The age of thirty is a scary age for a running back. If a man goes over the hill at 40, a running back goes over the NFL hill at 30.
Some persevere for a few years. Curtis Martin was still usefull until the age of 32. So was Emmitt Smith. We can only speculate on the post 30 production of Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. Both went out at the top of their game, before age became a detriment to their skills.
A running back is unique among NFL positions in one respect. Barring injury, most players gradually wear down over time. A running back can be the NFL MVP one year and worthless the next. Curtis Martin and Shaun Alexander both went from record years to Nfl journeymen from one season to the next.
For some reason the age of 30 is when this usually happens. I used to own a 1993 Plymouth Voyager. It was common knowledge among mechanics across the nation that the transmissions in those vans always seemed to die at around the 130,000 mile mark (give or take a few miles).
So when my transmission started to show signs of slippage at 200,000 miles I considered myself lucky and traded it in for a new car.
This offseason has shown that, like most mechanics, NFL executives are aware of the risks of employing running backs who are over 30. Ladanian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, and Thomas Jones are all casualties of exceeding their age, mileage and usefullness.
Every year that passes in the NFL another group of skilled running backs fall victim to this curse. Every year brings me more admiration for the one running back who refused to fall victim to the dredded age of thirty.
Like my old van, John Riggins defied all logic and precedents. He played the position of running back at an elite level until the age of 35 and retired on his own terms after the 1985 season, at the ripe old age of 36.
Riggins was never one to pay attention to rules, standards, and precedents, and defied them at every turn. Maybe it was that attitude that allowed him to thrive well past his 30 year expiration date.
Unlike Emmitt Smith, who played until the age of 34 but was only a shell of his former self, Riggins excelled after turning 30. In fact, a closer examination of his stats would make a compelling argument that he never would have made the NFL Hall of Fame if he had retired at 30.
Riggins had journeyman stats during his early career with the Jets and the Redskins, only surpassing the thousand yard mark twice. After he turned thirty Riggins had three more thousand yard seasons, and a fourth season where he rushed for over a thousand yards in 13 games during a strike year.
Riggins rushed for 1153 yards and twelve touchdowns in 1979, at the age of 30. The next year he had the guts to sit out the season over a contract dispute at the age of 31. I dare any currant NFL player to try a stunt like that today!
Riggins knew he could still play, and fortunately, the Redskins realized this as well. Riggins followed a successful return season in 1981 with a Super Bowl winning effort in 1982.
He rushed for over 500 yards in eight games before destroying the competition almost singlehandedly in the playoffs. In five postseason games he rushed for well over 600 yards and was the MVP of Superbowl XVII. He was 33 years old.
He followed that season up with probably his two best seasons in 1983 and '84. He rushed for 1347 and 1239 respectively, and led the league in touchdowns scored with 24 and 14. In 1983 his 24 touchdowns set a new NFL record for touchdowns in a season. He was 34 at the time.
After one more moderately successful season in 1985 where he gained 700 yards and scored eight touchdown Riggins finally retired at the age of 36.
Riggins is in the NFL Hall of Fame for many reasons. He was a great player, and he was a pioneer. He was the first NFL running back to sport a mohawk. He was the first white running back to sport an afro. He was the last great white running back. He was the first, and maybe only, running back to win a contract dispute by sitting out an NFL season. But today I am celebrating him for being the running back who did his thing successfully well past the age of 30.
And if current NFL trends hold true there won't be another like him for a long time.