While running backs are some of the most talented athletes in the world, there is one hurdle none of them can master: Father Time. With the common perception being that running backs fall off the cliff at age 30, I decided to explore if this phenomenon has merit to it.
A very common perception is that when a running back turns 30, they have little to no gas left in the tank and begin their steep decline. Is it true? In short, yes. What is it about age 30 that is so terrible for running backs? Nearly every other offensive position, even wide receivers, often transition smoothly from age 29 to 30. But apparently the multitude of hits, carries and jukes takes its toll by the time tailbacks are blowing out 30 candles on their birthday cakes.
This graph shows how rare it is in today’s NFL to rush for over 1,000 yards as a 30-year-old running back. There have been 61 1,000+ rushing yard seasons in the NFL since 2010, and a mere 2 out of 61 have occurred during a running back’s age 30 season.
The Age 29 to 30 Transition
Here is a list of all the players from 2010-2013, who rushed for 1,000 yards as a 29 or 30 year old with a statistical comparison to that following season:
|Willis McGahee||Age||Games Played||Yards||Yards Per Carry|
After beginning his career as a feature back in Buffalo and Baltimore, McGahee took a backseat to Ray Rice starting in 2008. In fact, from 2008 to 2010, McGahee averaged only 8.6 carries per game. It may have bought him an extra year, as his decline occurred in his age 31 season.
|Michael Turner||Age||Games Played||Yards||Yards Per Carry|
Michael Turner was never a feature runner until his age 26 season – he never topped more than 80 carries in a season in San Diego running behind LaDainian Tomlinson. Yet the numbers from his age 29 to 30 season still point to a staggering decline even though he didn’t rack up touches early in his career. Even though Turner played a full season, his drop-off was incredibly severe. The age 30 wall did him in, and Turner hasn’t played a snap since 2012.
|Cedric Benson||Age||Games Played||Yards||Yards Per Carry|
Never the most efficient runner, only once did Benson top 3.9 yards per carry during his time in Cincinnati. In the few games he did play as a 30 year old, Benson experienced a significant decline in efficiency before succumbing to a severe Lisfranc injury, never to see the field again. As showed by the staggering drop in games played for running backs during their age 30 seasons, this is not a coincidence.
|Frank Gore||Age||Games Played||Yards||Yards Per Carry|
The outlier. Despite a significant hip injury in 2010, Gore has appeared in every game the past three seasons while rushing for over 1,100 yards in each one. But in his age 30 season Gore showed signs of slowing down, as evidenced by a 13% drop in his yards per carry average. With Marcus Lattimore and Kendall Hunter waiting in the wings, it’s a good bet 2013 was Gore’s last 1,000 yard season.
|Steven Jackson||Age||Games Played||Yards||Yards Per Carry|
The one many football fans could see coming from a mile away. Jackson has been a remarkable study in endurance and consistency, averaging 282 carries with over 1,000 yards rushing in every season from 2005-2012. It’s no surprise that in his age 30 season, Jackson tied for his career low in games played while setting career lows in yards and yards per carry. He has officially hit the age 30 wall.
In short, NOT ONE PLAYER transitioning into his age 30 or 31 season coming off of a 1,000 yard rushing effort the past four seasons has improved upon any of these meaningful statistics. They’ve averaged almost 4 missed games (25% of the season), a 42% decline in rushing yards, and a 13% decrease in yards per carry. This not only helps prove the point that you cannot count on a full season from an age 30 running back, but even when they are on the field they are less efficient and productive as evidenced by the 13% decrease in yards per carry.
If injuries were the only issue, then the decline in rushing yardage and games missed should be the same, i.e. 25% less rushing yards because they missed 25% of the games. But that equity is way out of proportion, as the 42% decline in rushing yards is 17% more than the amount of missed games.
What does this all mean for the upcoming season? Here is a list of the running backs who were in the top 40 in rushing yards in 2013 who will be 30 years old or older before or during the 2014 season:
Pierre Thomas, 30
DeAngelo Williams, 31
Steven Jackson, 31
Frank Gore, 31
Fred Jackson, 33
As it turns out, no huge implications for redrafters as none of these guys are sniffing the RB1 discussion for 2014. However, it’s different for dynasty leaguers.
Here is a list of top 40 rushers in 2013 that will be 29 years old before or during the 2014 season:
Definitely some bigger names there. Considering how poorly age 30 running backs do in today’s NFL, some of these guys should be on your dynasty “sell” list even though they may have another good year in them. I’m not saying trade Adrian Peterson for Lamar Miller, but just be aware of the across-the-board declines these players are likely to experience after this next season.