No, it's the abuse of running backs. Teams have chewed up and spit out premier backs for two decades, using and abusing their best players and shortening countless careers in the process. Of course, players are enablers, party to the problem: they all want the ball, the touchdowns, the prestige and the hot groupie sex that comes with lugging the leather on every other play.
If the Cold, Hard Football Facts had any emotions, we might even care.
We started to wonder
in the wake of the announcement earlier this week that the Chargers had cut
LaDainian Tomlinson, the future Hall of Famer and franchise icon, at the ripe old age of 30. As we reported on Tuesday
, he's the most recent poster-mule of an RB overworked to the point of uselessness by an NFL team, as if he were nothing more than a Dust Bowl era plowhorse.
LT was abused, in other words.
Here's what we found on the topic of abuse: the punishment a back can take depends largely on a player's age. But there is a benchmark that seems to apply to everybody, and that benchmark is 400 touches (25 per game in the 16-game era). It's not just the touches, of course, but the corresponding punishment that goes with attempting to negotiate a minefield of 11 large angry men and Ed Hochuli himself 400 times in a single autumn.
We don't like getting hit 400 times in a pillow fight with pink panty-clad college girls, let alone getting hit 400 times by a guy with cannon balls for biceps. Here's what happens:
A very, very young player (21 to 24) can exceed 400 touches once or twice early in his career, but the statistical chinks in the career soon appear.
A player in his mid 20s – fourth or fifth year in the league – will certainly see his career or productivity cut short soon, if not immediately, by a single 400-touch season.
And a player who exceeds 400 touches in his late 20s is all done.
As noted earlier this week, the players remembererd most for going out on top, Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, got out at exactly the right time based upon the historic life cycle of a running back. And they got out after careers in which they actually were not abused like some of the other notable backs listed below. It's the biggest reason they they were productive to the very end.
The effective end of a player's career – no matter their age – is around 2,800 touches. It's a number that makes sense with the eye test: a premier back who averages 300 touches a season will obviously cross the 2,800 mark in his 10th season. After that, the old gray mules are just plodding along uselessly.
The Rule of 400
Twenty-five players have touched the ball 400 or more times a single season. Nine players had multiple 400-touch seasons, led by Emmitt Smith and Eric Dickerson, with four each. In total, there have been 42 400-touch seasons.
But we then compiled the list of most touches in a single season. Then we looked at the top 10 players on the list, the players who toted the ball more in a season than others in history. It turns out all suffered the obvious symptoms of running back abuse.
Here's the list and the brutal tales of punishment, woe and careers cut short.
1. James Wilder (492 touches in 1984)
The former Buccaneers star is easily the most abused player in history. In 1984, Tampa fed him the ball a record 492 times. Nobody's come close to that number of touches in a single season. He ran the ball 407 times and caught 85 passes. Quite a season.
But talk about a beating. Hell, he averaged just 3.8 YPA on the ground, too, so you wonder why the team felt the need to beat him so badly for that kind of below-average rushing production.
The Bucs weren't done with him yet, either: he ran the ball 365 times in 1985, and caught 53 passes – that's 418 touches.
That's an abusive 910 touches from scrimmage in two seasons – easily the most by any player in a two-year span.
His production had declined noticeably from one year to the next, too: Wilder averaged 3.8 yards per rush and 8.1 yards per reception in his brutal 1984 seasoon; he averaged just 3.6 YPA and 6.4 yards per reception in the nearly as brutal 1985 season.
Wilder's effective career was over after that two-year pounding. He lingered on with the Bucs through 1989, and spent his final season in 1990 with the Redskins and Lions, but his production declined each and every year along the way.
Essentially, Wilder gave the Bucs and the game of football everything he had for two years, but it chewed him up and spit him out and left him a shadow of what he might have been had he been treated more judiciously, like a Jim Brown or Barry Sanders
The worst part? Wilder has abused by 1984 and 1985 Tampa teams that went just 8-24.
2. Larry Johnson (457 touches in 2006)
We talked about Johnson a bit earlier this week
. Basically, the Chiefs abused not one but two running backs this decade, first Priest Holmes (who suffered for it, too
) and then LJ (consider the 10-38 record over the last three years payback for the franchise's crimes).
Johnson's 2006 season was the worst of the group. His 457 touches that year are the second most in history, and he was simply too old at that point – a 27-year-old player in his fourth NFL season – to handle the work load.
Johnson led the league with 416 rushing attempts, compiling 1,789 yards and 17 touchdowns – an impressive season. He also caught 41 passes.
But his career was over after the abuse. Johnson played just eight games the following year, rushing 158 times for 559 yards and 3 TD. He's scored just eight touchdowns in his three seasons since the 17-score campaign of 2006.
Johnson played the first half of last season with the Chiefs before moving over to the Bengals, where he helped revitalize the moribund Cincy ground game. But he totaled 562 yards in 14 games with the two teams, scored zero touchdowns, and has never matched the production of his abusive 2006 season.
3. Eddie George (453 touches in 2000)
The Titans of the Steve McNair-Eddie George era were routinely praised for their toughness. But George, the Heisman-winning running back out of Ohio State was too tough for his own good – and, like every back in history, too soft to survive more than 400 touches at age 27.
George ran the ball 403 times for 1,509 yards (3.7 YPA) in 2000. He added 50 receptions for 453 yards. Hardly prolific based upon averages per attempt, but a strong, solid season.
And also his last as an effective ball carrier.
George actually had two more 1,000-yard efforts over his final four seasons, but never averaged more than 3.4 YPA. That's a bad number by any running back, let alone a so-called marquee player. He was simply a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust battering ram in the Woody Hayes tradition after his 400-touch season of 2000.
Here's the telling stat: George averaged 3.9 YPA from his rookie season of 1996 through 2000. After the 400-touch season of 2000, he averaged an awful 3.2 YPA through the end of his career at age 31 in 2004.
4. LaDainian Tomlinson (451 touches in 2002)
We talked about the abuse LT suffered in great detail
earlier this week: he's one of the rare players with multiple 400-touch seasons in his career. But the repeated poundings led to what we've seen over the past two years: a player who was essentially washed up and a shadow of his younger self by age 29.
Tomlinson was the pride of San Diego as recently as 2007. Today, he's looking for work elsewhere, a victim of too many touches too soon and too young.
5. Edgerrin James (450 touches in 2000)
It's popular in the circles of pigskin "punditry" to pretend that Peyton Manning has single-handedly lifted the Colts to untold heights (and then, in the tradition of the Cult of Dan Marino, blame everybody else when it all falls apart in the playoffs ... but we digress).
The truth, of course, is that Manning has been surrounded by one productive offensive binkie after another – he's relied on few more heavily than Edgerrin James.
The University of Miami product came racing out of the gates to carry the workload for Manning and the Colts: 431 touches in his his rookie season of 1999 and then 450 touches in 2000.
James was highly, highly productive in those two years as a 21- and 22-year-old phenom, but even at that age the punishment took its toll. After the early years of back-to-back abuse, James went two straight years without reaching 1,000 yards on the ground again, and he failed to play another full 16-game season until 2004.
The Colts ramped up the workload again in 2005: 404 touches for 1,843 yards.
But that was the last straw for a guy who was, by then, a middle aged man by the standards of his position and his game: James averaged a strong 4.2 YPA on the ground in that 2005 campaign, but never reached 4.0 YPA again after toting the ball 404 times as a 27-year-old.
6. Marcus Allen (447 touches in 1985)
The Raiders star is remembered as one of the great backs of the 1980s and noted for his breathtaking run against the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII. It's one of the most majestic plays in NFL history.
Allen reached his zenith two years after that Super Bowl, during the 1985 season, when he was just 25 years old. He ran 380 times for a league-leading 1,759 yards. He also caught an impressive 67 passes for another 555 yards. It was the greatest single-season output by any player at that time (2,314 yards from scrimmage).
But the 447 touches ruined Allen's career. Like others on the list, he might have survived 400-plus touches at age 22 or 23 – but not at 25.
Oh, sure, he somehow managed to hang on for another 12 years with the Raiders and Chiefs. But over those 12 years, Allen never again approached 1,000 yards rushing in a season and never matched the 4.6 YPA he averaged in that overworked 1985 campaign. He survived mostly because teams cut his work load drastically. After 1985, he peaked at 257 touches in 1988 (223 rushes, 34 catches).
If the Chargers had heeded the lesson of Marcus Allen's reduced workload after age 25, Tomlinson would probably still be a productive player for them in 2010 and beyond.
7. Ricky Williams (442 touches in 2003)
Wondering why Williams was hitting the bong at the end of the 2003 season and then left football to "find himself" before the start of the 2004 season?
Here's why: he was shell shocked, like a World War I doughboy who had just somehow survived the trench warfare of western Europe. He needed some time to just sit around and enjoy life, like Jake and the gang
from "The Sun Also Rises."
Look at the brutal 442 touches he endured in 2003. Hell, you'd have sought solace in drugs and the Mahareshi Yogi, too.
It was the end of a meat-grinding two-year stretch for Williams: he endured 430 touches in 2002. At just 25 years old, Williams was incredibly productive that season, highlighted by 383 rush attempts for 1,853 yards – both tops in the league – with a very impressive 4.8 average per attempt. He also caught 47 passes for 363 yards (7.7 YPA).
In a pattern consistent with history, Williams' effectiveness dropped off after his 430 touches in 2002, even as his totes climbed to 442 in 2003.
Williams in 2003 rushed 392 times for 1,372 yards and a very rough 3.5 YPA – well below the production he displayed in 2002. His 50 catches in 2003, meanwhile, yielded just 350 yards (7.0 YPA) – also below the effectiveness he displayed in 2002.
Williams, like other young players before, never recovered: he didn't play in 2004 and he totaled just 334 rushing attempts for just 1,417 yards from 2005 to 2008 (he did not play in 2006).
After four seasons of relative rest, the physically gifted Williams finally begin to show some of the flashes of his old self last year when, at age 32, he turned 241 rushes into 1,121 yards – a very, very impressive average of 4.7 YPA, especially for a player at that age.
The natural reaction is to wonder why kind of career numbers Williams might have produced had he not been driven out of the game by the abuse he suffered from his brutal 872 touches in 2002 and 2003.
8. Eric Dickerson (441 touches in 1983)
Dickerson, as noted above, joins Emmitt Smith as the two players in history with a brutal four seasons of 400 touches.
If there's a silver lining to the cloud of abuse that Dickerson suffered, it's that three of his brutal 400-touch seasons came in his first four seasons – he was 26 at the end of the fourth season.
He had the fortune, if there is one, of carrying his heaviest workload in his rookie year – the 441 touches he endured here in 1983.
Dickerson, like Smith, is the extraordinarily rare player who seemed to soldier on despite the beatings. He turned 441 touches into 2,212 yards in 1983; 400 touches into 2,244 yards in 1984; and 430 touches into 2,026 yards in 1986.
But by then he was 26 – middle aged by running back standards – and the wheels began to wobble. Dickerson missed 24 games over the next three seasons. Rested, Ricky Williams style, he rebounded with 424 touches and 2,036 yards in 1988.
But by then he was 28, and the 1988 season was something of a last hurrah. He squeezed out 1,311 yards on the ground and 4.2 YPA in 1989 – far short of his performance the year before – and that was that for the great Dickerson.
Abused four times in his first eight seasons in the NFL, Dickerson's career fizzled out at the tender age of 30.
9. Emmitt Smith (439 touches in 1995)
Smith is the NFL's all-time leading rusher. And records, as we know, are statistical anomalies. And, naturally, anomalies are produced by anomalous players.
It all makes Smith the exception that proves the rule. He survived the abuse of being an NFL ball carrier better than any player in history and, as noted above, he joins Dickerson as the only player to endure four 400-touch seasons in his career (1991, 1992, 1994, 1995). He remained an above-average ball carrier (4.0 YPA or better) until the 2002 season at age 32 – a veritable dinosaur by the standards of overworked running backs.
But Smith was only human, too. It's no coincidence that his greatest and most productive season was also his last 400-touch campaign.
Smith in 1995 rushed 377 times for 1,773 yards and 4.7 YPA, and added 62 catches for 375 yards, while leading the Cowboys to their third Super Bowl title in four years.
His high in touches was also the high-water mark of his career: Smith set personal records for rushing attempts, rushing yards, touchdowns (25) and receptions in 2005.
The cumulative beatings finally took their toll: Smith's production dropped off dramatically in 1996, when he ran 327 times for 1,204 yards – a meager average of 3.7 YPA and well below the 4.7 YPA he produced just on year earlier.
The most rugged ball carrier in history produced six straight 1,000-yard seasons in the aftermath of his brutal 1995 season and was still a very competent to quality back right up until age 34 – the 2003 season with Arizona. But he was never able to fully rebound from the 439-touch campaign of 1995.
Quite simply, even the most prolific ball carrier in history never looked quite as good as he did in his overworked campaign of 1995.
10. Jamal Anderson (437 touches in 1998)
Anderson was a huge part of Atlanta's Super Bowl season of 1998. (Interestingly, the 1998 Falcons, who lost to the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII, were one of the greatest passing teams in history; QB Chris Chandler averaged an astounding 9.6 yards per pass attempt; in the last 55 years, only Kurt Warner in 2000, at 9.9 YPA, produced a more prolific season.)
Anderson ran the ball 410 times for 1,846 yards and 4.5 YPA in Atlanta's Super Bowl season – easily career highs for a journeyman on the fifth year of an eight-year career. He also caught 27 passes, for a total of 437 touches – 10th on the all-time single-season touch list.
Anderson might have survived that pounding at age 22 or 23. But at age 26, he was already in the dead zone for an abused running back.
He literally never recovered: Anderson played three seasons in the NFL, all with the Falcons. He compiled just 366 carries for 1,263 yards and 3.5 YPA – far below the single season's worth of work in his abused year of 1998.
We could go on and on. And we talked about other all-time greats like Barry Sanders and Jim Brown earlier this week.
But the numbers speak for themselves: give your top running back the ball too often, and his career and productivity are soon over.