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Success of running backs 30 years and older could alter NFL landscape

Older running backs (30 years of age and over, to be exact) are experiencing more success than ever this season, and they could make NFL history if they keep it up.

There could be history made in a rather unconventional area this NFL season.

Through nine weeks of games, five running backs 30 years of age or older are on pace to rush for 1,000 yards this season: Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Frank Gore and Justin Forsett. Pittsburgh's DeAngelo Williams has a shot, too—he's shy of the needed per-game pace at the moment, but his jump back up to the Steelers' starting job could change that in short order. And Matt Forte, who turns 30 in December, is more than halfway to 1,000 yards, despite missing Week 9 with a knee injury.

Should four of them get there, it would mark the first time that has happened in league history. The current gold standard for 30-plus running backs topping 1,000 yards in the same season is three. It last happened in 2006, when Warrick Dunn (31), Fred Taylor (30) and Tiki Barber (31) pulled it off.

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This isn't supposed to happen. NFL front offices are notorious for shying away from most running backs with extra wear and tear, but especially those who have crossed the 30-year-old threshold. There is evidence to back that stance: In the Super Bowl era, totaling 49 seasons prior to this one, backs in their 30s reached 1,000 yards rushing a grand total of 43 times. It's happened just twice over the past three seasons, both courtesy of Gore (1,128 yards at 30; 1,106 at 31).

Is what's going on in 2015 merely a fluke? Perhaps—the historical data points that way. But it could alter the way teams approach aging backs.

"I don’t plan on passing the torch any time soon," Peterson said last week, after outgaining phenomenal rookie Todd Gurley, in a game pitting arguably the NFL's top two backs right now.

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Peterson's fellow tricenarians may not be on his level (just as most of them were not when they all were in their 20s), but the final chapters of their careers don't appear to be coming anytime soon. Forte and Johnson are both free agents this off-season, making them interesting test cases for whether or not teams will invest in these older players.

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Johnson seemed on his way out of the league mere months ago. His 2014 season hardly had anyone believing he was about to catch a second wind—he rushed for 663 yards and a touchdown for the Jets, both career lows. Then, in March, Johnson was wounded during a drive-by shooting.

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The Cardinals gave him a look anyway, and he has responded by running like his mid-20s self. Will that performance translate into a multi-year contract offer?

Forte, meanwhile, never slowed down for the Bears. He has been an absolute rock on their offense ever since they drafted him in 2008, totaling at least 900 yards rushing and 1,400 yards from scrimmage in every single one of his pro seasons. A minor knee injury knocked him out of action last week, though, and 23-year-old rookie Jeremy Langford promptly stepped in with 140 total yards and a touchdown in a Chicago win.

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This presents another challenge, both for general managers and veteran running backs—if younger, cheaper and equally competent running backs are readily available, why would a team commit big bucks at such a fragile position? 

In general, if the opportunity to add youth and cut costs presents itself to a NFL team, the smart play is to take it. However, running backs face even more of an uphill battle to earn long-term, high-paying contracts because so many have faltered once they hit that 30-year-old line.

Hope for the older backs comes not only in how they're producing collectively this season, but in the NFL's consistent commitment to following trends. When one team succeeds using a slightly different model, you can bet that a host of other franchises will follow suit. Just look at spread offenses or tight ends playing in the slot or safeties-turned-linebackers. The list goes on and on.

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So here we sit a little more than midway through the 2015 and, guess what? The Vikings and Cardinals are thriving on offense, in large part due to 30-year-old running backs. The Steelers would be lost right now without the 32-year-old Williams, a cheap pickup this past summer at two years and $4 million. Even the likes of Danny Woodhead (30) and Darren Sproles (32) are still getting it done as pass-catchers.

All of those backs took different roads to 2015 success. Peterson may even have set his clock back a year or two by being forced to sit out 15 games last season.

Count on the NFL to take notice of the overall picture, not necessarily the individual intricacies. Running backs in their early 30s are thriving this season, verging on a showing unseen in league history.

The position may not come with a set expiration date, after all.