It is a story inside the playoff story every year for fantasy owners: How will the heavily-used backs, particularly those who get ridden deep into the postseason, fare the next season?
In Rashard Mendenhall's case: disappointingly, and now, tragically.
It is a case study every year and, like Mendenhall's bust season that ended with a torn ACL, it can end horrifically and perhaps even affect the rest of a player's career.
If you're familiar with the 400-plus carry fantasy running back breakdown theory, Mendenhall was squarely in the danger zone. Shaun Alexander is the biggest historical example. He was a fantasy star in 2005 with 370 regular-season carries and another 60 in the postseason. Then in '06, he went in the first couple of picks en route to being a complete bust. In fact, his career was never the same.
The added hits of the postseason, and high carry totals in general, can take a lot out of good backs. Marshall Faulk, one of fantasy's all-time greats, knows this all too well, saying on TV this weekend that, essentially, running backs can take a finite number of hits, so you might as well save them for crunch time.
It is this writer's theory behind the year of the quarterback. Great teams keep their elite backs healthy for the postseason by calling lower-impact passing plays.
Mendenhall rushed a career-high 324 times in the regular season and had another 61 in his three playoff games last year. While he didn't get to 400 in carries alone, he exceeded it in touches with another 27 receptions.
This is not to say Mendenhall's 2010-11 workload led to his injury. It was more of a freak thing (maybe). But it certainly could have contributed to his losing a step, which we should assume he did in his subpar fantasy season. He finished under 1,000 yards rushing for the first time since his injury-halted rookie season, and the Steelers' offensive line woes cannot be entirely to blame. Isaac Redman sure looked effective behind that line in Mendenhall's place last week.
The thing to do now from Mendenhall's tale of woe is learn from it. Maurice Jones-Drew was the league-leader in rushing attempts at 343, adding another 43 receptions. For his keeper owners, thankfully, he is home healing for the winter.
Ray Rice and Michael Turner on the other hand, might be the next ones in danger.
Here are this postseason's top fantasy backs with their carries and touches totals and how they might be affected by their team's playoff run.
Earlier in the season, when the Ravens were losing games, teammates were sticking up for Rice, saying he needed more carries in order to win. They might have been right, but they were also wrong. In order to make it through this postseason, the Ravens need a fresh Rice.
Rice finished No. 1 in fantasy scoring among backs and No. 1 in touches. Behind only MJD and Turner in rushing attempts, Rice was second to just the Saints' Darren Sproles (86) in receptions with 76. Sproles had 204 fewer carries, though, and doesn't even rank in the top 10 among postseason backs in total touches.
Rice is turning 25 this month, so he should have some productive years ahead of him, but even two games of 20-plus touches will put him over 400 for the season. It is a warning sign if you are weighing selecting Rice, Foster or LeSean McCoy as the No. 1 overall pick.
Foster would have lead the NFL in rushing attempts, total touches and perhaps even RB receptions if he was healthy the entire season and didn't have a Top-10 ranked back in Tate behind him. The No. 1 back from 2010 was a bust candidate out of the gate, perhaps because he lead the league in 392 regular-season touches a year ago (Top-15 list from '10 is below).
Unlike last year, Foster has a postseason game, if not two (three or four) to deal with. You can see him beating the Bengals perhaps, but going beyond Round 1 without a reliable quarterback will be tough for the Texans. It is good news for his keeper owners, because Foster will be hard-pressed to get up to 400 total touches for the season.
Unlike Rice and Foster, Turner is already in his career decline. His best days are behind him and he seemingly wore down during this stretch run. It happens to all backs eventually, and Turner was coming off leading the league in rushing attempts in '10, even if his No. 1-seeded Falcons were bounced from the postseason in one game by the Packers last year. That brief playoff run might have salvaged Turner for having any kind of fantasy season at all.
Turner is also going to be 30 this winter. That is historically the age RBs are put out to pasture in fantasy. That makes this an interesting offseason for the Falcons, regardless of whether they get past the Giants this Sunday. Is smallish Jacquizz Rodgers the future feature back? If he is, he is a great sleeper next season. Turner won't be able to star for fantasy owners.
Maybe the Falcons draft another back, too.
Years of injury woes and slowing down during the stretch plagued Gore's fantasy owners. Like Turner, he is up there in years, too, turning 29 this spring. Gore, like Turner, has a smallish back behind him in Kendall Hunter.
Gore is less likely to hand the reins over to Hunter next season than the Falcons turning to Rodgers, but you have to be wary of the workload, injuries and age, too.
At least Gore has a bye week ahead of him and his team is the less likely bye team to win next weekend. They might have to play the supercharged Saints.
One important note: when discussing the limitations of smallish backs, remember what the knock on Maurice Jones-Drew was? He cannot handle the workload. Well, how has that worked out?)
He just turned 29 days ago and the carries are piling up. He gets a postseason game or two now, too. He will not get close to 400 carries, but the age should worry fantasy owners and his Bengals front office enough.
They need to draft a back to play long term with rookie Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Backup Bernard Scott is going to be 28 this winter, too.
While RBs are the must-have commodities in fantasy, they are actually disposable heroes. Just look at last year's top 15 rankings in touches. Only Rice, MJD and McCoy were really immune to the breakdown. This is more of an all-fantasy RB bust list than an RB draft order.
Foster, Jackson, Johnson, Hillis, Charles and L.T. were banged up out of the gate, if not early. Benson, Mendenhall, Bradshaw, Peterson and Forte were banged up through the middle and late parts of the season. And Turner now looks like a shell of his former self before turning 30.
The breakdowns certainly are not limited to postseason backs. MJD owners, take heed. You got a lot of mileage of him this season, but there might not be much tread left on the tires.
• Peyton Manning vs. Andrew Luck: Luck will be the No. 1 pick and Manning might never be the same. Manning's health and team will determine the course of the first few rounds of fantasy more than perhaps any other move this winter. An injury to a key RB or, lord help us, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Matthew Stafford might be the only other bigger game-changers.
• Philip Rivers and Ryan Mathews were supposed to get a new regime. At least they are both healthy, in their primes and have proved productive in the past with Norv Turner. Now the question is whether they both can be elite together like Rivers was at the tail end of L.T.'s days in San Diego. Mathews is a first rounder. Rivers might no longer be even a top eight fantasy QB.
• Felix Jones' uninspired performance in Week 17 against the Giants likely hands the feature back job to DeMarco Murray, if it wasn't already clear. Jones is merely a backup; Murray is a second-rounder who could perform like a top-five option.
• Santonio Holmes has proved to be a fraud as a No. 1 receiver for the Jets and fantasy owners. He might head to a better passing team after his fireworks this past week-plus, but he still should be treated with some doubt as a fantasy starter.
• Kenny Britt is looking at a full recovery for next season. He will be a great sleeper regardless of whether Matt Hasselbeck or Jake Locker is the QB. Locker proved capable and should be considered a starter for the Titans, but not fantasy. He is a decent fantasy backup, though, unlike Blaine Gabbert or Christian Ponder.
• Tim Tebow's pixie dust has worn off, but it will take a decent postseason performance against the Steelers to get fantasy owners to consider him as a mid- to late-round steal next year. It is doubtful the Broncos slot a QB ahead of him, barring a complete disaster this weekend. That is a defense that could make Tebow look real bad, though.
• Adrian Peterson and Mendenhall might not start next season on the PUP list, but their teams would be wise to hold them out the first few weeks of the season, if not through September. Toby Gerhart and Isaac Redman (until the Steelers draft a back) are going to be latter-round sleepers.