For Running Backs Behind the Jets O-Line, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number

Florham Park, N.J.- With all this talk about the resurgence of L.T., as he seems miraculously reborn even though he has past the expiration date of a typical running back, Jets fans can’t be blamed if they feel like this is deja vu all over again.

It’s not like L.T. is the first running back to find a football equivalent to the fountain of youth playing for the Jets. In 2003, the Jets had a running back by the name of Curtis Martin, you might of heard of him. He was best running back in the history of the Jets franchise and might just hear his name called in Canton, Ohio this year to become the newest member of the NFL Hall-Of-Fame.

But remember all the fuss that was being made about Martin losing a step because he was turning 30? You probably don’t, because his play quickly silenced any doubters. At the age of 30 and 31, Martin managed to have two of the best seasons of his career. Particularly in 2004 at age 31, Martin rushed for 1,697 yards on 4.6 yards a carry, both career highs.

Everyone always assumes a running back's career must come to a screeching halt when they turn 30, but most running backs don't have the luxury of running behind these guys. (Jetsinsider.com Photo)

Martin proved that turning 30 is not, in fact, a death-sentence for a running backs career, but still people are stuck on that magic number of 30, as assuming running backs can’t produce anywhere near the level they did when they were younger. It’s just a blanket statement people throw out there, and really it’s ludicrous to think the age of 30 rule applies to everyone. So is the assumption that a running back will automatically decline at the age of 30 a myth? Or is it a stereotype?

It’s clearly not a complete myth, there have been far more examples of running backs declining at that specific age, a stereotype is a much more fitting way to put it. Hopefully, you all have been taught throughout your lives not to believe in blanket stereotypes because it’s impossible to bunch entire groups of different individuals in the same exact box.

But stereotypes, whether positive or negative, right or wrong are often created because there is some truth to them, at least in the eye’s of the person spouting off about a specific stereotype. Of course the reason why it’s so dangerous to stereotype is because your assessing what one person will do by looking at what everyone except that one person has done.

That’s exactly what has happened to three different running backs, all over the age of 30, who have played for the Jets in the past decade, they have shattered the stereotypical mold that a 30-plus-year-old running back can’t contribute at a high level.

If it was only Martin who overcame the age obstacle, then maybe it could be seen as a aberration, but clearly the Jets keep proving production comes from talent, heart and surrounding talent. The offensive line that paved the way for Martin’s two best years was a completely different unit then the one the Jets have now. Sure Brandon Moore joined the team in 2003, but he only played in three games that year (only starting once) and he started 13 games in 2004, but again he is the only player from that o-line who is still here making, “old men running backs,” debunk the theory that their careers are over once their 30th birthday passes.

During the offseason before 2007, the Jets traded for running back Thomas Jones, many were critical of this move because Jones had just turned 29. The first year didn’t go so well, but then again what did go well for the Jets that year? The Jets posted a horrific 4-12 record that season and with their quarterback issues all opposing defenses had to worry about was Jones. Jones played in all 16 games and rushed for a more than respectable 1,119 yards on the season, but he was only averaging 3.6 yards per carry.

The critics walked around with their chests pumped out, making sure everyone heard them say, ‘I told you so.’ They ignored the fact that team was in shambles and were quick to say there’s no chance things would get better after he turned 30. Those same critics who were bragging about being right about the age of 30 signaling the end for a running back were sent scrambling to cover and hide after the next season.

The next two seasons (2008 and 2009, at age 30 and 31) Jones enjoyed the two best years of his career running behind a Jets offensive-line. In 2008 Jones rushed for 1,312 yards on 4.5 yards a carry and in 2009 he ran for 1,402 yards on 4.2 yards a carry. So yeah, maybe more often than not a running back’s age can signify an oncoming decline, but maybe it’s something in the water at the Jets facilities because any team would gladly take the production of these players, regardless of their age.

So after seeing this happen all within a couple of years, you might think lesson learned right? Obviously not, people enjoy being stubborn and hate abandoning old adages. So when the Jet’s signed L.T. this offseason writers might as well have just copied and pasted their old articles about Martin and Jones (before they proved the writer’s wrong of course) and replaced their names with L.T.’s. Then they could throw in a couple extra stats and tidbits to back-up their case that L.T. was well passed his prime and wouldn’t be a productive player.

Even with Martin and Jones in their recent memory banks it’s hard to blame them for raising the same questions about L.T. because there were many mitigating factors that had led to his decline. Then again maybe they should be blamed for not thinking it was the other factors that slowed him down, not his age.

Age the age of 30, L.T. had the worst season of his career, which had just followed the pervious worst season of career, leading everyone to assume that with him turning 31 he had no hope of returning to a productive, reliable running back and also leaving the door wide open for the Jets to come swooping in to add him to their team. Detractors pointed to his lack of production the past two seasons, his injury problems and his age, the Jets did some further digging beneath the surface when assessing how much L.T. had left in the tank.

The Jets saw a running back who was clearly playing through some serious injuries that were holding him back, they also recognized that the Chargers changed their identity to a passing team and they switched their running scheme away from what would be the best way to utilize L.T.’s talents. The fact that offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was the quarterbacks coach for the Chargers during L.T.’s prime was another reason why the Jets knew L.T. was their guy. They knew with their weapons and their offensive-line and run blocking schemes that L.T. would be a perfect fit, turns out they were more right than even they thought.

L.T., spent the entire offseason working and training hard to make sure he was 100 percent healthy and injury free, he also called up ex-Giant Tiki Barber and asked for his advice on how to condition himself better at this stage of his career. Barber himself was another example of a running back proving your best years can come later in your career for some running backs and L.T., being the student of the game that he is, called Barber and asked him how he found success at that stage of his career.

So Barber introduced L.T. to his strength and conditioning coach Joe Carini and both Barber and L.T. will be quick to tell you this guy has done wonders for them both. With this training L.T. has gotten healthier, stronger and faster and he feels like he is in the best shape of his life.

While all the differences between the Jets and Chargers, and the help of Carini, have been a big part of why L.T. is having so much success, the biggest reason is still because of the elite group of big guys he has plowing defenders out of the way for him.

During the draft before the 2006 season the Jets decided to focus on upgrading their offensive-line and they drafted center Nick Mangold and left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson that year to play along side Brandon Moore. In 2008 the Jets added Damien Woody and the former All-Pro Alan Faneca to complete a dominating o-line.

Four of the Jets current starting o-linemen were here for Jones’ best years and even though Faneca has since departed, second-year guard Matt Slauson has filled in more than admirably for Faneca so far this season. The more you look into it and ponder the ramifications the more you realize this shouldn’t be considered even remotely shocking anymore, the Jets offensive-lines has repeatedly proven they can take at least five years off just about any running back.

It’s no coincidence that the creation of this destructive force of an o-line coincided with both Jones and L.T. proving that the age of a running back really is nothing more than a number and the only numbers that count are the ones they use to fill up the stat sheet.

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