Recent history has shown that there's nothing less valuable in the NFL than an old running back. Ask 32 NFL general managers if they'd rather have a 31-year-old back who ran for 1880 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2005, or a VHS copy of "The Happening," and all 32 will take the one that features Mark Wahlberg reasoning with a house plant.
While pondering where Edgerrin James might end up next, it occurred to me that we might be in an era where it's nearly impossible for a good running back to retire gracefully. Anyone who manages to succeed in the NFL for a considerable amount of time will almost certainly spend his last few years of his career being regarded as a washed-up tub of goo.
He'll bounce from team to team, trying to prove to everyone that he's still got it; absolutely certain that the "running backs go downhill after the age of 30" rule does not apply to him. It just seems like standard operating procedure in 2009.
It happened to Emmitt Smith, it happened to Shaun Alexander, and this year, we might see it happen to Fred Taylor and Deuce McAllister (if he's lucky). LaDainian Tomlinson had to fight like hell to stay with the Chargers in 2009, and he'll probably be fighting the same battle next year. He's heard a million times that he's washed up, and he's exactly one year removed from leading the league in rushing.
And it happens whether the running back is actually washed up or not. Edgerrin James just about had to get on his knees and beg for playing time in Arizona, despite being the best running back on the roster, which he proved in the playoffs. And as a reward for that performance in the playoffs, the Cardinals drafted Beanie Wells to replace him and then released Edge shortly thereafter.
I'm not casting judgment, either. In nine cases out of 10, this is probably the proper way for a general manager to behave. It's no secret that running backs tend to suffer a drop in production after they turn 30, and I'm not suggesting that anyone spend valuable salary cap space on nostalgia.
I'm just noting that we've developed an environment where it's nearly impossible for a running back to retire with his dignity intact. Anymore, it seems like every good running back in the league is destined to end things with that sad Unitas-with-the-Chargers, or Favre-with-the-Jets type of year. Knowshon Moreno, Donald Brown, Beanie Wells, LeSean McCoy ... please be advised that no matter how great you turn out to be, it's probably not going to end well for you.