There is no position in the National Football League like the running back. If the running back gets his hands on the ball, the play will usually end with him at the end of a hard hit. Sure, a rusher can score a touchdown or run out of bounds on a given play, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a few bruises along the way, and those plays make up roughly 10 percent of a running back’s touches through the course of a game. If a running back gets 25 carries a game, they will probably get hit hard by multiple tacklers on 20-23 of those plays. Multiply that over the course of 16-20 game seasons (including postseason and parts of preseason games) and that’s a lot of punishment. That’s why the greatest running backs in the game can go from All-Pro to finished from one year to the next, usually around the age of 30. And a few of the greats like Jim Brown and Barry Sanders got out of the way as they saw that wall approaching. We all remember the recent highlights from these great backs, which is why it can be so confounding for fans, analysts, and coaches to see these players look so pedestrian so quickly.
This spring some of the NFL’s biggest-name backs will be looking for new teams. The explosive but often injured Brian Westbrook (30) is out in Philly, who now have LeSean McCoy to carry the load. The 2006 NFL MVP and perennial No. 1 overall fantasy pick LaDainian Tomlinson (30) has been putting up declining stats since his MVP season and finally was cut by San Diego, who in retrospect should have let him go and keep the much younger Michael Turner after the 2007 season. And later this week, the Jets will release veteran back Thomas Jones (32), who is coming off his most productive season as a pro. And the Jets relied on him in 2009 as much as any other player, especially after eclectic playmaker Leon Washington was lost for the season with a broken leg and rookie Shonn Greene took a while to get acclimated to the NFL game. But during the postseason, it was Green who carried the Jets to the AFC Championship game.
Jones numbers improved in each of his three seasons with the Jets in yardage, touchdowns, as well as the team’s overall performance. Even at 32, he has considerably less mileage than other running backs his age. He has 600 fewer attempts and 271 fewer catches than Tomlinson, despite playing in the league one more year. Jones is due a $3 million roster bonus to go along with a $2.8 million base salary. Even though the 2010 will be played without a salary cap, the Jets aren’t willing to pay that price for an RB that’s at the drop-off threshold, especially when they have much younger and cheaper playmaking running backs on the roster.
But in today’s NFL, in order to succeed you need a platoon of running backs. The days of a single back carrying a team to glory are long over. The reigning champion Saints used Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, and Mike Bell out of the backfield en route to the title. The 2008 champions Steelers used four different running backs, Willie Parker, Mewelde Moore, Rashard Mendenhall, and Gary Russell during the season. The 2007 Giants also had four different running backs (Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, Derrick Ward, and Reuben Droughns) get significant carries. You get the picture. Having a platoon of backs allows each back to endure less punishment throughout the season, allowing them to be fresher during a playoff run and keep the tread off the tires over many seasons.
Unless the Jets have already set their sights on Jones’s replacement, it could be a huge mistake to let him go now. Even with Greene as the starter, Washington returning kicks and catching screens and Brad Smith running the Jets version of the Wildcat, they could still use another back to take the load of Greene. Since Jones has yet to show those signs of decline, why not keep him until he starts to slip? Since he wouldn’t have to be the main back, he could still decline a little bit and the Jets top rushing attack wouldn’t lose it’s stride. Plus, with the wacky free agent rules in the uncapped season, the Jets could be hard pressed to find a backup rusher who can easily replace Jones. It’s not unusual for a running back like Jones at this age to be cut by anyone before his performance drops like a ton of bricks, and drags the team down with him.
Sit back and relax, because it’s going to be a crazy off season.