People who think age is a b**** are being far too generous. Age is an angry beast with a big chip on its shoulder, and it always has a score to settle with you. No one feels this more acutely than professional athletes confronting the vagaries of increasing frailty at an age that society beyond the arena still considers young.
One of the annual rituals of the NFL offseason is watching stars come to this realization via contract maneuvering and free agency. In the past week, wide receiver Terrell Owens and running back LaDainian Tomlinson, two players whose public persona couldn’t be more different, arrived at comparably graceful ways of dealing with twilight of their careers.
Owens is flamboyant in the extreme; his antics have set the gold standard for look-at-me behavior in the NFL. Owens has augmented his on-field antics by warring in the press with each of his last three quarterbacks. All this carrying-on has been tolerated because Owens has been an enormously productive receiver. He has been selected to the all-pro team five times this decade, and his career aggregates rank him fourth in touchdown catches, fifth in gained yards and sixth in number of receptions. He’s a pain in the butt, but he’s generally worth it for the short term.
Last week, the Dallas Cowboys, his team of the last three years, decided that the short term was over. Owens is 35, and his numbers declined last year. And his drop rate, always high for a receiver of his caliber, increased dramatically. According to the metrics, Owens failed to catch half the balls thrown his way. That’s excusable if Owens was trying to catch passes from an erratic signal caller like Rex Grossman or Tarvaris Jackson, but he wasn’t. The Cowboys’ quarterback is Tony Romo, strong-armed and accurate. The number was telling. For one, Owens was getting the same degree of separation from defenders he was in the past. (Owens always drops a few passes, but this past year, defenders seemed to be breaking up more plays that went his way.) The Cowboys probably decided that Owens had reached an age where downturns in performance were inexorable, and that he wasn’t worth the headaches.
That’s where it gets really interesting. Owens’ agent promised that his client wouldn’t stay unemployed long. Sure enough, before the weekend was done, Owens had become a member of the Buffalo Bills.
In contrast to the always impetuous Owens, Tomlinson has been the ideal next-door neighbor who just happens to be one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. He won the 2006 Most Valuable Player Award, and his career totals in touchdowns and yardage are staggering. He has been the public face of the San Diego Chargers, which is saying something since their roster includes several top players, and he’s one of the public faces of the league.
There’s only one hitch; he’s 29. That’s young in human years, but it is AARP time for most NFL running backs. Running backs age faster than players at any other position. It isn’t hard to figure out why. During Tomlinson’s eight-year career, he has carried the ball 2,657 times and caught 510 passes. If you assume that on 15 percent of those plays LT was forced out of bounds, that still leaves a whopping 2,692 times that he has been hit and driven to the cement-like turf by one—or more likely—several men who weigh more than 250 pounds. Pro-athletes are amazing physical specimens, but that kind of abuse will catch up to even the best of them.
Last season, Tomlinson’s rushing numbers began to decline a bit, and in their first round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, all-purpose back Darren Sproles showed he could handle the role of feature back as he gained more than 300 yards leading the Chargers to victory while Tomlinson watched from the sidelines with an injury.
The Chargers didn’t want to lose the public face of the franchise, but they didn’t want to pay Tomlinson as if he was going to be the No. 1 back when their plans clearly indicated that Sproles would at least split playing time at running back.
Typical of Tomlinson’s classiness, he agreed to restructure his contract, which enables him to be a part of the Chargers for several more years. It’s a win-win deal. The Chargers get to keep a productive player through what figures to be a graceful decline, and Tomlinson will easily make the money he lost in his restructuring deal via local endorsements. Also, if he continues to play at a high level, he will continue to receive numerous national advertising contracts.
It’s a surprise that Owens confronted aging with so much savvy and maturity, but for LT, it is business as usual.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.