+ pts
Age Exp Age Exp Age Exp Age Exp
Sanders,Barry 5-8 203 1 9 10 21 1 30 10 29 9 30 10
Faulk,Marshall 5-10 211 1 8 7 21 1 28 8 27 7 32 12
Smith,Emmitt 5-9 210 4 8 11 22 2 32 12 26 6 35 15
Watters,Ricky 6-1 217 2 7 7 23 1 31 9 27 5 32 10
Martin,Curtis 5-11 210 3 7 10 22 1 31 10 31 10 32 11
Alexander,Shaun 5-11 225 0 5 5 24 2 28 6 28 6 31 9
Barber,Tiki 5-10 200 2 5 6 25 4 31 10 30 9 31 10
Thomas,Thurman 5-10 200 3 5 8 23 2 30 9 26 5 34 13
George,Eddie 6-3 235 4 4 7 23 1 30 8 27 5 31 9
Dillon,Corey 6-1 225 5 4 7 23 1 30 8 30 8 32 10
Davis,Terrell 5-11 206 1 3 4 23 1 26 4 26 4 29 7
Anderson,Jamal 5-11 237 1 3 4 24 2 28 7 26 5 29 8
Allen,Terry 5-10 204 2 3 4 24 2 28 5 28 5 33 10
Holmes,Priest 5-9 213 2 3 4 25 2 30 7 30 7 34 10
Davis,Stephen 6-0 230 1 3 4 25 4 29 8 25 4 32 11
Garner,Charlie 5-10 190 1 3 2 27 6 28 7 30 9 32 11
Bettis,Jerome 5-11 252 4 3 8 21 1 29 9 25 5 33 13
Henry,Travis 5-9 215 1 2 3 24 2 28 6 24 2 29 7
Warren,Chris 6-2 228 1 2 4 24 3 27 6 27 6 32 11
Davis,Domanick 5-9 216 2 1 2 23 1 24 2 24 2 25 3
Smith,Robert 6-2 212 2 1 4 25 5 28 8 28 8 28 8
Stewart,James 6-1 224 3 1 2 29 6 31 8 29 6 31 8
Smith,Antowain 6-2 232 2 1 2 26 2 29 5 29 5 33 9
Staley,Duce 5-11 242 2 1 3 23 2 27 6 27 6 30 9
Hearst,Garrison 5-11 215 3 1 4 24 3 30 7 27 6 33 10
Rhett,Errict 5-11 210 3 0 2 24 1 25 2 25 2 30 7
Murrell,Adrian 5-11 211 3 0 3 26 4 28 6 28 6 33 9

(sorted by number of seasons scoring as a top ten RB)

Height and Weight - Wide variation but notable that the lighter players (less than say 220 pounds) fared better. The top scoring backs of all time were almost all less than 212 pounds though players are getting bigger each season. Longevity is best served by a super talent of small to medium size.

RB1 and RB2 seasons - Each season the top ten running backs will typically score around 200 or more points (the top player often pushes 300 or even 350 points). But top ten equates to deserving to be an RB1 in a fantasy league. An RB2 is a player who scored 150 to 199 points which typically fall to the players who rank 11th to 20th each season. RB1 seasons are perhaps the best measurement to define a true stud running back. Ten of the above players only managed two seasons or less as an RB1 and cannot be considered a stud. They were in the right place at the right time twice.

Total 1000 Rushing Yard Seasons - Only eleven of the players rushed for more than 1000 yards more than four times - the real mark of a stud back. Four years appears to be the dividing line between "very good" and "great". It is also a sign of how the game wears on a player since Terrell Davis, Jamal Anderson and Priest Holmes had injuries cut their career short.

First 1000 Rushing Yard Season - The top 14 players all topped their first 1000 rushing yard season as either a rookie or second-year player. While a few waited longer, even they contained players that waited more because of being a backup or an injury. It never takes long for the best running backs to show up. 1000 rushing yards in a season is just 63 yards per game.

Last 1000 Rushing Yard Season - Eleven players had their final 1000 rushing yard season when they were 30 or older though only Emmitt had one after 31 years old (and that was just the next year). That doesn't necessarily say they were still great players since they could have rushed for 1001 yards and one touchdown - hardly worthy of being anything more than a very mediocre RB2. But notable here is that eight of the top ten running backs all lasted to 30 or 31 years old. Marshall Faulk was a hybrid receiver/running back who had around 1100 total yards while 30 and 31 years old.

Peak Season - This is defined as the season with the most fantasy points using standard performance scoring. Incredibly there were five players who had their career best season at the age of 30 (Martin was 31). But those other 30 year olds were Barber (under-used early in his career), Corey Dillon (moving to New England), Priest Holmes (under-used early in his career) and Charlie Garner (under-used in most of his career). The most common age for a peak year was 27 years old with six but there was no clear trend as to when it would happen. Chances are best after their fifth season and a stud running back appears to be in his prime from around 26 through 30 years old.

Final Season - For a position that has a life span of around two or three years for most players, the stud running backs hang around a long time. Over half (15) lasted for ten seasons or more. Almost all of them played until around 32 or 33 years of age.

That's interesting to be sure but let's dig more into the true studs. There is a natural split where players have four or more seasons as a RB1 player. These backs all have seven or more 1000 yard seasons while all others only had four or less (excluding Bettis). Oddly enough, there is exactly ten players that are undeniably the studs of the last ten years.

Let's take a look at their entire careers by fantasy points. Green shading indicates 200+ points (RB1) and yellow shading indicates 150 - 199 points (RB2).

AGE (Retired) 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35
Shaun Alexander     47.4 262.1 271.5 269 306.6 363.8 136.4 109.2 3.3     RB1 RB2
Tiki Barber   105 69.4 98.7 226.5 168.2 264.4 185.7 299.6 305 242.7        
Corey Dillon     198.8 160.8 185 201.3 232.3 202.9 73.2 251.8 169.4 173.9      
Marshall Faulk 252.4 239.3 143.5 200.5 282.7 314.9 374.9 340.7 209 176.8 132.4 64.3      
Eddie George     203 186.3 196.4 254.2 292.2 151.8 226 149.4 75.5        
Curtis Martin   264.8 250.5 175.6 219.2 202.3 237.2 243.3 187.6 169 278.2 115.3      
Barry Sanders 259.2 274.4 287.5 217.7 150 264.6 261.8 236 319.8 202          
Emmitt Smith 182.5 260.1 318.8 250 314.5 364.8 235.3 154.8 240.7 229.6 182.2 131.7 136.4 48.3 158.2
Thurman Thomas   120.9 263.3 260.9 275.8 283.3 206.2 198.2 170.5 176.7 91.1 78.1 24.9 31.3  
Ricky Watters     207.8 193.6 225.6 242.7 263.5 197 215.2 201.7 239.5 48.5      

Barry Sanders was the most golden of all with only one year as an RB2 (injured) and the other nine being RB1. This makes it a little easier to see how it falls out. The ages of 26 and 27 were great years for almost every stud running back and then oddly enough 28 was a down year for half of the players. Half of them still had RB1 years at the age of 30 but only Watters, Martin and Barber had a RB1 quality season when they were 31 years old. None had one from 32 on if in fact they even played.

AGE (Current Players) 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35
Brian Westbrook     27.9 160.5 205.5 165.3 257.6 282.4 217.8   0000 0000 0000 RB1 RB2
Clinton Portis 289.2 274.5 197 239.2 111.3 231.1 224.5                
Jamal Lewis 202 218.9 311.1 154.2 133.7 178.7 221.2 142              
LaDainian Tomlinson   220.3 307.2 339 285.6 303.2 418.3 302.9 225.6            
Steven Jackson 110.2 196.6 329.4 163.3 190.1                    
Thomas Jones   70.1 83.1 74.4 98.7 179.5 201.8 172.4 145.6 241.9          

The six players above are the only current players who have turned in at least four seasons in the top 20. Of those, Steven Jackson is just now entering his 26th year but unlike the retired studs, 26 years of age were a little less successful but once again, all 27 year old guys had a great year. Thomas Jones is treading on thin ice as he turns 31 years old where most stud runners have either turned in their cleats or take a big step down. Tomlinson turns 30 this year and his eight year career has seen all seasons producing RB1 numbers. No one else in this study did that. Sanders and Faulk almost did but had one year each of downturn. Westbrook also turns 30 with a knee that is either going to doom his season or be a nonfactor as it mostly has been.

In terms of "stud" Westbrook, Portis, Lewis and Tomlinson really are the only current players who qualify as a long term running back stud.

Years Played (Retired) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Shaun Alexander 47.4 262.1 271.5 269 306.6 363.8 136.4 109.2 3.3         RB1 RB2
Tiki Barber 105 69.4 98.7 226.5 168.2 264.4 185.7 299.6 305 242.7          
Corey Dillon 198.8 160.8 185 201.3 232.3 202.9 73.2 251.8 169.4 173.9          
Marshall Faulk 252.4 239.3 143.5 200.5 282.7 314.9 374.9 340.7 209 176.8 132.4 64.3      
Eddie George 203 186.3 196.4 254.2 292.2 151.8 226 149.4 75.5            
Curtis Martin 264.8 250.5 175.6 219.2 202.3 237.2 243.3 187.6 169 278.2 115.3        
Barry Sanders 259.2 274.4 287.5 217.7 150 264.6 261.8 236 319.8 202          
Emmitt Smith 182.5 260.1 318.8 250 314.5 364.8 235.3 154.8 240.7 229.6 182.2 131.7 136.4 48.3 158.2
Thurman Thomas 120.9 263.3 260.9 275.8 283.3 206.2 198.2 170.5 176.7 91.1 78.1 24.9 31.3    
Ricky Watters 207.8 193.6 225.6 242.7 263.5 197 215.2 201.7 239.5 48.5          

To see how it changes by considering the years of experience, the above matrix shows a similar finding to what age did. The fourth season played was the golden year for all the retired studs which equates to 26 or 27 in almost all cases. The seventh season is when players started dropping out and while it continued on for about half of the players it suddenly stops for every stud back after the tenth season.

Years Played
(Current Players)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Brian Westbrook 27.9 160.5 205.5 165.3 257.6 282.4 217.8     0000 0000 0000 0000 RB1 RB2
Clinton Portis 289.2 274.5 197 239.2 111.3 231.1 224.5                
Jamal Lewis 202 218.9 311.1 154.2 133.7 178.7 221.2 142              
LaDainian Tomlinson 220.3 307.2 339 285.6 303.2 418.3 302.9 225.6              
Steven Jackson 110.2 196.6 329.4 163.3 190.1                    
Thomas Jones 70.1 83.1 74.4 98.7 179.5 201.8 172.4 145.6 241.9            

The seventh season was a good one for almost all the runners but the fourth one didn't fare nearly as well in this sample which suggest some of these runners are likely not going to be as studly looking by the time their career is over. The seventh season was a good one for most of these players. Jones has never had two straight seasons of RB1 numbers and now enters his tenth season where most falter if they are even playing. Tomlinson enters his ninth season with nary any RB2 or worse season so far. Barber, Faulk, Sanders and Watters all had RB1 quality eighth seasons followed by another good year. Barber and Sanders had career bests in their 9th season. Given Tomlinson's past, it isn't hard to see him follow what 9th seasons have been for top players. It would not be unusual for his class of player.

So now that we see that runners can last through their tenth season or even 31 years of age in the extreme, the last thing to look at is when did the ten studs start to downturn for good? For this measure, let's consider total yards gained and touches.

Touches (Retired) Total 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
Alexander, Shaun 2402 69 353 354 368 376 385 264 221 12       Peak Decline
Barber, Tiki 2803 170 94 128 283 238 373 347 374 411 385        
Dillon, Corey 2862 260 290 294 333 374 357 149 360 231 214        
Faulk, Marshall 3603 366 345 254 311 410 340 334 343 292 254 245 109    
George, Eddie 3133 358 364 385 367 453 352 379 334 141          
Martin, Curtis 4002 398 362 315 412 412 386 386 310 365 412 244      
Sanders, Barry 3414 304 291 383 341 279 375 362 331 368 380        
Smith, Emmitt 4659 414 432 340 418 439 374 301 346 356 305 278 270 104 282
Thomas, Thurman 3349 225 358 320 350 370 403 337 293 307 184 119 39 44  
Watters, Ricky 3089 249 239 305 399 404 333 371 365 341 83        

It is a little interesting that the three runners who declined in the 9th or lesser season were all 225 pounds or more. Bigger runners often take more punishment. Alexander proved surprisingly fast to burn out and was the only player in the group that went down hill before their 9th season. Sanders and Barber never did have a downturn before retiring and most lasted through their ninth season. the tenth season was the most common year to decline for stud running backs.

Let's see where the current players are. I am excluding Steven Jackson because he is too young and Thomas Jones because his career has been so spotty.

Touches (Current Players) Total 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8  9  10 11 12 13 14
Jamal Lewis 2612 336 355 413 245 301 332 328 302            
Clinton Portis 2285 306 328 383 382 144 372 370              
LaDainian Tomlinson 3167 398 451 413 392 390 404 375 344            
Brian Westbrook 1648 55 154 250 217 317 368 287              

Lewis has not really seen a decline in workload, only in effectiveness. Portis is still relatively new with only 2285 touches compared where most studs end up. It certainly suggests that he has at least two more heavy work seasons if he falls in line with other studs of the past. Westbrook has only 1648 touches but had always been at least a slight injury risk that grows every year. Tomlinson comes off his least busy season in the NFL but still had 344 touches along with playing injured most of the year.

Total Yards (Retired) Total 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
Alexander, Shaun 11042 69 354 1661 1635 1730 1866 1958 944 792 33     Peak Decline
Barber, Tiki 15802 170 810 514 867 1725 1442 1984 1677 2096 2390 2127      
Dillon, Corey 13414 260 1388 1308 1490 1593 1543 1609 612 1738 914 959      
Faulk, Marshall 19520 366 1804 1553 1015 1525 2227 2429 2189 2147 1490 1108 1084 583  
George, Eddie 13026 358 1550 1443 1604 1762 1962 1218 1420 1194 515        
Martin, Curtis 17828 398 1748 1485 1456 1652 1723 1712 1833 1456 1570 1942 853    
Sanders, Barry 18481 291 1752 1784 1855 1577 1320 2166 1898 1700 2358 1780      
Smith, Emmitt 19786 414 1821 2048 1900 1825 2148 1453 1308 1507 1516 1282 1137 1064 363
Thomas, Thurman 16757 1089 1913 1829 2038 2113 1702 1442 1225 1287 851 601 189 253  
Watters, Ricky 15140 249 1418 1276 1596 1707 1855 1550 1612 1597 1855 425      

Not a lot of change here but interesting that the stud running backs were all the most productive after their fourth season. Perhaps counter-intuitive is that Barber, Martin, Sanders and Watters all had their best yardage in their 10th or even 11th seasons.

Total Yards (Current Players) Total 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8  9  10 11 12 13 14
Jamal Lewis 11898 1660 1769 2271 1122 1097 1247 1552 1180            
Clinton Portis 11108 1872 1905 1550 1732 693 1651 1705              
LaDainian Tomlinson 15561 1603 2172 2370 1776 1832 2323 1949 1536            
Brian Westbrook 9330 279 945 1515 1233 1916 2104 1338              

Westbrook returned to a level of production like before his two year skyrocket when the Eagles would not use any other runner but within that is a player who seem likely to have injury be an issue again this year. Tomlinson had a down year in 2008 with injuries but still had 1536 yards - hard to complain about. Lewis looks very much like he is trailing off which is in line for a bigger player (240 pounds). Portis had a great year and enters just his eighth season.

Conclusion: The genesis for the study was to investigate what the chances are that Tomlinson would have another good year. He is certainly deserving to be in the same company as the great runners who have retired in the last ten years and by that, it should be no shock for him to have a top-notch 2009 season. But after that, he'd be playing on borrowed time mostly. One thing that this review does clearly show is that there is no guarantees at any phase of a career. An injury could end a season - or a career - at any time. A few of the rules of thumb:

Age 27 seems to be the closest to magic for stud running backs and this season that could benefit Michael Turner, Cedric Benson and Brandon Jacobs. The age of 26 was great for the retired studs but less so for the current studs. This year those would be DeAngelo Williams, Marion Barber, Frank Gore, Joseph Addai and Steven Jackson.

Weight (225 and over) seems to be at least a slight limiting factor for longevity. The heavier current starters include Brandon Jacobs (264), Jamal Lewis (245), Michael Turner (244), Ronnie Brown (232) and Steven Jackson (231).

There is a chance that the days of the stud running back are starting to close or at least there will be few players that will be a stud for any length of time. Last season the top ten running backs ended up to have only four players with any lengthy track record - Thomas Jones (9 and he's been spotty), Ladainian Tomlinson (8), Clinton Portis (7) and Brian Westbrook (7). The rest all were three years or less of experience as a starter - DeAngelo Williams (1st year as primary), Michael Turner (1st year as primary), Adrian Peterson (2), Matt Forte (1), Steve Slaton (1) and Maurice Jones-Drew (3). And Chris Johnson (1) was 11th. Either there is a huge turnover of stud runners going on or the continuing trend towards committee backfields will starve the position of heavy-use players.

Looking back at past stats is great for getting a general feel for positions and players but can never be solely relied on for judging a players season outlook. That's the dominion of message boards and comment sections.

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