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Here's a news flash for all of you fantasy football
fanatics already gearing up for the NFL season:
Perennial stars Larry Johnson and Shaun Alexander
could be in for major dropoffs.
Yes, the pair at the center of last year's heated
argument over who should be selected with the
first pick of your fantasy draft is looking awfully
questionable for 2007.
How can this happen to these steady touchdown
machines? What can possibly be wrong with these
surefire top picks?
Don't blame me. Blame history, which shows that,
during the past 20 years, declining stats are
a certainty for running backs who carry the ball
too much or start getting old.
For Johnson, the big question is whether he'll
even play. He's locked in a bitter contract dispute
with the Kansas City Chiefs and may hold out.
But even if he signs in time for training camp
next week, his outlook is gloomy because of his
Johnson set the NFL record for carries last
year with 416, while piling up nearly 1,800 yards
and 17 touchdowns. It's kind of a macho record
to have, but it also spells trouble.
Only two other backs have posted 400-carry seasons
during the past 20 years, and both struggled
later. Jamal Anderson ran 410 times for 1,846
yards in 1998, and he missed 14 games with an
injury the next year. Eddie George ran 403 times
for 1,509 yards in 2000, but the next season
didn't even reach 1,000 yards.
Johnson's workload is even more troubling when
you consider he's averaged 376 carries the past
two seasons - more than Earl Campbell ever did
and not far behind Ricky Williams in their most
heavily used back-to-back years.
How much wear and tear is that over two seasons?
Only three other backs have averaged so many
carries since 1987. Denver's Terrell Davis averaged
380 in 1997-1998, and after that missed 28 games
in his final three unproductive seasons. Edgerrin
James averaged 378 his first two seasons, then
missed 10 games the next. Williams averaged 388
carries in 2002-2003, then retired from the Dolphins
for the next season.
Even getting close to that figure for one season
has brutal consequences. During the past 20 years,
16 backs have carried 370 times or more. All
were worse the next season, usually drastically.
Their yardage fell by an average of 800, their
TDs dropped by an average of nine, and they missed
an average of four games.
Only one back has gotten better after so many
carries since the NFL went to 16 games in 1978.
Eric Dickerson carried 390 times as a Rams rookie
in 1983, and the next year his yardage went up
by 297 yards to 2,105.
Can Johnson buck the trend? Can he do what Dickerson
did, only against much larger and faster defenders?
Maybe, considering his freakish performances
the past few years. But even if he holds up,
what's his outlook in this offense?
His quarterback will be Brodie Croyle or Damon
Huard, inviting defenses to stack up to stop
the run. And Will Shields' retirement weakens
a line that was already on the decline, as Johnson's
yards per carry dipped from 5.2 in 2005 to 4.3
As for Alexander, he has also suffered from
overuse while piling up averages of 1,500 rushing
yards and 17 touchdowns the five seasons before
As the 2005 MVP, he ran for 1,880 yards and
27 scores. But it took him - you guessed it -
370 carries, so naturally he got hurt in 2006.
And his stats dropped by 984 yards and 20 TDs.
Even more worrisome is that Alexander is getting
older. In August, he turns 30 - an age when it's
awfully hard to be one of the league's top runners.
Only 11 players 30 or older have cracked the
top 10 in rushing yardage for a season in the
last 20 years. (If the math is getting a little
thick here, I'll spell it out: 189 of the most
productive 200 runners were under 30.)
Maybe Alexander's good enough to overcome that
trend, but last year showed signs of breaking
down. Even before his broken foot knocked him
out for six weeks, Alexander averaged 2.9 yards
a carry in the opening three games.
When he came back from the injury, he wound
up with a respectable 896 yards. But a closer
look shows two good games (201 yards against
Green Bay, 140 against San Diego) and eight marginal-to-crummy
ones by his standards.
The Seahawks and Alexander emphasize he's fine,
that it's no big deal that his left foot still
may have a small crack. (I'm no doctor, but give
me the guy with uncracked feet every time.)
All that said, it's important not to get carried
away with Alexander's flaws. He never missed
a game before last year. And you could argue
that he's a young 30, having played sparingly
as a rookie. Plus, the very few 30-year-olds
to finish in the top 10 have done so in several
So it's by no means the end for Alexander, who
along with Johnson should still be a first-round
It's just the end
for them as the top few players to draft.
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