NFL teams treat their stud running backs the way poor Dust Bowl farmhands used to treat their rented mules: riding them hard, squeezing out every last bit of production, until the poor old plowhorse slows to a crawl, then keels over and dies before their time is through.
In the case of running backs, it's a metaphorical death. But it's easy to spot a running back that's gasping his last productive breaths.
The latest running back worked to death on the once-verdant fields of the NFL is LaDainian Tomlinson, who was released by the Chargers Monday. He's a mere 30 years old, nine seasons into a tremendous career, but at the end of the line for overworked running backs – part of a long line of them in recent years.
We watched LT play the part of tired old Dust Bowl mule last season, with career lows in all these categories: 223 attempts, 730 yards, a dreadful 3.3 YPA, 20 catches and 154 receiving yards.
You can blame LT for the drop-off in production. But we don't. He's merely human, even if he looked like a super-running-back machine behind his black mask. Instead, we blame the curious modern desire of coaches and teams to work their stud backs to death, especially as they reach the wall of 30/31 – the age at which the old gray mule typically gives out.
At his peak, Tomlinson was as good as they come. His 2003 season still makes us shake our heads rapidly from side to side – and not just for the usual reasons, because we've gone a few hours without a drink and got the delirium tremens
. No, in this case, it's only because we're in awe of his performance that season.
LT in 2003 rushed 313 times for 1,645 yards – a tremendous average of 5.3 YPA. He also caught 100 passes, adding another 725 yards through the air. No player in history has ever run for more than 1,000 yards and caught more than 90 passes in a season. LT blew past both marks. He was just a 24-year-old tenderfoot at the time.
You could argue – we're not making the argument, but you could – that it was the greatest season by a running back in NFL history.
As recently as 2007, Tomlinson was one of the league's most prolific offensive forces. He led the league in rushing and in rushing TDs in both 2006 (1,815 and 28) and 2007 (1,474 and 15). His 31 total touchdowns in 2006 is the NFL's single-season record.
The 375 touches in 2007 (315 carries, 60 receptions) were a career low. But it was a lot by any measure, and the cumulative effect of getting smacked around like a pinball about 400 times a season by 300-pound behemoths had by then taken its toll.
It was obvious in 2008, when the great LT was merely average: 1,110 yards on 292 carries, a less-than-mediocre 3.8 YPA.
And it was undeniable in 2009 that LT already had the production squeezed out of him – the career lows listed above said it all. LT was washed up, after just nine years in the league and just a few months after turning 30.
Hell, compare LT's 2006 season to his cumulative 2008 and 2009 seasons.
2006: 404 touches, 2,323 yards, 5.75 yards per touch, 31 TDs
2008 and 2009: 587 touches, 2,420 yards, 4.12 yards per touch 24 TDs
The fall was hard and extraordinarily fast.
But he's not alone. In fact, his downfall comes fresh on the heels of the very similar Shaun Alexander debacle. He was the record-setting league MVP in 2005, with career highs in carries (370) and yards (1,880) and a record for rushing touchdowns (27) – a record broken by LT the following year.
Then a seemingly ordinary foot injury in 2006 left Alexander a shadow of his former self. He was out of football by 2008.
Alexander was in his ninth year and just 31 years old when he carried the ball for the final time. Tomlinson was cut after nine years with the Chargers. He turns 31 in June.
Curtis Martin went through the same thing just a few years ago. In 2004, the Jets decided to ride him for all he was worth. He ran 371 times for 1,697 yards and 4.6 YPA, all career highs, while his attempts and yards led the NFL in 2004. The Jets went 10-6 and even won a playoff game – over LT's Chargers, no less.
Martin was – you guessed it – 31 years old and in his 10th NFL season.
He was never the same after that performance. Martin played one more year, running 220 times for 735 yards and a humble 3.3 YPA in 2005 – all dramatic declines from his outstanding output in 2004. In fact, it was nearly a mirror image of LT's effort in 2009 (223 carries, 730 yards, 3.3 YPA).
We can go on and on, too:
Priest Holmes? The Chiefs rode him hard for three straight years from 2001 to 2003: he ran 960 times for 4,590 yards (4.8 YPA) and an amazing 56 touchdowns. Then he was washed up the very next year, at age, yup, 31, gaining just 1,480 yards on 361 carries (4.1 YPA) in his final three seasons.
The Chiefs didn't learn their lesson. When Holmes could no longer carry the load, they simply started feeding it recklessly to Larry Johnson: 752 carries for 3,539 yards and 37 touchdowns in 2005 and 2006.
And he wasn't even old! Johnson was just 27 in 2006. But even at that age, the workload was death to his career. He's rushed for just eight touchdowns in the three years since, including a grand total of 178 carries for 562 yards and exactly zero touchdowns last year in 14 games with the Chiefs and Bengals.
Any of these guys might have been the next Jim Brown – were they treated with the care he received. Sure, Brown played during the era of the 12- and 14-game schedule, but he averaged just 20 attempts per game in his career.
He carried the ball a career-high 24 times per game in the 12-game season of 1959 (290 carries) and totaled a career-high 305 totes (22 per game) in the 14-game 1961 season.
Brown – unlike LT – was rarely called upon to catch the ball. And he shared the workload out of the backfield with guys like Ernie Green and Hall of Famers Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly (for one year).
Plus, Brown retired at age 29 – just before hitting the 30-year wall. But he was as fresh as the morning dew on the plowfields of St. Simons Island when he called it quits after his MVP 1965 season: 289 carries, 1,544 yards, and 17 TD – all league highs – and a tremendous 5.3 YPA.
Barry Sanders is another who was used judiciously and produced right up to the very end. He never approached 400 touches in a season, the mark that LT, Alexander and Martin all approached or blew past at one point, including late in their productive careers.
But Sanders must have seen the writing on the wall.
He was criticized for calling it quits at the height of his career. But he touched the ball 380 times in that last season of 1998 – nearly matching his career of 383 touches when he was a 23-year-old phenom in 1991.
That's a lot of work for a guy Sanders' age. And it led to one of the least productive years of his career. Sanders ran the ball 343 times for 1,491 yards – very good numbers – but averaged just 4.35 YPA in 1998, well below his standards (career 5.0 YPA).
Plus, Sanders had reached the historic wall. He had played – you guessed it – 10 years. He would have turned – you guessed it – 31 before the start of the 1999 season.
He might have played a few years more. But he left at the right time. Much of history tells us it would have been as a plodding, overworked mule ready to kick the dust, rather than the speedy thoroughred leaving defenders in his dust.
More work seems to lead to an early end to a productive career ... just as it did for LT in recent years.