2009/06/19

Running Backs "Football Age"

In the NFL, running backs have the shortest careers. But how do we know when they are done? It seems like one season a running back peaks, and two years later their team releases them. This past off season is a great example of this. Warrick Dunn was released; the same goes for Fred Taylor and Deuce McAllister. McAllister and Taylor are both the career rushing leaders for their franchises, and Dunn is 3rd for Tampa Bay. Another big off season question we heard was what the Chargers were going to do with LaDainian Tomlinson. At the start of the season, Tomlinson will be 30, which seems to be the beginning of the end for running backs, plus they just used the franchise tag on Darren Sproles.

So, why don’t the teams show these players more respect? Other than the obvious “business side” of football, these players were in the twilight of their career. But do any of these running backs have anything left in their tank? It’s really hard to say that one thing determines when a running back is finished. Of the four running backs I mentioned above, all have different ages, seasons played and rushing attempts. I think that you have to use a combination of numbers to say how much a running back has left.

By using a running back’s age (as of September 1st, 2009), seasons played, games played, rushing attempts and total touches, I determined how much a running back has left in their “gas tank” and therefore, their “football age”. I used data from the top 200 retired running backs based on attempts taken from the great http://www.pro-football-reference.com/ , and fit a polynomial line to it. This is what I came up with.



With 65 being my retirement age, you can see that there are several player very close to being finished. But what does this actually mean? Brian Westbrook is 55.74 “football years” old with .21 left in his gas tank. Is Brian two years or three years away from retirement and in those years, how many yards and TDs can we realistically expect from him? Well, based on their gas tank, and the running back’s career numbers, I have determined how much production a running back will have left, if they continue to play.


So as you can tell, the projections are a lot better when the running back has played a handful of seasons. Also, I found that running backs that are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame average about 10 more “football years” old than the average running back when they retire.

It would be silly for me to say this is exactly how each running back is going to finish his career. I think of it more as an expectancy of a running backs stats.

37 comments:

JDMCPA said...

i like it. could you run one with the retirement age at 35? (34 is the oldest on your list). That way you could compare actual and adjusted age on the same scale.

Mr. G said...

Interesting. If I could make one suggestion, though, it would be that individual high carry years tend to age backs prematurely as well; you could call these high stress years. Football Outsiders refers to this as the Curse of 370.

A couple years ago I used PFR to keep track of those high carry years and how many carries they had left in their careers afterward, yards per carry before and after, etc. While I never ran any statistical analysis because I've largely forgotten everything I've ran in stats classes, there certainly appeared to be correlation between high carry seasons and the rate of decline and shortening of careers. Additionally, backs who combined high carry seasons with long playoff runs tended to fall off the cliff even more. For example, in 2005 Shaun Alexander carried the rock 370 times during the regular season which is a high total that likely would have precipitated considerable decline the next year. Making matters worse for Alexander (at least in terms of how long he'd remain capable) was that his Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl, which added another 60 carries to his season, taking him from the 27th most carries in a regular season to one of the top 10 most brutal seasons for combined seasons and playoffs. Numbers 1 and 2 on that list are Terrell Davis in '97 and '98, which can partially explain why he was essentially done after that point. Looking at the top 50 is like a Who's Who of backs that went from being a Pro Bowler to the retirement line.

I also noticed just like you did that certain HOF running backs tend to be much more durable than the average in this regards, although it seems like the effects did still take a toll. Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson and Walter Payton seemed to be especially durable, although Smith and Dickerson did go from being an elite back to above average backs after a few such seasons.

tom said...

interesting- you have players who have a negative expectation in receiving TDs (and one in receiving yards even)

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Carl said...

Beautiful chart based on how much production a running back, and also about the NFL and the careers is great to read.

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