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Aging running backs

Are running back burning out earlier?

There was some debating in the comments section about running backs and aging. Are they wearing out faster than they have in the past? And can we trust running backs on second contracts?

Shaun Alexander, Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott flopped after signing big deals. I think that’s helped to ignite the younger is better line of thinking.

There are various ways to look at this kind of thing, and I won’t try to exhaustively explore the issue. Instead, I’ll offer one statistical overview, we can debate it some in the comments sections. That may lead me to attempt something else in the coming days.

Below see tabulated results of all running backs rushing for at least 400 yards in a season. If a fullback finished a season with 200 yards, he’s not included – I’m looking at just the somewhat notable players. And quarterback scrambles aren’t included. I took the stats for all of the 400-yard running backs since 1970 and tabulated the results with the players’ ages.

The numbers I’m seeing don’t show much difference for 30-year-old running backs (4.17 yards per attempt, on average) versus running backs in the age range of 25 to 29. The numbers show 25-year-olds just slightly higher, with 27-, 28- and 29-year-olds coming in actually slightly lower than 30-year-olds.

This isn’t entirely scientific, I think, because you’re not seeing all 30-year-olds. You’re only seeing the ones who were good enough to stay in the league. For the numbers I added up, there were over twice as many carries by 28-year-olds as 30-year-olds. Over three times as many carries by 26-year-olds. We’re not going to see 30-year-old Todd Gurley (and probably not 30-year-old Ezekiel Elliott). But for the 30-year-olds who were out there, they played just fine.

RUNNING BACKS, YARDS PER CARRY (1970-2022)
AgeAttYardsAvg
218,74238,1564.36
2230,639130,1544.25
2355,814237,6644.26
2467,131285,1434.25
2564,949272,7854.20
2661,527257,3524.18
2752,939218,1954.12
2841,406171,9544.15
2928,870118,0484.09
3018,50377,2394.17
3111,55647,1734.08
326,73826,4553.93
333,70214,0753.80
341,7406,6483.82
351,1134,3923.95
365482,1063.84
373111,1583.72

The game is changing, of course, so I don’t know that it’s super meaningful to look at numbers from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. If we look only at numbers in the 32-team era, I see a little bit more of a dropoff. For this last chunk of 20 years, I see running backs who were 25 and 26 over a tenth of a yard per carry ahead of the 30-year-olds.

RUNNING BACKS, YARDS PER CARRY (since 2002)
AgeAttYardsAvg
215,64325,4244.51
2215,00466,3944.43
2324,479106,7924.36
2426,640117,9594.43
2524,680107,7844.37
2622,67298,0704.33
2722,06192,7254.20
2816,07569,3094.31
2912,42151,1024.11
308,40335,5324.23
316,25026,2344.20
323,98715,6513.93
331,6676,6013.96
346742,7134.03
355792,2633.91
361665993.61
371876533.49

Somebody in the comments wondered if running backs are aging quicker, so I also ran the numbers for the 1970 to 2001 time period. They support that notion. In that chunk of data (and this is the most interesting trend that I saw) I see running backs who were 30-year-olds in the 1970-2001 seasons averaged 4.13 yards per attempt – slightly more than the 24-, 25-, 26-, 27-, 28- and 29-year-olds in that time period.

As with the current game, however, there with fewer 30-year-olds carrying the ball at that time.

RUNNING BACKS, YARDS PER CARRY (1970-2001)
AgeAttYardsAvg
213,09912,7324.11
2215,63563,7604.08
2331,335130,8724.18
2440,491167,1844.13
2540,269165,0014.10
2638,855159,2824.10
2730,878125,4704.06
2825,331102,6454.05
2916,44966,9464.07
3010,10041,7074.13
315,30620,9393.95
322,75110,8043.93
332,0357,4743.67
341,0663,9353.69
355342,1293.99
363821,5073.95
371245054.07

The phasing out of running backs may be tied more to finances than decline in play. With players like Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook, who’ve made some money, how excited are they to come out and expose themselves to vicious punishment for a few bucks?

Weigh in with your thoughts below. I have a feeling we’ll be dipping into this issue again in the coming days.

—Ian Allan

Fantasy Index