Fantasy footballers are familiar with the trend of running backs breaking down and failing to meet expectations at the age of 30. In fact, it's become one of those popular statistical anomalies that can assist owners in avoiding potential busts on draft day.
This trend will be put to the test in 2009, as fantasy superstar and last season's consensus No. 1 overall selection LaDainian Tomlinson will reach his 30th birthday before the 2009 regular-season opener.
With the hopes and dreams of countless fantasy leaguers at stake for next season, I did a little research to determine whether a running back's 30th birthday is an automatic statistical death sentence. In order to gauge the closest possible comparison to Tomlinson, I took a look at the NFL's all-time leaders in rushing yards and determined their average carries per season from their rookie campaign to the season of their 29th birthday.
Next, I ranked the top 10 backs (from highest to lowest) based on carries in that time frame. This narrowed our list to include backs who were featured in their offense at the onset of their careers. It also eliminated backs that didn't see a ton of carries in their first few seasons. Because of the smaller workload, runners like Tiki Barber and Priest Holmes were able to find a higher level of success at 30 or older.
For the purposes of this examination, which focuses on backs like Tomlinson who have seen extensive work throughout their careers, these runners didn't figure into the equation.
Finally, I examined the difference in statistical success of each back (based on fantasy points) between the season of their 29th and 30th birthday.
Unfortunately, the examination didn't include Brian Westbrook -- who turns 30 in September -- because he's never had enough carries to meet our guidelines. But as you will learn, fantasy leaguers need to select 30 year-old running backs, including Westbrook, with tempered expectations.
Based on this research, no running back averaged more carries between his rookie season and 29th birthday than Eric Dickerson.
The graceful runner out of Southern Methodist averaged 350 attempts in his first seven seasons. The Hall of Famer had already started to see a decline in numbers at 29, as he rushed for 1,311 yards with eight total touchdowns (200 points).
Eddie George, a one-time fantasy star with the Oilers and Titans, was second in average carries with 346 between 1996-2002. He had a nice season at 29 with 1,165 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns (225 points), but his production and value fell across the board at 30.
In fact, George saw a 76-point decrease in standard leagues.
One runner that saw a slight decrease, but a decrease nonetheless, was Curtis Martin. The one-time fantasy star put up 1,456 scrimmage yards and seven touchdowns (187 points) in 2002, but he carried the ball just 261 times. That was the lowest single-season total of his career. Martin would go on to produce 168 points, a drop of nine points, in 2003.
Martin was a rare case at the position, however, as he would actually go on to post career highs in carries (371) and rushing yards (1,697) with 14 total touchdowns at the age of 31. His numbers fell hard the following season, as he missed four games and lost carries to Cedric Houston.
Like Martin, Emmitt Smith saw a small decrease in his numbers from the ages of 29 and 30. The NFL's all-time leading rusher recorded 240 points in 1998 and 228 points in 1999. Smith was a special player at the position, though, in that he posted 1,000-plus yards at ages 30-32 and rushed for 900-plus yards in two of his final three seasons between the Cowboys and Cardinals.
The running back who saw the greatest seasonal decline was Barry Sanders, though it would have been close to impossible for him to duplicate the 2,053 yards and 14 total touchdowns he recorded at 29. He rushed for 1,491 yards, but he found the end zone a mere four times at the age of 30 in what would be his final NFL season.
That equates to a 118-point drop.
Overall, the average decrease in points of the 10 backs we've listed from age 29 to 30 was 41, as eight of the 10 players saw a drop in production.
The three backs that actually had an increase, Walter Payton, Earl Campbell and Thurman Thomas, all saw minimal improvements. What's more, Campbell's increase was due in part to the fact that he missed two games in 1984. He rushed for 175 more yards but scored three fewer times at 30 compared to his previous season's totals.
Other prominent backs that didn't make our list, including Shaun Alexander, Franco Harris, Tony Dorsett and Marshall Faulk, also saw declines after a career filled with heavy workloads and physical punishment.
So what does this all mean for Tomlinson?
Well, his average of 332 carries from his rookie campaign to last season would have ranked third behind Dickerson and George. Based on the fact that both of those backs declined, which was the norm for most of the players on the list, it's hard to envision a scenario where L.T. will rebound in 2009.
In fact, the past shows that Tomlinson will likely see a further decrease in his disappointing 2008 totals.