Never trust anyone over 30. Shame on NFL executives for channeling the misguided mantra of 1960s radicals. When free agency starts at 9 p.m., half a dozen accomplished running backs just north of 30 years of age will be on the market: Thomas Jones, LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Westbrook, Jamal Lewis, Chester Taylor and Larry Johnson.
All are looking for new teams, not because they can’t play at an elite level anymore, but their advanced age and high salaries make younger replacements more desirable.
Too bad it’s often a flawed philosophy. Jones, 31, coming off a career year rushing for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns, was cut loose by the N.Y. Jets after the two sides couldn’t agree on how to restructure his $5.8 million contract. Already there are grumblings on the team about how much they will miss his leadership and toughness, which helped carry the Jets to the AFC championship game. Jones, twice voted the team’s most inspirational player, hasn’t missed a game in five years.
Tomlinson, 30, with declining rushing numbers in four straight seasons and heading for a $7 million payday in 2010, was caught in a budget squeeze in San Diego. But anyone who thinks LT is finished hasn’t been watching closely enough.
Westbrook and Lewis, both 30, also shared unfortunate 2009 seasons cut short by multiple concussions. Damaged goods?
Probably so for Lewis, who is considering retirement. Westbrook also has chronic knee problems.
Johnson, 30, is as talented as he is difficult to coach.
Taylor, 30, finally out of the shadows of Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, is a solid all-purpose back.
Best way for the 49ers to boost their playoff chances for the upcoming season? Make a run at signing Jones, L.T. or Taylor. As good as Frank Gore is, he’d be that much better sharing the workload. Gore’s penchant for challenging 250-pound linebackers rather than running away from them also leaves him vulnerable to injuries. When San Francisco was forced to go with backup Glenn Coffee, opposing defenses took great delight in turning up the heat on Alex Smith. Sometimes that got real ugly.
Now imagine Mike Singletary’s hybrid smash-mouth-meets-West Coast offense with Tomlinson or Taylor catching swing passes out of the backfield or Jones blasting his way for a key first down on third-and-one. Can you say missing link?
Of course, nobody knows a player’s expiration date. Many of the game’s best were indeed past their prime at 30 including O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk and Shaun Alexander.
But many other thirtysomethings had a lot left. Barry Sanders rushed for 1,500 yards at age 30. After turning 30, Emmitt Smith averaged 1,200 yards for three straight seasons. Walter Payton was 31 when he rushed for 1,500 yards and led the Bears to a Super Bowl.
At 31, Curtis Martin and Tiki Barber each rushed for almost 1,700 yards. Jerome Bettis was 32 when he ran for 13 touchdowns. Marcus Allen rushed for a dozen touchdowns at age 33 and averaged 4 yards a carry over his last three seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring at 37.
Filling holes through the draft is a crapshoot. Give me a proven pro any day.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news and is also the co-host of “Raiders Gameday” and “Recap” talk shows on KSFO (560 AM). He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.