Thanks to the success of the two-back attack, veteran rushers have become the off-season's hottest commodities
HOW CRAZY has the off-season been for running backs? Consider the fate of Travis Henry. The six-year veteran expected the Titans to offer him a generous extension after he gained 1,211 yards for them last season. Instead he was cut on March 3 after he and the team failed to agree on terms. A few days later Henry landed a five-year deal with the Broncos that will reportedly pay him $12 million in guaranteed bonuses. "They didn't think we would find a market for Travis," says Henry's agent, Hadley Engelhard. "And we believed there was a pretty good one out there for him."
It might appear radical to invest that kind of money in a 28-year-old running back, but times have changed in the NFL. The conventional wisdom has been to write off runners nearing the age of 30, when they usually dip in productivity. But the recent success of backfield platoon systems has shown that teams don't have to load all the rushing duties on the shoulders of one player. As a result, backs such as Henry, who'll have reserve Mike Bell to ease his workload, are finding willing suitors.
Henry's was just one of a flurry of running back moves in the past two weeks that have reset backfields across the league. The Jets traded for Thomas Jones, a seven-year veteran who'll handle the bulk of the carries while Leon Washington assumes change-of-pace duties. Nine-year vet Ahman Green, moving from Green Bay to Houston as a free agent, will team with promising 2006 rookie Wali Lundy. Jamal Lewis, after seven seasons with Baltimore, was signed by Cleveland, where he'll be supported by third-year back Jason Wright—or Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, if the Browns take him with the third pick in April's draft. The Raiders picked up Super Bowl XLI's top rusher, six-year back Dominic Rhodes, from the Colts as a free agent to pair with LaMont Jordan. Even older backs who stayed put have benefited. Jacksonville's Fred Taylor landed a three-year extension at age 31 in part because he and rookie Maurice Jones-Drew were such a potent one-two punch last year.
All these players are in their late 20s or early 30s, an age when backs typically don't find teams willing to pay them good money. But this year's crop is profiting from a sudden desire for established performers who don't have too much mileage on them. "There's no question that more teams are buying into the idea that you don't need one guy to take all the carries," says one AFC executive. "It's just hard to find a player who can be that 350-carry back. And a lot of these guys get nicked up anyway. So just like you need two good quarterbacks in this league, you need two good running backs if you want to win."
A look at last season confirms that assertion. The four conference finalists—Chicago, New Orleans, New England and Indianapolis—each had two backs who logged at least 150 carries apiece in the regular season. Overall, eight of the 12 playoff teams relied to some extent on a combination of running backs over the course of the year. While the Super Bowl's MVP went to quarterback Peyton Manning, it was Rhodes (113 rushing yards) and rookie Joseph Addai (143 total yards, including 77 on the ground) who did most of the heavy lifting and could easily have shared the award.
The appeal of a two-back system is obvious. Teams that can throw different running styles at their opponents—think of the Saints' thunder-and-lightning attack of veteran Deuce McAllister and rookie Reggie Bush—put added pressure on defenses. The system also keeps runners fresh throughout the season. The Colts split carries between Rhodes and Addai, assuring that both would be stronger heading into the postseason.
A one-two punch in the backfield also means more runners can be productive in their 30s. Just look at recently retired Giants running back Tiki Barber and Falcons veteran Warrick Dunn. Barber started his career as a third-down back, which helped keep him strong enough to handle nearly as many carries in his final three seasons (1,006) as he had over his first seven (1,211). Dunn, who shared carries when he was with the Bucs earlier in his career, has averaged 277 attempts and 1,221 yards over the past three seasons. Last year's total of 286 attempts was the highest in his 10 NFL seasons.
Of course, this doesn't spell the end of the workhorse back. If you have LaDainian Tomlinson or Larry Johnson, it makes sense to get him the ball as much as possible—10 rushers last year had more than 300 carries. (And Baltimore might very well hand Lewis's old feature-back job to Willis McGahee, whom it got from the Bills last week for three draft picks.)
But success breeds imitation in the NFL, and having seen the effectiveness of a tag-team rushing attack in 2006, coaches and offensive coordinators are keeping a more open mind about the value of experience. When it comes to running backs, it's not so much age that makes the difference but how they're used.
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After setting an NFL record with 416 carries last season, Chiefs running back Larry Johnson didn't take much of a break. Instead, he hired a personal trainer with a reputation for keeping workhorse runners in peak condition. Johnson (right) moved his off-season home from Las Vegas to New York City and started working out with Joe Carini, the man who trained Giants running back Tiki Barber from 2004 through last season. During his time with Carini, Barber produced the best three-year span of his 10-year career, averaging 335 attempts and 1,680 rushing yards per season.
Carini, a power lifter who won the New Jersey Strongest Man title six straight years in the 1980s, emphasizes heavy lifting with fewer repetitions and shorter rest periods. The idea is to condition a running back's body to produce bursts of strength and then recover quickly—exactly what the 27-year-old Johnson needs on 30-carry afternoons. So even though he has rushed for 3,539 yards and 37 touchdowns over the last two years, a full off-season with Carini could make him even more formidable in the long run.