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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

When Does a Football Player Get Old?


Over time, all athletes eventually see their on-field performance decrease. Athletes in all sports are at an advantage physically early in their careers, before age takes away some of their natural athletic ability. More than any other sport, football is about being athletic, fast, quick, and strong. These physical attributes are vital in the sport, but are also the first attributes that any person loses with age.
In addition, the physical pounding that most football players take can break down even the strongest bodies over time. Therefore, football players tend to “lose a step” earlier in their careers than most other athletes. Football players often see a steep decline once their athletic ability fades even just a small amount.

There are ways to slow the decline, however. Maintaining excellent physical condition year-round can help the player maintain his athletic ability, strength, and speed for a longer period of time. Furthermore, learning the game and position intricacies can help a player maintain his performance even after he has slowed just a bit.

Teams need to know what to expect out of players, and players need to know how they can lengthen their productive careers; this paper will examine when football players “get old” and how they can delay the process.

Literature Review

When does football player reach his peak in on-field performance?

When football players are drafted out of college, they are chosen by their respective teams based on what the team feels the player should be able to accomplish over the course of his career. Most players are between the ages of twenty and twenty-two when selected, so the player generally has not yet reached his physical peak as an athlete. According to Kalb (1999), “Muscle mass peaks at age 25 and then decreases by about 4 percent per decade until the age of 50.” This peak includes the quick, explosive, and powerful movements needed for most positions on the football field, most notably at running back. Considering that nearly all positions in football require similar physical skills (strength, speed, power, quickness, etc.), albeit to different degrees and with different emphasis depending on position, we can generally say that football players have the most pure physical ability to be successful at or around age twenty-five.

As noted, different positions require different levels and different kinds of physical ability to be successful. For example, when discussing running backs, according to Scout’s Inc. from espn.com (2006), “While speed is nice, quickness is great. There are a lot of great running backs…that lack great 40 speed, but have exceptional quickness.” Furthermore, while straight speed in a running back is important, “qualities such as quickness through the hole, run vision, pick and slide, good balance, and change of direction skills are every bit as important.” While a skill such as run vision can be maintained, and even improved, over time, the rest will also decline after the athlete has reached his physical peak.

Speed is typically viewed as vitally important to be a successful wide receiver as well. Other physical attributes in an ideal wide receiver are quickness, and burst (acceleration). These three physical attributes will decline after the player passes his physical peak. Scouts Inc. (2006), however, ranks two other attributes as most important when rating wide receivers. Scouts Inc. evaluates wide receivers initially on the following criteria,

“Hands: How is their overall concentration on easy and tough catches? Do they have soft hands? Do they body catch too often? Can they snatch the ball when thrown outside their frame?”, and “Patterns: Are their cuts sharp and crisp? Do they show good body control or do they look awkward?” These two vital attributes in a wide receiver can be maintained longer than the purely physical aspects, so wide receivers should be able to maintain their peak for a longer period of time.

Finally, when rating quarterbacks, Scouts Inc. (2006) begins by stating that, “A common misconception when grading a quarterback prospect is ‘bigger is better.’ But size isn't everything, and the position has become less about height, weight and speed and more about feel, vision and mental toughness.” A top flight quarterback obviously needs to possess very good arm strength and throwing accuracy and good speed and quickness, but more important sometimes is his ability to know the offense he is playing in, the ability to see the entire field, and be mentally stronger than the opponent. Those attributes are much more likely to be maintained and improved after the athlete reaches and passes his physical peak. Therefore, quarterback should be the offensive skill position that allows for a longer career with good production on the field.

What causes a decrease in the on-field performance of a football player?

There is a theory among professional football fans and executives alike that running back performance dramatically drops off when a player turns thirty years-old. This theory has been tested and proven by espn.com writer, Tristan Cockcroft. Cockcroft (2008), performed an analysis in which he compiled the seasonal and career rushing numbers for each running back in National Football League (NFL) history who ranks among the top fifty in career rushing yards. His results were clear.

On average, the running backs saw a decline in rushing yards by approximately seventeen percent from their average in their seasons at age twenty-eight and twenty-nine to the season during which they were thirty. Furthermore, the running backs saw an additional decline in rushing yards of nearly fifteen percent from their age thirty seasons to their age thirty-one seasons. Those two seasons of age thirty and thirty-one show net a drop off of approximately twenty-eight percent from the age twenty-nine seasons.

In addition to a decline in rushing yards, the NFL’s all-time best running backs also scored well fewer touchdowns. As Cockcroft (2008) notes, “Those all-time great running backs lost 20.4 percent of their touchdown production from their age-29 to age-30 seasons. Then, they lost another 13.7 percent from their age-30 to age-31 seasons and 11.9 percent more from age 31 to age 32. In a matter of three years, from their age-29 through age-32 seasons, history's greatest running backs lost 39.5 percent of their touchdown production.”

The reason for the decline in performance by running backs after they turn thirty is most directly related to the decline in necessary skills after the athlete has reached his physical peak. While some other skills may be improved upon in order to maintain or even improve performance after their physical peak at age twenty-five, the most important factors in a running back are the purely physical characteristics such as speed, quickness, explosiveness, and power.

Furthermore, running backs take much more of a physical beating over the course of an NFL season than any other skill position players. While the best wide receivers in the league may catch 100 passes in a season, the top running backs will carry the ball 250 – 350 times or more. Additionally, when a running back carries the ball, he is almost always hit and tackled by multiple large defenders, whereas a wide receiver will often be tackled by one small (as compared to linemen and linebackers) defensive back or simply run out of bounds.

Additionally, there is another theory concerning running backs known as the “Curse of 370,” (Cockcroft, 2009). This concerns the fact that every running back in history, with the exception of one, has had a decline in production in the year following a season in which he carried the ball 370 or more times. This curse, in fact, has an even more dramatic statistical correlation than age. Twenty-seven running backs have accrued over 370 carries in a season and, on average, their production in the following season in terms of rushing yards dropped by over forty-percent, and touchdown production dropped by fifty-percent.

The final note of this curse is that those twenty-seven players missed a total of four games during their 370 carry seasons, while they missed a combined 109 games the following season. Clearly the workload and pounding a running back endures takes its toll on his production.

Throughout history, wide receivers are able to maintain their performance for a longer amount of time than running backs. According to a thorough analysis by Fein (2009), “Receivers have the latest and longest peak of any skill position.” Some of skills necessary for a wide receiver to be at his peak on-field performance are similar to a running back, but the receiver can utilize other non-physical peak skills such as the ability to catch the ball, and the knowledge and ability to run exact and precise routes to maintain his performance over a longer period of time.

One top receiver who had some of his best years later in his career was Irving Fryar. Breer (2007) quoted Fryar as saying, “You're gonna lose speed. That's natural. It's how your body's made up. The first part of my career, I ran 4.2. By the time I was with the Eagles, I was a 4.4 or a 4.5. But I was able to play like a 4.2 guy, because I was smarter, I reacted quicker, and I could do things without even thinking about them.” This mental edge allowed Fryar to play at a high level even after he had passed his physical peak.

Quarterbacks need some of the most unique physical abilities in order to be successful. An NFL quarterback not only has great arm strength, but also possess the ability to spiral the football tightly on a throw and accurately hit his targets. In addition to the physical skills, a quarterback needs a precise mental understanding of the game. A common notion is that quarterbacks can excel later in their careers due to the prominence of these mental attributes. The theory is that an experienced quarterback who knows the game and the offense can be more successful later in his career than he was early on because those attributes are more important than having his peak arm strength or foot speed.

The same study, however, that confirmed receivers can peak for longer than running backs seems to state that quarterbacks peak early as well. It also states that a quarterback can maintain his peak for longer than a running back, and has less of a drop-off once the decline has begun. According to Fein (2009), “a quarterback’s peak age is 25 for all but one of the stats, with 26 to 28 not far behind. There seems to be a steep, upward trend at the beginning of a quarterback’s career, and a gentler fall from their peak.”

This seems to indicate that once a quarterback has learned the pro game for a few years early on, he is able to put together his knowledge with his still near-peak physical skills and then maintain that with minimal drop-off for a number of years. Once the quarterback’s physical skills have declined noticeably, he is still able to perform relatively close to his peak level using his experience and knowledge of the game.

Players who do not play offensive skill positions also decline with age. Examples are noted by Brookover (2006), “Hugh Douglas had a combined 22 sacks at the ages of 30 and 31. After that, he had just 61/2 more in two seasons and knew it was time to retire. Bobby Taylor went to his first Pro Bowl at 28 in 2002 and was out of football before he was 31.”

What players have broken the trend and what can be done to delay the decrease in performance?

As with nearly every rule, trend, and norm in sports there are several players who have been able to maintain a level of near peak performance late into their careers and well into their thirties. Running backs such as Emmitt Smith and John Riggins, wide receivers such as Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, and quarterbacks such as John Elway have enjoyed much success at the highest level in their early to mid-thirties. How have these athletes maintained (or elevated) their level of play at a later age?

In the case of Emmitt Smith, for example, he was aided greatly by the play of his Dallas Cowboy offensive line, which was widely regarded as the best in all of football. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com (2009), at the age of thirty to thirty-three, Smith averaged 1,150 yards rushing with the Dallas Cowboys. The following year, at age thirty-four, Smith ran for just 256 yards with the Arizona Cardinals. Of course his off-season training and hard work had a lot to do with his continued excellence as well.

In the case of Jerry Rice, his work ethic was legendary. Once again referencing Pro-Football-Reference.com (2009), not only did Rice lead the league in receiving yards at age thirty-one, thirty-two, and thirty-three, he also led the league in catches at age thirty-four and topped 1,000 yards receiving at ages thirty-nine and forty. He is the ultimate exception to the rule of fading athletes after the age of thirty.

Terrell Owens played with Rice in San Francisco and has also enjoyed late career success. Owens, according to Breer (2007), puts in time studying to make himself a better player and sustain his excellence. He quotes Cowboys offensive coordinator as stating, “It's not just his talent and drive but also an aptitude for the game that Sherman, without being asked about it, called underrated. In the classroom, he studies; he asks questions, he works hard. I mean, you can see he's determined to be the best he can be."

Regarding quarterbacks, Elway won two Super Bowls and had statistical seasons comparable to the rest of his Hall of Fame career at ages thirty-seven and thirty-eight. Elway has always been known as a hard worker with a competitive edge unlike many other players. Some players seem to have a mental edge and competitive nature that sets them over the top in whatever they do.

This competiveness is evidenced in everything Elway does. For example, when Elway was playing a charity golf event (he is a two handicap), PGA Tour staff member, Joe Wojciechowski (2006), noted what an exceptional golfer Elway had become. He said, “It should hardly be surprising. After all, this is one of our generation’s greatest athletes. His competitive nature has never been questioned and his work ethic unrivaled even in golf.”

Summary and Conclusions

Based on data gathered by several sources, it appears unquestioned that, in general, athletes reach their peak of on-field performance in their mid-twenties. After that, nearly all athletes regress as their physical skills decline, even only slightly. When an athlete is playing versus the absolute top athletes in the world in his sport, even the slightest decline in physical ability can cause a noticeable drop in performance. For running backs, it may be lacking that burst that previously enabled him to reach the hole a fraction of a second before it closed. For a wide receiver, it may be losing the ability to separate from the fastest players on the field, cornerbacks. And for quarterbacks, it may be not quite having the same velocity on the ball to squeeze it into the tightest of holes in the pass defense without being tipped or intercepted. There is a constant influx of young, hungry, and physically gifted players coming into the NFL, which makes it harder and harder for aging players to maintain their performance year after year.

This fact is known throughout the game, especially by cost conscious owners and general managers expecting a return on their investments in players. As noted by Hadreas (2002), while quarterbacks and running backs initially make more money as they get older, they actually begin to make less money by a factor of their age squared. Hadreas (2002) also notes that the peak age for earning for a running back is age twenty-four.
To answer the question of when a football player gets old, one can assume that “old” does not mean past his peak, but rather “old” means ineffective. Therefore, while nearly all football players pass their peak between the ages of twenty-four to twenty-seven, those that have elite skills and talent to begin with can use a better knowledge of how to play the game, as well as a superior work ethic to maintain as much physical ability as possible, to maintain a high level of performance later into their careers. While is has been proven that almost all running backs see a major decline and can be considered “old” at the age of thirty, wide receivers and quarterbacks generally see a less drastic drop-off at that age, and may reach thirty-two or thirty-three before becoming “old” in football terms.


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