The League

Dave Goldberg
Sports Reporter

Dave Goldberg

Covered the NFL for the AP for 25 years and now is a senior NFL writer for

Hurting at 30


Why are we always shocked when a star running back's career suddenly ends?

It happened Monday to LaDainian Tomlinson just as it happened last season to Edgerrin James and the year before that to Shaun Alexander and we -- i.e. the media -- acted as though his release by the Chargers was unexpected. In fact, it was treated on a par with the U.S. Olympic hockey team's upset of Canada. (Don't get me started on the reaction to that, either -- that was one team of NHL players beating another, not anything near the "Miracle on Ice'' 30 years ago.)

Tomlinson turned 30 last June 23. That's the age when running backs tend to go away because they can only sustain so many hits to their bodies. In Tomlinson's case, the number is 3,410 -- 2,880 carries and 530 receptions.

In fact, there's a reason why the leading career rushers in NFL history are Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. They managed to get by the wall.

Payton went until he was 33 and had 4,330 touches; Smith to 35 with 4,924 touches, implying after he was voted into the Hall of Fame just over three weeks ago that he regretted hanging around in Arizona collecting a paycheck his two final years.

The only other productive post-30 running back who comes to mind is Tiki Barber, who retired at 31 after final seasons of 1,860 and 1,662 yards rushing and averages over five yards per carry. But Barber didn't have the hits -- he was only a starter in his last five seasons. And running backs are so easy to find that the Giants won the Super Bowl the year after Tiki left.

Tomlinson was clearly slowing down. Last season he had only 730 yards rushing and a 3.3 average, by far the lowest of his career. It was clear watching him that he'd lost a step and was best as a short yardage back -- he had 12 touchdowns -- bringing his career rushing TDs to 138.

Naturally, Tomlinson thinks he can still play. No great athlete likes to acknowledge he's done. But he may become little more than an injury replacement. No team is going to give him much more than the minimum salary just to come to camp, far less than he might expect to command. And quick surveys of teams indicated there's no one ready to sign him immediately.

Who comes to mind?

Maybe New England, which has a history of grabbing experience and can always use a guy who can catch and gain tough yards. Tomlinson can still to that. Maybe Philadelphia, which probably won't have Brian Westbrook next season. Maybe even the Redskins.

But no one will sign him to be a starter. And no one will give him the money he expects. So maybe he'll be in someone's camp. And maybe he won't. James, for example, kept waiting last year for the phone call.

He never got it.

By Dave Goldberg  |  February 23, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Dave Goldberg , Free Agency , Running Backs , San Diego Chargers , Washington Redskins Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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