In the world of football’s high stakes, win now world, there is no room for dignified exits and compromises
Fred Taylor has been the face of the Jaguars for much of his 11 year career. The former Florida Gator, who had amassed 11,271 rushing yards during an injury prone career, wanted to be that rare breed who finished a brilliant career with the same team he started with. But yesterday, despite reports that Taylor was willing to take a pay cut to remain a Jaguar, the team cut the greatest running back it’s ever had.
Such is life for a running back in the NFL. Great one minute. Completely disposable the next. It’s a tough fall for Taylor, who has spent his entire football life in the Sunshine State, but not one that is entirely that shocking. The question for NFL veterans in the salary cap era is not, “what have you done for me lately,” but “what haven’t you done for me lately.” It’s a cruel, painless demise that most former elite running backs face nowadays, with their position being labeled one of the most replacable and shortest lasting in the game.
Taylor is just one of many players who have been kicked to the curb despite consistent brilliance, because the ‘ol body didn’t have in it’s 30′s what it once had in it’s 20′s. Because of that, the days of the Emmitt Smiths seem long gone.
Larry Johnson was a machine from 2005 to 2006, scoring 37 touchdowns on the ground, and logging 752 carries. The heart and soul of the Chiefs, LJ was indispensable, one of the few untouchables on KC, and a dynamo in fantasy leagues everywhere. He was the engine that made their offense run. Now, no one wants him. Including, Kansas City. That’s what 1,243 carries in six seasons will do for you. His run ins with the law haven’t exactly helped his case either.
LaDanian Tomlinson was the greatest football player on the planet just a few years ago. In 2006 he lit up the league for an astonishing 31 touchdowns, while bolting to 1,815 yards on the ground. LT was an elite player, a fabulous athlete who could not only run the ball like the wind, but he could even throw the pigskin around a little too. Picked 5th in the now infamous Michael Vick draft, after the Chargers traded their first overall pick for essentially him and Drew Brees, he helped turn around the helpless Lightning Bolts into an AFC contender. But he’s on the wrong side of 29 now, and the full tank of gas is dropping steadily. Tomlinson had his worst season as a pro last year, and still had 1,110 yards and 11 touchdowns, but the crickets starting coming out of the woodworks that not only were his best days behind him, but that he also might be expendable.
I guess that’s what 2,657 career rushing carries will do for a player. And even though LT has scored 126 career rushing touchdowns, he’s not the same guy he once was. Sure-fire Hall of Famer? The eight year vet sure seems like a lock. But it’d be a major stretch to say he’ll retire as a Charger. He’s old news and the Chargers are looking for someone with younger fresher legs.
Six years of greatness, coupled with a few untimely injuries? See ya! Hitting 30 when we’ve got a 25 year old on our team who can fly? Bye bye. League MVP just a few years ago, but not what he once was? Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Is it fair? I don’t think it’s even remotely fair.
But it makes me understand why running backs command such seemingly obscene salaries. They have to strike while the iron’s hot. Like a stock, their value can plummet on a dime.
The aforementioned Emmitt Smith didn’t even finish his career with the Cowboys. His last two seasons were forgettable ones as an Arizona Cardinal.
Shaun Alexander was the NFL’s league MVP in 2005 while helping to lead the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl. But this offseason he was cut, not by Seattle, but by the Redskins. Alexander who carried the ball a mind-blowing 370 times his MVP season got just 11 touches for a pedestrian 24 yards this past season. His fall from grace complete, Alexander isn’t a trend-setter, merely just a product of a system that uses and abuses you, and then disposes of you.
These are the guys who put their team on their back and burden the load of carrying the offense. When great, they’re the stars, the ‘it’ guys, and the untouchables. But when father time creeps up, it comes fast. Great players often find themselves cut to demoralizing exits, not only failing to spend their career with one team, but getting humiliated in the way that they are forced to leave town.
Cuts. They stink. No one wants to be cut. But with salaries not guaranteed in the “what haven’t you done for me” world of the NFL, the longevity of a running back is on the verge of a total collapse. The running back position is the NFL’s glamor position, but recently its become the league’s greatest positional revolving door. Six years of greatness, coupled with a few untimely injuries? See ya! Hitting 30 when we’ve got a 25 year old on our team who can fly? Bye bye. League MVP just a few years ago, but not what he once was? Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
And there is no sign of change either.
With the current system in place teams have no reason to actually fulfill their hefty contracts that they give to their then-elite running backs, turned mere mortal. And the league is built that way. That’s why signing bonuses are everything. Five, six year contracts are a joke! Get through year three, and the team is already getting your agent on the phone to renegotiate, sometimes for a lower number.
But college running backs now know the drill going in. You better run while the going’s good, because as soon as you hit a rough patch, they’ll run you out of town.
So when Edgerrin James, Arizona’s prized $30 million free agent signing from a few years ago, gets cut this off-season don’t even blink an eye. It’s the nature of the beast. Fair or unfair, that’s how things go over in the most popular sport that this country has.
Great now, forgotten almost immediately.
Photo: Getty Images
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