Early bird special: Life left in old legs in Week 1

Posted: Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The best belonged to the 31-year-old Martin, who had 196 yards for the Jets against the Bengals; the most curious to Bettis, 32, who had 1 net yard in five carries in Pittsburgh's 24-21 win over Oakland, but scored all three of the Steelers' touchdowns.

Smith, seemingly done at 35 after averaging just 2.8 yards per carry for Arizona a year ago, looked like the old Emmitt for Arizona in St. Louis with 87 yards in 16 carries, including an 11-yard touchdown run. Faulk, 31, had 128 yards on 22 carries in that game, a 17-10 win by the Rams, and his eventual successor, first-round draft pick Steven Jackson, chipped in with seven carries for 50 yards.

Holmes, who will turn 31 in three weeks, had 151 yards on 26 carries in Kansas City's 34-24 loss in Denver.

Things like that aren't supposed to happen in a game in which offensive linemen, kickers and quarterbacks sometimes last until 40 -- Vinny Testaverde threw for 355 yards Sunday -- but the wall for running back traditionally has been 30. In fact, Testaverde passed 50 times in part because 30-year-old Eddie George gained just 25 yards on eight carries, a stat that demonstrates why Tennessee let him go.

Will it continue?

Educated guess: Martin and Holmes will continue to produce because both are in excellent shape and Holmes has taken fewer hits because he spent three of his four years in Baltimore as a backup. Faulk has missed 11 games with injuries the past two seasons and may not hold up, but the Rams drafted Jackson for that reason.

Smith's continued success is less likely given his recent mediocrity and the fact he plays for a team that is not only bad historically, but also unlucky. He also doesn't have another back to share the workload.

Smith's last 1,000-yard season came in 2001 when he was 32. The next season, he broke Walter Payton's career rushing record, but was clearly slowing down, so the Cowboys let him go and he signed with Arizona -- as a gate attraction as much as a productive running back.

But new coach Dennis Green gave him the starting job over last year's team rushing leader, Marcel Shipp, even before Shipp was lost for the season with an ankle injury.

''Emmitt can pick holes, he can still do that,'' Green said after Sunday's game.

Bettis is now a short-yardage specialist with Duce Staley, the Steelers' prime ball carrier.

''You are in a role and you have to do what they ask you to do,'' Bettis said. ''If they want me to come in and stick it in, I have to come in and stick it in.''

But all these guys are defying history.

Gale Sayers, Earl Campbell and Terrell Davis had great careers end in their late 20s because of injuries. Some, like George, simply wear down and others walk away, as Jim Brown did at 29 and Barry Sanders at 30.

Even Payton had his last good year at age 32. Smith's career clearly demonstrates why: Going into Sunday's game, he had 4,142 carries and 504 receptions, a total of 4,646 touches and hits. And he missed six games last season with a broken shoulder.

That's why Holmes has the best shot at having another stellar season -- his light early workload.

The two most productive backs in their mid-30s, Ottis Anderson and Marcus Allen, did so in part because they had a lot of time off mid-career.

Anderson, seemingly at the end at 29, was obtained by the Giants as insurance for Joe Morris during their 1986 Super Bowl run. Morris played a couple of years, then Anderson resurfaced in 1989 after just 91 carries in three years and ended up as MVP in the 1991 Super Bowl at 34.

Allen, MVP of the 1984 title game for the Raiders, had a falling out with Raiders owner Al Davis, who ordered him benched, so he played very little from 1989-92. Then he resurrected his career at age 33 in Kansas City and played productively enough for five years there that it helped him get elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

But running backs with that kind of longevity are rare.

''I never expected anything like that. It really turned my head,'' NFL scouting consultant Gil Brandt said Monday of the big days by the aging backs.

Whether it continues for 16 games is another question.

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