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24 Mar 2004
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|
|Johnson, John Henry||33||1962||pit||14||251||1141||32||226||1367|
|Johnson, John Henry||35||1964||pit||14||235||1048||17||69||1117|
|Johnson, John Henry||32||1961||pit||14||213||787||24||262||1049|
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.