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24 Mar 2004

Sorry, Charlie

by Al Bogdan

It doesn't look like the much anticipated Scramble for the Ball free agent signing bonanza will be coming to a computer screen near you in the near future. Because of real life commitments getting in both of our ways, Ian and I haven't had a week where we could both devote enough time to put a column together. I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't comment on arguably the worst signing so far this off-season -- Tampa Bay's six-year, $20 million contract, including a $4 million signing bonus, with Charlie Garner.

Tampa signed Garner to take over the starting tailback job from Michael Pittman, a disappointment in 2003. Pittman only gained a combined 1348 rushing and receiving yards last season. That placed him 17th in the NFL, just behind the legendary Domanick Davis of the Houston Texans. It's completely understandable that a team trying to remake itself into a Super Bowl contender would want to upgrade from a running back that only managed 751 yards on the ground in 2003.

Charlie Garner, however, is not that upgrade. Sure Garner had a ridiculous year in 2002 under Jon Gruden when he became only the third running back in history to gain 900 yards both rushing and receiving in the same season (Roger Craig and Marshall Faulk are the other two). But if Tampa was looking for someone to outgain Pittman's 1348 yards from 2003, the last person they should be looking to is a 32-year old running back recovering from a knee injury.

NFL running backs age quickly, probably more quickly than players at any other position in any of the big four professional team sports. Doug Drinen of Pro-Football-Reference.com and FootballGuys.com ran a study a few years ago that found that running backs as a whole begin to decline around 27-years old. A similar decline is not seen in wide receivers until the age of 29 or quarterbacks until the age of 32. This idea of running backs burning out young makes sense. A starting tailback takes more punishment over the course of a season than any other player on an NFL team. The human body can only take so many years of being driven into the ground 300+ times before it begins to run out of gas.

To show this graphically, here is a bar chart showing the number of running backs who have gained a combined 1000 yards rushing and receiving sorted by age. There have been 835 such years in the 7236 running back seasons contained in the amazing Pro-Football-Reference historical database.

As you can see, a high percentage (45.5%) of 1000-yard seasons come from running backs who are between 24 and 26-years old. If you squint and look at the right side of the graph, you'll notice the much smaller bars that represent the 1000-yard seasons from running backs on the wrong side of 30. In fact, 30-year old running backs have had more 1000 yard seasons than all of the running backs 31-years old or older have had combined, 40-34.

Since Garner turns 32 this year, we should look at how other backs his age or older have performed in order to determine the wisdom of signing him to a four-year deal. Here's a list of every running back 32-years old or older that have ever gained a combined 1000 yards rushing and receiving, sorted by total yards.


RB over Age 32 with 1000+ Yards
Player Age Year Team G Carries RushYD Catches RecYD Total Yards
Payton, Walter 32 1986 chi 16 321 1333 37 382 1715
Riggins, John 34 1983 was 15 375 1347 5 29 1376
Johnson, John Henry 33 1962 pit 14 251 1141 32 226 1367
Anderson, Ottis 32 1989 nyg 16 325 1023 28 268 1291
Harris, Franco 33 1983 pit 16 279 1007 34 278 1285
Riggins, John 35 1984 was 14 327 1239 7 43 1282
Brooks, James 32 1990 cin 16 195 1004 26 269 1273
Lane, MacArthur 34 1976 kan 14 162 542 66 686 1228
Smith, Emmitt 32 2001 dal 14 261 1021 17 116 1137
Johnson, John Henry 35 1964 pit 14 235 1048 17 69 1117
Allen, Marcus 35 1995 kan 16 207 890 27 210 1100
Allen, Marcus 36 1996 kan 16 206 830 27 270 1100
Smith, Emmitt 33 2002 dal 16 254 975 16 89 1064
Allen, Marcus 34 1994 kan 13 189 709 42 349 1058
Johnson, John Henry 32 1961 pit 14 213 787 24 262 1049
Morrison, Joe 32 1969 nyg 14 107 387 44 647 1034
Walker, Herschel 32 1994 phi 16 113 528 50 500 1028
Dorsett, Tony 32 1986 dal 13 184 748 25 267 1015
Allen, Marcus 33 1993 kan 16 206 764 34 238 1002

Yup, that's it. A running back 32 years of age or older has gained 1000 yards only 19 times in the history of the National Football League. To put that number in perspective, 26 different running backs, all under the age of 32, gained over 1000 yards last year alone.

Only three running backs in NFL history 32 years old or older have ever outgained the 1348 yards Michael Pittman racked up in 2003. Walter Payton, who was only one of the five greatest running backs of all time, John Riggins, who ran behind a legendary offensive line, and John Henry Johnson, who could drive steel faster than a steam drill, are the only three running backs that were able to top 1350 after they turned 32.

Can Charlie Garner join Sweetness, Diesel and the Steel Driving Man in the NFL history books? Stranger things have happened. But it doesn't look like Tampa is making a good decision by pinning their hopes (and salary cap space) on a 32-year old running back to carry them back the Super Bowl.

Posted by: Al Bogdan on 24 Mar 2004

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